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, ergo authentic Japanese sushi, 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 migiri 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.
Etiquette is another aspect in which the experience of eating sushi differs. In Japan, sushi is seen very much as an art as 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 soy 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!