Most western diners are familiar with the sushi rolls that have seaweed, but there is actually sushi called nigiri that is just a rice ball or block with toppings on it.
Can you enjoy sushi without seaweed? You absolutely can and it is actually something that traditional Japanese chefs have been doing for decades. It’s called a nigiri, which is just the sushi rice molded into different shapes like a ball, a triangle, or a block. It then makes use of toppings like fish, eggs, and in some cases, even spam.
In order to fully enjoy this type of sushi and avoid any potential mishaps like terrible food combinations, though, you need to understand the principles behind nigiri and its accompanying toppings.
What is The Role of Nori in Sushi?
Before we delve into the specifics of nigiri, let’s take a look at what the role of nori is in sushi. As a matter of fact, it might be good to understand what nori is, to begin with.
Nori is basically a mesh of dried seaweed that has been processed, pressed, and then cut to appropriate sizes after being dried. It has a deep dark green color, which often makes it look black in low lighting. Its taste is similar to that of salted grass and smells like it too. It is also incredibly nutritious, which adds to its value.
With regards to the role that it plays in sushi, it can be broken down to the following details included in the table below:
|Flavor||The flavor of nori is one of its most unique and pleasant features. It complements the rice and practically any filling.|
|Texture||Sushi nori is supposed to be crispy, thus adding that extra crunch when biting into sushi.|
|Color||The dark color of the nori provides an excellent contrast to the white of the rice and the vibrant shades of the fillings.|
|Structure||Nori is basically what holds sushi rolls together, both maintaining the shape and keeping the ingredients in place.|
|Aroma||The nori’s aroma is one of the most recognizable aspects of sushi, enhancing the satisfaction of diners.|
On that note, despite what many might think, sushi does not necessarily have to have nori in order to be enjoyed. In fact, sushi only really needs a few things in order to be called sushi. You can take a look at the following for a better idea of that what sushi should be:
· Rice flavored with vinegar
· Toppings or fillings
· Soy sauce
· Pickled ginger
As long as you have those and you are eating the dish as a compounded piece, then you are eating sushi. Then again, there is a reason why nori is used in so many types of Japanese dishes and why this dried seaweed wrap has become synonymous with sushi, in the first place.
Just to give you an idea of just how pervasive the notion that nori is equivalent to sushi is, there are actually dishes being served as a sort of sushi equivalent with only the nori as the selling point. Dumplings, fried food, even lumps of meat wrapped with the dried seaweed.
Naturally, no one actually thinks those types of items are sushi. However, it’s enough to associate them with the traditional Japanese dish to actually sell them. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. It’s just an example of how powerful nori is as a marketing tool when tied to sushi.
In any case, those are just incidental details. Sushi was never meant to be enjoyed with the nori as the main attraction. It is the rice that is actually the star, which a lot of western diners tend to forget. In this sense, nigiri is actually a purer form of sushi than even maki is, but I digress.
Let’s talk about how nori enhances the experience of sushi and what you lose or gain depending on whether you include it or not.
Flavor – If you have never tasted nori on its own before, I’m encouraging you to do so because it is one of the most unique experiences you could ask for. Nori without the rice, the filling, or the condiments give you a salty, pungent taste that is full of umami goodness. It might take some getting used to, but it’s quite satisfying in the mouth once you get a taste for it.
This is what it brings to the table when you add it to the sushi. Think of it as a sheet of flavorings much like how layers of crispy dried meringue make Sans Rival cake an exquisite experience. Naturally, your level of enjoyment will depend on a few things with regards to nori such as the following:
· The placement of the nori
· The condition of the nori
· The brand
· The handling of the nori
· The other ingredients
If you want to eat sushi where the nori is most pronounced, maki is the way to get. The nori is the first thing that will come in contact with your tongue, thus informing the rest of your experience. The nori needs to be crispy and in good condition though, which might depend on the company that made it.
Naturally, your own skills and activities will affect just how much you can enjoy the nori. If you move carelessly, the nori might become soggy. Speaking of which, the other ingredients could also affect the sushi’s flavor depending on the level of contact. This is why California maki rolls often have less pronounced nori flavors.
Texture – Another great thing about nori in sushi is the texture, though, this will depend on a few things again. The right sushi nori will be crispy and will melt in your mouth, like an extremely thin wafer. However, there is also nori that for one reason or another might be leathery or chewy. These are the kind that you want to avoid using for your sushi if you simply have to have the dish with the seaweed wrap.
The importance of the nori’s texture in sushi has to do with the fact that mouthfeel is a huge part of the experience when eating. Without nori, you have soft rice, soft fillings, and liquid condiments. Of course, you can compensate for this by using crunchy vegetables like cucumber. However, there is still the question of how you are going to put in the roll without nori.
This is something that is addressed with the use of nori in many other forms of sushi other than the nigiri. By elevating the experience through the incorporation of many layers of texture and flavors both inside and outside the roll, sushi basically becomes transcendent.
Color – Normally, the kind of color that nori has, which is such a deep shade of green that it can almost be considered black, would not be appealing in the context of food. However, with how it strikingly contrasts all the other colors of the sushi, it basically provides a veritable feast for the eyes.
This is incredibly important in Japanese culture, where the eyes are considered to be the first part of the body to start enjoying food after the nose. Making the food look as good as it tastes is one of the top priorities of Japanese sushi chefs and the nori’s color helps a lot with this.
This just does not work with nigiri, mostly because you get very few chances to actually play with contrasting colors. With that being the case, you would be dealing with a dish that might look bland to the eyes of whoever is going to eat it.
Structure – It is no exaggeration that nori can either be the backbone or the skin of sushi rolls. It is where the rice is spread and the fillings are placed so it can be rolled on a mat. In the case of hand rolls, it acts as a container to keep all of the contents inside.
In short, nori provides structure to sushi rolls that it otherwise would not have, which could then lead to messy dining. Of course, the rice offers quite a bit of help, especially if it is sticky enough. However, you can’t expect it to do everything, especially when there are moist ingredients with the fillings in the mix.
This is not to say that the structural integrity of the sushi nori is going to last forever. If the sushi is chilled, for example, the nori could become moist and get easily torn. So keep that in mind if you are going to store sushi for later consumption.
Aroma – Nori has a very distinctive smell and sushi fans will be able to recognize it right away because it is just that intrinsically tied to their favorite dish. When you smell nori, it can be difficult not to think of sushi right away, even though it is used in a variety of other Japanese dishes.
In any case, nori adds to the experience of eating sushi because it can be the first thing that you smell or the last, depending on what kind of roll you are making. You should know, though, that the California maki style will weaken the aroma of the nori, but it will still be there.
It will be up to you which you prefer when you are either ordering or making your own sushi. It is also worth pointing out that the Japanese prefer maki for this reason.
A Closer Look at Nigiri
Since our main topic of discussion, today is about making sushi without nori, we would, of course, have to look into nigiri. While maki is more popular in other countries, this particular type of sushi is more prevalent in Japan.
It is composed of two parts, the topping which is called the neta and the pressed rice, which is called the shari. The chef would first take a small portion of rice from a bowl and then press it into the appropriate form. From there, the topping would be added, which can be anything from a simple slice of raw fish to a slew of other ingredients.
Assuming that the topping used was rice, it will be brushed with sweet soy sauce before being served to the customer. You can see all of this happening for yourself if you happen to eat at the counter of an authentic Japanese restaurant.
Now, there are several types of nigiri worth noting, but only one of them does not come with nori, which is the regular nigiri. Its structure and components are easy enough to understand. You have the rice and you have the topping. It is also shaped like a block, though some would say that it is a ball.
Regardless, you can easily spot this kind of sushi because it is the plainest of all the different types of sushi. However, don’t let that fool you with regard to its merits. Nigiri might not be as exciting as maki, but it is the most popular type of sushi in Japan for a reason.
To understand this, you basically have to remember what the concept behind sushi is. This is a dish that is built around the rice with the expressed purpose of being all about freshness. This means delicate flavors and textures, which is exactly what you can expect from regular nigiri.
You are appreciating the neta in its purest form with no other distractions, flavored only be the delicately mixed rice, wasabi, and soy sauce. With the toppings, it basically melts in your mouth, creating a mouthfeel that is a different kind of pleasure compared to sushi with nori.
You can enjoy this kind of sushi during that moment and nothing else, which is something that a lot of food enthusiasts can’t do with most dishes these days. Nigiri is proof that you don’t require a lot of layers of flavor in order to appreciate food. It just needs to be exactly what it is.
If you are going to eat nigiri, you might want to make sure that you understand how to make it and how to eat it. To start with, you take a fistful of rice and then shape it into a block. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but try to keep the top smooth. If you want, you can put a little bit of wasabi on the rice, but it’s up to you. From there, you place any kind of topping you want as long as it is one piece.
You then press them together so that they stick to each other. After that’s done, if you are dealing with fish, you will need to brush it with sweet soy sauce to add a little more flavor. You don’t have to, but it does enhance the experience quite a bit.
As for the eating part, you just take the nigiri with your fingers or chopsticks and then dip it in soy sauce, neta first. Do not dip sushi rice first because it will absorb too much of the salty solution. When you put the nigiri in your mouth, make sure that the neta is also the first to touch your tongue.
This will allow you to fully appreciate the delicate flavors and textures of the topping, which is especially important when you are using fish. The flavor of the rice will then complement the flavor of the toppings as you chew it.
You might want to eat a piece of pickled ginger for every piece of nigiri that you eat so that your palate can be cleansed. This will then allow you to appreciate the subtle flavors of the neta as you eat. You are doubly advised to do this when you are eating at an expensive sushi bar since chances are, the chef has added even more nuanced flavors to the dish than you ever could.
What Toppings to Use with Nigiri
Theoretically, you can place any kind of topping on the nigiri that you want. As long as you can press it in and it is in one piece so that you can dip it in the soy sauce properly, you can get nuts. However, it’s only natural that some toppings would be more suitable for nigiri than others. This is what this section will be about.
Generally speaking, nigiri is best enjoyed with thin slices of fish, mostly because this is what is traditionally used. As time went by, more and more toppings were used, including spam. However, some toppings can only be used when you also use nori, so we can rule those out. To that end, you can refer to the following for some of the most ideal suggestions of toppings for nigiri:
· Sea urchin
As you can see, with the exception of sea urchin, all of the items on that list are easily accessible and can be found in most supermarkets. Obviously, the question of freshness is something that you will need to consider, but that’s pretty much a given.
In the case of the tuna, you actually have a ton of options for this particular fish, with two being quite popular. There’s the maguro, which is the fleshy part of the tuna and then there is the toro, which is the fatty part of the tuna. As you might expect, they come with different intensity in flavor and texture.
Maguro is more flavorful but has a firmer texture. On the other hand, toro simply melts in your mouth, making it akin to eating a particularly marbled steak. The latter is typically more expensive than the former because the ingredient is scarcer.
For the salmon, yellowtail, and mackerel, the preparation is quite straightforward. The meat is placed on top of the rice and is served directly. There is no special treatment that is required with these ingredients.
The sea urchin can be a bit more delicate, but it is incredibly rewarding to consume. The soft texture and exquisite flavor are simply to die for.
Likewise, the shrimp, scallop, and squid might require some complex preparations, but they are rewarding to consume. These particular items need to be especially fresh and treated so as to remove some of the strong odors. A skilled chef can serve these so that they are tender without being mushy.
Can You Make Sushi Rolls Without Nori?
Depending on what kind of sushi you mean, it is more than possible to make the dish without having to use nori. There is nigiri, for a start, which is basically molded rice balls where you put fish or other ingredients on top. You could also use alternatives to nori, if you want.
What Are Alternatives to Nori for Sushi?
There are several alternatives to nori that you can use to give your sushi structure like soy wrapper or fresh spring roll wrapper. If all you need the sushi for is to hold the shape of the rolls and keep the other ingredients from spilling all over the place, these can work.
Does Nigiri Need Rice?
With sushi literally meaning sour rice or vinegar rice, you would think that asking the question of whether or not nigiri requires rice would be completely pointless. However, this is not necessarily the case. After all, sushi has taken on an entirely new meaning on the world stage and most people are not even aware that it is about rice.
As such, you can substitute rice with other things if you don’t feel like eating the grain. If you are on a diet, you might want to do this, as well since rice can be immensely fattening. As to what you can use for the alternatives, you can check out the following:
· Shredded cauliflower
There is merit to using any one of the items on that list since they are actually different from one another. The cauliflower is a vegetable, the couscous is a type of grain, and the quinoa is a type of seed. Depending on your preferences or health condition, you are bound to find one or two of them to be suitable for your needs.
In any case, if you are the truly health-conscious type, the cauliflower might be your best bet and it is actually quite easy to prepare. You just need to shred it so that the individual pieces become small enough for use. You can use a fork, a strainer, or even your own hands. Once it has been shredded, you can either steam it or stir-fry it.
Preparing the couscous is similar to that of pasta. Just follow the instructions on the box and you should be just fine. The same goes for quinoa. The important thing to remember is that you need to flavor these while they are still hot. With that said, you should be careful to adjust the amount so that the mixtures don’t become too sour.
In terms of how well they can hold their shapes, this might be a bit tricky. The result might be more compact than if you were using rice, but it can still work if you are willing to compromise.
Does Sushi Absolutely Need Nori?
As already brought up before, you can still enjoy sushi without the need for nori, but there might be those who are wondering if sushi is still sushi without the nori. On that note, are you really missing out on anything if you don’t include nori in your sushi dining experience?
For the first question, the answer is that yes, sushi is still sushi without nori. As for the second one, this might be a bit trickier to answer since it would depend on your preferences and willingness to experiment with your food.
A lot of people complain about nori and do not want to try it again even though they just had it once. This is fine, but it might be worth trying the sushi a few more times before concluding that you absolutely cannot stand it. After all, it can be an acquired taste for some folks who are just not that used to more exotic ingredients.
There are also those who are put off by the color, smell, or texture of the sushi. Anyone who has been eating nothing but western dishes will not likely take to this kind of food item immediately from the looks alone. However, as discussed above, all of those aspects are integral in bringing the enjoyment of sushi rolls to another level.
At the end of the day, you are the only one to decide if you need nori in your sushi or not. I can only say that you should give it a chance before making your decision. There are plenty of huge sushi enthusiasts these days who started out absolutely hating the dish.
At the very least, if you can eat sushi, you will have options when you finally go to a restaurant where being picky might be seen as a bad trait. That’s just some food for thought.