What Makes Sushi Authentic?

Authenticity is a pretty big deal in the food world and authentic sushi is one of the most coveted food experiences that sushi lovers crave.

How does sushi become authentic? If the sushi is made in an actual Japanese sushi bar, in Japan, by an actual Japanese sushi chef, you can reliably tell that the sushi is authentic. In the west, however, chefs would often take liberties with the dish. To play it safe, only go for the fresh, raw fish route, avoid California maki, and choose restaurants with real wasabi rhizome.

The authenticity of sushi hinges on several factors, many of which can be a bit difficult to pin down, and it can also be quite easy to get caught up in the obsession of authenticity that you become blind.

Qualities of Authentic Sushi

Authentic sushi can be a bit of a complicated affair and you have to think about a lot of different aspects before you can be sure that you actually got it right. In the first place, sushi can vary wildly depending on where in Japan you eat the dish, so it can be difficult to pin down the specifics. Even with that being the case, there can still be some telltale signs you can look into.

These signs include such aspects as:

·         Appearance

·         Taste

·         Texture

·         Ingredients

·         Assembly

·         Quality

·         Establishment

·         Atmosphere

·         Staff/Chef

Those are the factors that go into you deciding on whether or not the sushi you are about to be served is authentic. If those signs point in the right direction, you will know that you have made the right choice. However, how do you know that you have actually got those right? You can start by checking them based on the qualities that are listed in the table below:

FreshnessReal, authentic, and high-quality Japanese sushi is one that is always fresh and never frozen, processed, or reheated, and that will always be evident
Japanese IngredientsSupporting local produce might be good and all, but if your goal is to have authentic sushi, you will want to go with ingredients that are normally found in Japan
Raw Food VarietyMany of the authentic sushi varieties are made of raw ingredients and there needs to be a lot of options on that particular aspect
Real Sushi ChefReal sushi chefs are those who spent many years honing their craft in producing delicious works of art and they are the only ones capable of creating authentic sushi
Reasonable PortionsMany of the sushi pieces offered in western food establishments are rather larger than those found in Japan, which is why smaller portions can be a good sign of authenticity
AssemblyMaki sushi with the rice on the outside is not authentic sushi and that’s just one example, so you will just have to look into how the assembly is done to make this call
SimplicityAuthentic Japanese sushi is more often on the simpler side while sushi that is not authentic tends to be flashy
EtiquetteOn the matter of behavior when eating sushi, etiquette can be one of the most telling signs of authenticity since the staff and chefs will be really hung up on that
Right RiceThe only rice to use for authentic sushi is Japanese rice, so any sushi that is not made of that will be rather questionable

Being able to enjoy authentic sushi is a joy but most people won’t be able to do so simply because they won’t even be able to tell those that are real from those that are not. Sushi might be one of the most ubiquitous food items in the world but it is also one of the least understood. As such, there are many misconceptions about it.

Fortunately, the items on that list will be able to help you get a better idea of what it is you are supposed to be looking out for if you are thinking about having a truly authentic sushi experience. To make that even more of a reality, let’s go through those items in a closer manner.

Freshness – When it comes to sushi, freshness is a very big concern, but it is often the case that most markets don’t really prioritize this particular aspect. As long as it is safe to eat, sushi can be sushi, but this does not apply to authentic sushi. In fact, the hallmark of real, high-quality sushi is that it is as fresh as it can possibly be.

It must not be frozen, reheated, microwaved, or reused. Actual sushi chefs take great pride in being able to stay true to this particular concept and they will not risk their reputations getting tarnished by sushi that is anything less than fresh.

Japanese Ingredients – It should not need to be stated, but if you are looking for actual Japanese sushi, it will need to contain actual Japanese ingredients. There are many vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, and of course, wasabi that can only be acquired in the Asian country. This is why you need to ask if the ingredients being used in the sushi is local or Japanese.

Raw Food Variety – Although a lot of diners might not be able to fathom it, authentic sushi actually makes use of a wide variety of raw foods. These include shellfish, seafood, raw fish, and marine greens for use in sushi. If the sushi place you are dining at is offering things like abalone, shrimp, oysters, and sea urchin meat, they are most likely dabbling in authentic sushi.

Real Sushi Chef – Even if you have not been spending a lot of time around real sushi chefs, you should be able to tell immediately how good they are. Real sushi chefs move quickly, smoothly, and with no wasted effort. The transition from one task to another with fluid motions, which is the fruit of many years spent honing their craft.

Amateur sushi chefs, on the other hand, will be less sure and will have a lot of jerky movements. They will also take a long time to serve sushi. If you find yourself waiting a while for your sushi, you are probably not eating at a good sushi place.

Reasonable Portions – Size is an important aspect of sushi since you need to be able to eat only what you can. As such, the portions should only be in accordance with the serving quantity that each person should receive. In other markets, however, the portions of sushi tend to be bigger than it should be while authentic Japanese sushi is smaller.

As such, if you come across sushi that is smaller than you are used to despite the price tag, it is probably authentic. It’s not a guarantee, but it is worth taking into consideration.

Assembly – There is a reason why the sushi rolls where the rice makes up the exterior is called a California maki while the roll where the nori is outside is called maki sushi. The former is not authentic but is a lot more on the flashy side while the latter is authentic and favors subtlety. This alone makes the real sushi easier to identify for you.

Going for a more extreme example, basically, anything that does not fit the usual sushi or Japanese narrative when it comes to assembling sushi is not authentic. For example, there is no such thing as authentic sushi taco and a hand roll that uses anything other than nori is fake.

Simplicity – Driving the point even further home, you need to understand that the Japanese are very simplistic, practical, and direct people. Even in their art, they prefer to keep things on the less fancy side. As such, their sushi will also be simple and will rely more on the quality of the ingredients rather than on how loud the garnish is.

There is beauty in simplicity and this will show if the sushi is authentic. If it just looks lazy, you are probably not dealing with real sushi.

Etiquette – Any place where there is a particular emphasis on sushi etiquette can likely be safely tagged as an authentic establishment. This includes the way you eat the sushi, how you act in the establishment, and how you interact with the staff. Just because they shout at you as you enter a place, this does not automatically guarantee that it is an authentic sushi restaurant or bar.

Right Rice – Finally, there is the matter of the rice. That is to say, the only rice that should be used in making authentic Japanese sushi is actual Japanese rice. These are the short-grain variety that has a lot of starch and is also quite plump. The whiteness of the grains must show, as well, so that the final result after cooking will stand out against all of the other ingredients.

Why Eat Authentic Sushi

Now, you might be wondering why you would even bother eating authentic sushi when you can just find varieties of the dish in any convenience store in your area. What exactly is so special about authentic sushi that you would go through all of the trouble, not to mention the expense, just to experience it. Well, that is exactly why.

It is understandable why many might find the concept of paying a lot of money for food baffling, but it’s not just about satiety, at that point. You are basically paying for the experience of having that food, which you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a bit like paying to go for a ride on a rollercoaster, tickets to see a movie or plane fare to visit tourist hotspots.

Eating authentic sushi is an event in and of itself and one that you can have access to at any time if only you have the right establishment close at hand. If you actually have a sushi bar or restaurant that offers authentic Japanese sushi in accordance with the factors discussed before, you should try it even if just once. It can be a moment that you will never forget.

There is just something about being able to partake in a dining experience beyond what you would normally have. It is something given to you by someone who has honed their skills for just that purpose instead of the incidental results of necessity due to nutrition. You will eat it because you enjoy it.

Authentic Vs Non-Authentic Sushi

On that note, what exactly are the differences between authentic sushi and those that can’t be considered as such. Well, authentic sushi is those that follow a specific line of doing things such as the ingredients that are used, the appearance of the food item, and the balance of the flavors. Of course, not all Japanese chefs produce the same food, but they all aim for the same things.

In the case of the sushi that you can find in other markets, however, the creativity can clearly be seen to be flowing freely. You find sushi that is so beyond what the dish started off as that it can’t even be considered sushi anymore. And yet, that is still what they are called regardless of the criticism that the maker might receive.

Even something as innocuous as the California sushi role is already too far of a stretch for many sushi purists. A lot of this is due to how this particular product has opened the lid of Pandora’s box as far as how the creation of it is approached and what goes into it.

Anyone making California maki can basically go nuts with what they cover the outer layer of rice with as long as they keep to the filling combination of avocado, cucumber, mango, and crab stick. The most common are sesame seeds and fish eggs, but there are also other mixtures that will practically burn your mouth and tongue if you eat them.

Related Questions

Are Sushi Rolls Real Sushi?

If you are asking about sushi rolls where the rice is outside instead of the nori then that is not considered authentic sushi. If you are asking about the sushi rolls where the nori is outside containing the rice and the fillings then you have real sushi on your hands.

Does Japanese Sushi Have Avocado?

The avocado was added to the annals of sushi ingredients in California when a sushi chef ran out of the fatty portion of tuna meat that is used in a sushi roll and it was used as a replacement. Since then, it has become a staple in western sushi consumption but it is not typically served in Japan.

Is Going to Japan Worth It?

On the matter of being able to experience authentic sushi dishes, there is no better way to do this than to visit Japan itself. Among the best destinations for this kind of thing is Okinawa, where the dish originated. However, sushi has since gone beyond the confines of that tiny island and has spread all throughout the country.

As a result, different cities, different prefectures, and different regions have their own distinct way of making sushi. This then begs the question of which of them you will visit for your particular sushi experience. More to the point, is it even worth it to go to those places? The answer would be a resounding yes.

You see, Japan is home to more than just authentic sushi, though this is certainly one of the perks. The food scene in this country is simply astounding and there are countless treats for you to enjoy. As for the sushi, however, you will be able to indulge in the authentic varieties of all kinds. So if you ever have the chance to actually visit this wonderful place, you should certainly do so.

Authentic Sushi at Home

At this point, you might be wondering if you are able to possibly make authentic sushi at home with all of these restrictions and the answer is actually yes, you can. You just need the right ingredients and the right know-how. It doesn’t have to be anything too complicated, either, since sushi can take on many forms.

If all you want is to experience the authentic kind, you can purchase fresh tuna meat from the market for your topping. You will then want to get nori sheets, Japanese rice, and rice vinegar from the market. For the rest, you can use cucumber, ripe mango, and avocado. You don’t really need more than those.

Once you get home, you can start making nigiri, which is one of the simplest types of sushi to make. While you are cooking the rice in the rice cooker, you prepare the rest of the ingredients by washing and slicing them to their appropriate shapes and sizes. From there, you need to wait for the rice to finish cooking before you transfer it to a glass bowl and start fluffing it.

You then flavor and season the rice with the rice vinegar, some sugar, and some salt. Afterward, you just wait for it to reach room temperature.

Once the rice has cooled enough, you take a small portion of it, about the size of the inside of your palm when you clench it. You will then form a block with it, top the rice with the tuna slices you prepared, and then wrap it with a strip of nori. You now have authentic sushi. 

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