Give Sushi a Second Look: Much is Cooked, Not Raw, These Days

By Jen Weiss

Even as sushi’s popularity soars, many cautious diners still won’t try this Japanese cuisine because they think it’s created solely with raw fish — and therefore potentially unsafe. But in truth, a number of ingredients don’t leave the kitchen without a stop in a skillet, and you’ll find more and more cooked sushi these days.

Sushi minutiae
The originators of sushi couldn’t have imagined half the tempura-battered, peppery, fruity versions that exist today. Long ago, sushi was merely a method of preserving fish. First, raw fish was pressed between layers of salt. A few weeks later, the stones pressing the fish were removed and replaced with a lighter cover. After a few months, the fish was ready to eat with rice.

This original fermented sushi, narezushi, still is available in a few locations, but it isn’t for the timid. The flavor is very strong.

In the 18th century, sushi began to take the shape we recognize today: small pads of vinegar-seasoned rice topped with delicate slices of fish, called nigiri sushi (shown above). Equally popular is maki sushi, a rolled variation. Sometimes rice and fish are rolled in nori (seaweed) and sliced into bite sizes. Rolls also can be served “inside out,” with seaweed under a rice layer. But as long as there’s seasoned rice, it’s all sushi.

Modern sushi chefs interpret these definitions loosely. Ingredients often are cooked or non-threatening, and they are inspired by cuisines such as Nuevo Latino and Brazilian. Ever tried a smoked salmon and cream cheese roll? It’s called a Philadelphia roll.

Toshi Sugiura, president of the California Sushi Academy, is a fan of the new flavors. “Half of my heart hurts when I make the new rolls,” he says, “but it’s all about taste — and it’s good.” Students at the academy must learn sushi basics and strict safety techniques. But after that, Sugiura encourages creativity. He acknowledges that, thanks to “fusion sushi” and cooked ingredients, more people are trying sushi. And for him, that’s a positive.

What to order
If you’re a purist but you’re timid about raw fish, don’t despair. Tamago, a kind of omelet, always has been cooked. Tako (octopus) has been cooked for years; boiling can make chewing easier and slightly extend the “shelf life” of this very perishable ingredient. Rich, sweet eel is boiled, too. And shrimp, although it may be served raw if it’s sweet and very fresh, often is cooked.

So, when you’re ready to sidle up to a sushi bar, here’s a can’t-miss plan for a fully cooked, yet totally authentic, spread: Start with tamago, work your way into eel nigiri sushi, and order a few pieces of shrimp maki on the side. Sweet, salty, crunchy, smooth — it doesn’t get much better than that.