The Difference Between American and Japanese Sushi

It can be safely said that Japanese and American sushi share a lot of similarities, but their differences can also be quite glaring, especially when it comes to how the food is treated.

How are American and Japanese sushi different? A lot of it comes down to how sushi is treated and consumed. In the US, sushi is viewed as a luxury food that can only be consumed by the affluent and is seen through the lens of casual capitalism. In Japan, sushi is treated with a little more reverence, with a lot of emphasis on simplicity and quality.

If you are going to eat sushi in Japan, you cannot do it the same way as in the US, especially in how you act with the staff and with the chef.

American Sushi Vs. Japanese Sushi

You might think that it is weird that sushi is now divided between American sushi and Japanese sushi considering that sushi is a Japanese dish. This would be like saying American tofu, American wasabi, or American ramen. However, it is apt that we do so because it is in America where sushi began its road to world domination.

When the sushi was brought to the US in the 50s, hardly anyone knew what it was or how to eat it. By the 90s, the dish had already taken the world by storm. At that point, though, sushi had also undergone an evolution that set it apart from its original form. These days, the sushi that came out of that transformation is no longer the same as that in Japan.

This is not to say that Japanese sushi stayed the same, of course, since it also went through a lot of changes. However, most of the core concepts remained the same while outside of Japan, it is basically where like a child kept under lock and key was finally unleashed.

If we really want to talk about the main differences between American and Japanese sushi, they pretty much come down to the following:

·         Treatment

·         Variety

·         Purpose

·         Accessibility

·         Quality

·         Flavors

Because of the differences in those areas, it would be no exaggeration to say that American sushi hardly resembles its Japanese counterpart anymore. These distinctions can be found in more detail in the table below, as well.

VarietyIn both American and Japanese sushi, there are a ton of varieties for you to consider but these varieties also split in the direction they take in terms of traditional or creative routes
LuxurySushi is a luxury food in both the US and in Japan, but unlike in the US where the affluent dine on it several times a week, the Japanese mostly eat sushi on special occasions
AccessibilityEven as sushi is treated as a luxury food in Japan, it is a lot more accessible to most people than it is in the US with comparable quality
Traditions Vs CreativityThe traditions involving sushi are given a lot more weight in Japan than in the US, which is a given since sushi originated from Japan where it has deeper roots
Sizes and portionsSushi in Japan is served in smaller portions with fewer pieces than in the US because the goals are different
EstablishmentsIn Japan, sushi is either consumed at sushi bars or conveyor belt places, whereas the US has more emphasis on sushi restaurants
EtiquettesAdhering to etiquettes matter more in Japan than they do in the US, and you better believe that the nasty stares you get if you don’t will be more noticeable
QualityThere is no denying that on average, the sushi in Japan will be of higher quality than in the US simply because of the emphasis that the people place on freshness

These are the reasons why a trip to Japan to experience the country’s sushi culture is so important for a lot of people. It basically gives them a license to understand the food item on a far deeper level, which will then help them distinguish the two cultures apart. After all, just because sushi has been Americanized, this does not automatically mean that it is bad.

What’s more, just because sushi is from Japan, this does not mean that you are going to like everything about how the dish is made, served, and eaten when you finally go to the country. A lot of it will still depend on your subjective preferences, but at least you will have some context to base your decisions on.

To that end, let’s take a look at the items above with a closer inspection.

Variety – This particular point can be taken in two ways. First is the actual number of different types of sushi dishes available. Second is how there is then a line that divides these varieties between Japanese and American sushi. Both went their own ways when it comes to the kinds of sushi dishes that will be served based on their respective influences.

When you look at just the sheer number of options that you can get from traditional Japanese sushi, for example, you will find that you will have no lack of choices. It is highly unlikely that you will be able to get through all of them in a year even if you eat one type of Japanese sushi every single day. The same can be said about American sushi.

As a matter of fact, American sushi has way more variety than Japanese sushi because you literally have no limits as to what you can make. Then there is an even larger industry that stems from American sushi, which can be considered western sushi. This now involves places like Europe and Russia, where the local preferences and ingredients are incorporated into the dish.

Luxury – Luxury can be taken in many ways, but since we are talking about sushi, let’s look at this from the perspective that matters most in this discussion. There is the definition of luxury that means it is only meant for those who can afford it, which is something that applies more to American sushi than anything else.

After that, there is a luxury that means it is meant only for special occasions. This is where the Japanese sushi culture falls under. Even though the food is now a lot more accessible in the country, which will be discussed in more detail in the next section, it is not enjoyed as often as you would think. Sushi is basically a celebratory dish that is consumed during birthdays and the like.

In contrast, affluent folks over in the US enjoy sushi pretty much every other day, which is fine. There certainly isn’t anything wrong with that. However, it should also be noted that most of the folks in the country can’t really afford to eat sushi. To many Americans, it is an unnecessary luxury and they would rather eat at any of the giant fast-food chains available.

When you think of it that way, you can easily see that the word luxury can be applied to sushi in different ways based on where you are and what kind you are eating. Naturally, there are also types of sushi that are just beyond the pale in terms of how expensive they can be, both in Japan and in the US.

Accessibility – As noted, Japanese sushi in Japan is a lot more accessible than it is in the US even if it is not enjoyed as often as it is in the US. At this point, it can even be said that Americans eat more sushi on average than the Japanese do, which is hardly surprising. With the reputation that sushi has, it is no wonder that a lot of so-called cultured diners would go crazy over it.

Still, if you go to Japan and eat sushi multiple times a week, you will be thought of as a bit weird. It is certainly good for business, but the other folks who have no stake on it whatsoever will just think it is strange. On that point, however, sushi is still a lot more accessible in Japan than it is in the US. This becomes even more evident by how it is consumed on special occasions.

You can basically look at it like cake. Not everyone in the US can afford to eat sushi but most people can certainly get cake if they save up for it. The same goes for sushi in Japan.

Traditions Vs Creativity – Now we are coming to the more complex aspect of how Japanese and American sushi differ. Simply put, the Japanese put a lot of emphasis on traditions and the old way of doing things. This is why the sushi culture in Japan is a lot more resistant to making radical changes than the one in the US.

Just to put this in perspective, the types of sushi that you will find in Japan right now are roughly the same ones that existed several decades ago, with a few twists and changes. There may have been adjustments as sushi masters honed their craft and developed their own styles, but the core concepts remained, which are:

·         Simplicity

·         Freshness

·         Quality

·         Beautiful presentation

·         Respect

With American sushi, on the other hand, all of that goes out the window. Sure, there are also varieties that started out adhering to those tenets but this changed over time. This is what you get when you have a food culture that focuses on commoditizing everything and only focusing on the bottom line. As a result, you get things like sushi pizza, sushi ice cream, sushi cake, and sushi cookies.

It has not gotten to the point where sushi is no longer sushi in the west in a way that makes sense. Then again, this is only natural. The US is basically a melting pot of many different cultures and one of the biggest side effects of this is that they will inevitably clash with one another. Sometimes it can result in a violent explosion, which is avidly referred to as fusion.

In any case, the point here is that American sushi is a lot more free and leaves more room for creativity. Japanese sushi is a lot more rigid and uniform, but what you get is consistency and quality, not to mention indescribable tastes.

Sizes and Portions – This has probably been said many times about the food culture in the US, but the portions in America are just ridiculous. This becomes even more pronounced when you compared dishes that come from other places to the ones that are actually found there. Sushi is one of the best examples.

To provide some context into this discussion, sushi in Japan is served in smaller, more bite-sized pieces that can be consumed easily in one pop. They also don’t come in huge bulks, with two or four pieces being the norm. In the US, it would not be uncommon for sushi to be ordered in a box and this can actually be bad for those who want a real sushi experience.

In Japan, apart from the sushi that is served via conveyor belts, you typically get your sushi via sushi bars. In those bars, sushi is served to you one at a time where the chef goes through the dishes that you want or the set that you want. You then eat these one at a time and enjoying all of the various qualities of the dish before the next one arrives.

This pause allows you to truly enjoy the sushi as it was meant to be. The focus is on the quality, not the end result of making you full. In the US, though, the goal appears to be more about satiety than anything else. If this was the goal anyway, you might as well just go to McDonald’s or something.

Establishments – In the US, people have gotten more used to restaurants that serve sushi than they have with sushi bars where sushi is served on the spot while sitting on the counter. However, it is the opposite in Japan where sushi restaurants are a bit less frequent while sushi bars are practically everywhere. You can even find them on the streets.

Now, there need to be a few clarifications when it comes to this particular topic, starting with an explanation as to what the establishments where you can get sushi are. There are generally three main types, starting with the sushi restaurant, then the sushi bar, and finally, the sushi kiosk. By the way, these are only the establishments where sushi is made fresh on that day.

A sushi restaurant is a typical establishment you would find in the US where you would generally find decent sushi alongside several other Japanese dishes. This is where you can sit down on a table and place your order of sushi platters, sets, and the like. You would find these kinds of places all over the world, as well, even in some Asian countries.

Sushi bars, on the other hand, are the original places where you consume sushi. This is where you sit on a counter, place your order to the chef you are facing, and then that chef will make the sushi right in front of you. In Japan, this is the typical way in which you will consume sushi instead of the kind of place you might expect in the west.

Finally, there is the sushi kiosk, which is a stand or a counter where you are served pre-made sushi. These are the types of sushi that were made ahead of time, typical when the kiosk opened, and are kept in a display chiller case. If the kiosk is any good, the sushi should not be recycled from yesterday’s batch because that would be risking a lot.

Etiquettes – Japanese sushi bars that serve actual Japanese sushi will require some slick maneuvering on your part if you want the experience to go well. Simply put, you need to adhere to certain etiquettes so that the staff and the other diners will have a good opinion about you. This is not required in a sushi restaurant that you would find in the west.

Now, it needs to be said that these etiquettes are not just nonsensical juju, which many other types of practices are. They are actually meant to serve a purpose such as when you need to use your hands when eating nigiri. In a real Japanese sushi bar, you are encouraged to eat with your fingers simply because the rice ball is not packed that densely.

When you use chopsticks, the nigiri needs to be dense so that it doesn’t fall apart. In a real sushi bar, the nigiri is made looser so that it will not be chewy when you pop it into your mouth. You should also not put wasabi in soy sauce because this will ruin the flavor, and you should certainly not eat sushi as your life depends on it.

Quality – Finally, we have the issue of quality, which is something that is a known gap between food in Japan and food everywhere else, especially in the US. While it is true that there are some high-class sushi restaurants in the states where you can generally rely on their quality to be good, they can be quite expensive. On the other hand, even the cheapest sushi in Japan is high quality.

The Japanese place a lot of emphasis on making sure that what they eat is flavorful, healthy, and most importantly, natural. This is why they have such a long life expectancy and why their obesity rate is lower compared to other countries.

Japan’s commitment to quality practically borders obsession and this translates to sushi quite well. The number of pre-made sushi and recycled sushi in Japan is significantly lower than in the US. It still happens depending on the place and the people, but if we compare it to other countries, that number is almost nothing.

Is American Sushi Real Sushi?

If you have to ask if something is real sushi, there must be something about it that made you have your doubts. When talking about American sushi, though, we would need to narrow it down a bit. Fortunately, we won’t really need to work that hard to do so since the only sushi that has come out of the US that is even remotely like real sushi is the California maki.

For some context, the California maki is basically the sushi roll where the rice is on the outside and the nori is on the inside. In case you were wondering, this is not how it is done in Japan. The Japanese maki sushi is wrapped with the nori, with the rice and fillings being on the inside. Oh, and just to throw this in there, avocado is also not an ingredient that was used in Japan.

With that said, if what you are asking is if the American sushi culture is the same as that of the one in Japan, then the answer is also no. Americans tend to treat sushi as a casual, exotic luxury, which is something that they have access to at any point in time.

In contrast, the Japanese view sushi as a luxury food that is worth enough reverence to be reserved only for special occasions. Do you know how you only really go to steakhouses or fine-dining restaurants when you are celebrating something? This is how the people in Japan see sushi. Of course, there will always be exceptions such as those who spend a lot of time at sushi bars.

After all, these are places where you can also drink alcohol like beer or sake. So those with disposable income tend to go there on their own to while the night away.

Japanese Sushi Outside Japan

One point that needs to be brought up is that Japanese sushi does not need to be just in Japan. There are also actual Japanese sushi bars to be found in the US, Canada, and other countries. You can recognize these for what they are because the chefs will be those who trained in Japan and then migrated to the nation in question.

These types of establishments typically import products from Japan to keep everything as authentic as possible. Sometimes, they may even have direct contacts so that they can ensure that the quality will always be high. If you want good sushi, just look for those.

Related Questions

What Percentage of Americans Eat Sushi?

If we are just talking about the number of people who have already tried sushi but are not necessarily eating it on a regular basis, about 68% of the American population falls into that category. This means that there is about a third of Americans who have yet to try sushi at least once in their lives.

Is There Cooked Sushi in Japan?

There are plenty of varieties of sushi in Japan that make use of cooked ingredients but if the question is if sushi is cooked after it is assembled like deep-fried sushi rolls, then the answer is a few. There will always be certain establishments with radical ideas and will offer products in line with those.

What Qualifies as Sushi?

Sushi is one of those dishes that a lot of people already think they know but turns out to be way more complicated than they could have ever expected. To start with, sushi can refer to a whole host of different types of dishes that may or may not correspond to what pop culture might have embedded in their minds.

For example, there is a type of sushi dish called chirashi sushi where a bed of rice is placed in a deep container and then mixed with or is topped with the fish and other ingredients. There are also certain sushi sets where you are the one to decide which toppings go with which rice balls. These are certainly not the kind of sushi varieties that most westerners think of.

Then there are the sushi dishes where the sushi rice is not served, at all. What you get is instead the fillings or toppings that are supposed to go with the rice like the meat of the sea urchin, some raw fish, some preserved meats, some vegetables, and the like. Just so you know, sashimi refers to a very specific subset of a dish that involves thin slices of fish served with soy sauce, pickled ginger, and wasabi.

So, if you are asking how you can tell if something is a sushi dish or not, it would need to fall under the definition set down by the Japanese. The safest option would be to just ask an actual sushi chef or a sushi enthusiast. If you can’t, the safest option for you is to assume that as long as it has the sushi rice, the raw fish, the nori, and the condiments, that it is sushi.

Making Japanese Sushi at Home

If you are interested in making Japanese sushi at home, there are a few ways that you can approach it but the easiest would be to simply make things as simple as possible. Basically, if you can use just three ingredients for your sushi such as the rice, the nori, and a strip of raw fish, you already have Japanese sushi.

The essence of this traditional dish is that it needs to be natural, fresh, and full of real flavor. Real as in if what you are eating is meant to be fish then it should taste like the most real fish possible and the only way to do that is to eat raw fish. This is the principle that goes into making real Japanese sushi at home.

You can vary the ingredients, of course, if you want to keep things interesting. Use different kinds of fish or try making nigiri, maki, and then a hand roll. There is no need to bring things like melted cheese into the mix if what you want is actual Japanese sushi because there is no way that real sushi chefs would use such ingredients. So, there you have it. 

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