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The Difference between authentic Japanese sushi and sushi around the world

A question that many sushi lovers find themselves wondering is whether there are differences between how sushi is prepared and served in its homeland of Japan compared to the sushi available in the western world. Some long for a more traditional sushi experience, while some are merely curious as to whether they are really eating “Japanese food” when they go out for sushi.

Japanese cuisine is far more broad than what we find in restaurants in the western world, but one of the major differences in the style of sushi is the scarceness of rolls in comparison to other ways of eating sushi. When you think of American sushi, the quintessential roll is the avocado roll. This is actually a recent creation (when you consider the vast history of sushi) which came to be in the 1960s in California when a sushi chef realized he could substitute expensive tuna with the fatty taste and texture of avocado. When you realize just how widespread a roll such as this is in America, you start to understand the huge differences in Japanese sushi as opposed to the spread of sushi globally.

When rolls are created in Japan, they are most commonly done in the traditional manner which is to serve them with the nori wrapped on the outside of the role. The idea of putting the rice on the outside was tailored to Western aesthetics, which did not enjoy the sight or texture of seaweed on the outside of the roll. In Japan, you will be much more likely to find sashimi than rolls. Unbelievably fresh fish will be enhanced with a slight dab of wasabi and served on rice, allowing the natural flavors of the fish to be enjoyed. Fancier sushi restaurants will serve only what is freshest at the market, choosing their menu based on the days catch, and those with access to the Tsukiji Market are particularly fortunate. While it is possible to find fresh sushi in America, Canada, and Europe, you are more likely to find flash frozen fare (which is still delicious, but not quite the same). When you are in Japan, fresh fish is the norm and it makes sense why they prefer not to hide the flavors in rolls dripping with condiments and mixed vegetables. This is a style of sushi which has its roots in a history which came before the advent of refrigeration and freezing techniques. If you eat sushi rolLs in Japan, they are simpler, with a circle of white rice encompassing a raw fish and wrapped tightly with nori.

American sushi is almost a different food group than traditional sushi. So what accounts for the huge differences? Regional tastes and cultural differences are largely the source. Where Japanese sushi is a delicate balance of flavors, western diners prefer bold flavors and strong colors, which explains the popularity of a roll like the “Philadelphia Roll”, which includes Salmon, avocado, and cream cheese. This is the type of fare that you would never find at a traditional Japanese sushi restaurant! Local cuisine will invariably have rolls formed with local tastes and ingredients.

hotategai scallop

Etiquette is another aspect in which the experience of eating sushi differs. In Japan, sushi is seen very much as an artas much as a food, and the chef is the artist. Adding wasabi to a perfectly prepared and balanced roll would be akin to buying a painting and then adding a few “finishing touches” of your own in front of the artist. While the western world loves its condiments, you would not see authentic sushi served with wasabi on the side, only pickled ginger which is used to cleanse the palate between different food items, and soy sauce (shoyu). Sashimi would be served with soy sauce, however, one would not use the common western practice of stirring wasabi and soy sauce together. Just a heads up when enjoying nigiri in a traditional environment, make sure to flip the sushi over before dipping it in soya sauce. Let only the fish touch the soy sauce, as the sauce will degrade the flavor and texture of the rice.

This article is not trying to proclaim the superiority of traditional sushi. Different cultures have different tastes in sushi, and I personally love California roles as well as BC rolls, which have barbecued salmon skin in sweet sauce and would never be found in Japan. It is simply to show that western sushi is not as much Japanese food as it is inspired by Japanese cuisine, and that there are major differences between the sushi you would get in Western countries and the sushi you would be served in Japan. Bon appetit!

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10 Responses to “The Difference between authentic Japanese sushi and sushi around the world”

  • Karl says:

    Interesting. While I love the fun rolls I can see why we have changed sushi to suit our own tastes. What about shrimp tempura rolls? Are those traditional?

  • Warren says:

    Hi Karl,
    While tempura and shrimp are both foods that could be considered “traditional” battering up a shrimp and putting it in a roll, particularly with mayonnaise or other condiments (or lettuce leaves, etc), as you usually get it is definitely not a traditional sushi item. It is best to think about it in terms of simplicity. Traditional sushi is very simple. A piece of fish (called the ‘neta,’ or ‘tane’) on top of a piece of rice (koshihikari, or koshi rice if you are lucky), or wrapped up in a roll of rice and nori is traditional. Once you start to play with the ingredients, and mix up a lot of different flavors it isn’t traditional anymore. It may be yummy, but it’s not ‘old style.’ 🙂

  • Paul says:

    I have had sushi or I should say shashimi in S Korea and it was very different experience. The fish is very fresh sometimes even coming out of a fish tank right there in the restaurant. Typically you don’t see someone drenching their fish with soy sauce if they do use condiments it’s just a small dab.

  • Mark says:

    I always find it interesting when people describe the practice of adding wasabi to the soy sauce as a “western” practice. That is precisely how I was taught to eat sushi in Japan by several different Japanese people in several different cities over 25 years ago. Every sushi restaurant I ever went to in Japan offered wasabi beside the pickled ginger and every Japanese person I ever witnessed eating sushi added wasabi to the soy sauce before dipping the fish in. I guess they were all wrong.

  • Warren says:

    I really appreciate this perspective as it allows me to articulate better what is going on.

    Firstly, one *does* see this behavior in Japan. It is not uncommon, and you will see it all around the world. The notion of not adding wasabi to one’s shoyu is the same as Americans going to McDonalds. Your average person simply does what they want. But the idea of not adding it is the “traditional” behavior, and if you were to go to, say Sukiyabashi Jiro, you would probably be kicked out for doing this. There are not a lot of traditional sushi-ya in Japan, and most Japanese don’t even know about this particular traditionalism (this is along the lines of if you took 100 Americans and gave them a full 19 piece place setting on a table, would they know where everything goes?). So again, we’re talking traditional versus everyday behavior.

    Secondly, as with many cultures and restaurants, for the most part people simply do what they want. The police aren’t going to hassle you for putting wasabi in your shoyu. And in fact, if I go out for sushi and want to put my wasabi in my shoyu, no one had better tell me not to. I bought the food and I’m going to eat it the way I want. And that’s the way it should be. For your average salaryman or family in Japan, this is the case.

    Thirdly, you have to remember that as sushi dining has spread to the west, the sushi-ya must cater to western tastes and behaviors. Westerners are much more causal and less rule-oriented than Japanese, and you won’t find nearly as many “traditional” sushi-ya in the West as in Japan. And even in Japan, the high cost and expectations are taking their toll on the traditional-oriented restaurants. It’s just the way things are.

    But basically, traditionalists eschew the putting of wasabi in the shoyu, and while traditional sushi chefs will actually be insulted by this practice, for the most part, income wins over behavior. You can’t kick everyone out or yell at them for this activity, so they just suck it up and let people do whatever they want for the most part as unless you are a sushi institution like Jiro, you won’t be in business long if you adhere to tradition to the point of annoying your customers.

  • Khadine says:

    Is sushi suppose to have any mayo based topping on it ?

  • Warren says:

    That’s actually kind of a loaded question! 🙂

    Traditional sushi would not have any mayo based topping, no, so if you were to go to, say, Sukiyabashi Jiro, a very traditional sushi-ya in Japan, you would not even see mayo anywhere in the restaurant. In fact mayo is “new” to Japan in that it was introduced to Japan from the West, and was not a part of Japanese cuisine until fairly recently. In fact, the first Japanese mayo company was Kewpie Mayonnaise which began in 1925. That said, Japan quickly became infatuated with mayo and now eat quite a lot, and even has a mayonnaise museum!

    The sushi we eat these days has evolved greatly from the food it once was, so now we see a lot of mayo on various sushi items, flavored, colored, made spicy, etc, and you will find mayo on sushi in Japan as well as around the world. So now it is not unusual to see mayo on sushi, and some people like it and some people don’t, but to specifically answer your question, mayo was not traditionally eaten on sushi but has become a tasty and often welcome addition in modern times.

  • T'laryth Phalyn says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. People often forget that there are often huge differences between the traditional and the everyday. While I am a westerner I much prefer traditional Japanese foods and sushi, which means I am often very disappointed. I am one of the anti-cream cheese folks and I only avoid wasabi because what we have here causes me pain. A good number of local-ish Japanese restaurants keep trying to tell me that cream cheese is traditional and they’ve been putting it in practically everything. If I could get my own eel I’d shortcut the problem but I suppose as I am stuck in a landlocked state I will have to continue to make do.

  • emi says:

    Hi. It is a nice article, and I enjoyed reading it and comments.

    When Japanese say sushi, that means a slice of fish fillet on top of a small ball of rice. As mentioned above, the modern styles come with different toppings like mayonaise, yuzu kosho, slices of onions and others. When I first came to America 10 years ago, it was a big culture shock to see fruits, some veggies we never use in sushi, and various kinds of sauce. and also California style sushi as I had never seen one in Japan. I am a sushi cook here and make sushi rolls here all the time, and my customers love them. but, my friends and families don’t like my American rolls when I made them for them. they are that different.

    My boss here is a Korean guy who was a software developer until 5 years ago. I don’t like his sushi at all. rice grain is mashed, the vinegar he uses for sushi is just cheap white vinegar from the states; which is a lot stronger than Japanese rice vinegar we usually use for sushi in Japan, he often uses 2 days old left over sushi rice, he even does not use sushi mats properly, his nigiri sushi is just so hard. and the same goes to other Japanese food he provide at the restaurant. He freezes, defrosts, and freezes some ingredients all the time. but, all the customers are happy here. There are many regular customers and they love his sushi. I guess they just don’t really care how sushi should be like or the balance of the flavors of ingredients.

    American style sushi is fine, and I still like that. I can understand why restaurant owners(most time they are non-Japanese Asian) make sushi so differently from how we do in Japan. but, I don’t really think they should get the same kind of respect as Japanese sushi chefs get in Japan because they are trained for many many years to be a sushi man.

    I hope someday, people would realize the differences in sushi culture here and there, call American style Sushi American Sushi and Japanese style sushi Sushi, and still like them both styles.

  • In my experience, mixing the wasabi with the shoyu wasn’t common in Japan, but that’s just what I observed, and my wife (who is from Osaka) says they don’t typically do it, but it’s not a big deal.

    I think the reason for not combining it is because shoyu and wasabi are two different condiments and flavors. I don’t like wasabi on some kinds of sushi (for instance my end-of-meal tamago), and sometimes I like wasabi and no shoyu (like on unagi with its sweet sauce). So a one-size-fits-all sauce isn’t good for how I like to eat sushi.

    So, if you think of the wasabi as a way to spice up your shoyu, combining the two makes sense. But if you think of the two as different flavorings with different uses, then keep them separate. Both ways can be fine!

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