Different types of sushi

Japan has a type of sushi for every occasion. In the West, we often have a very limited view on sushi. When Belgian people think of sushi, they generally think of sushi rolls, as pictured below:

Japanese sushi rolls makizushi

Sushi rolls as we know them in the West.

This type of rolled sushi, wrapped in nori seaweed, is called makizushi (which literally means ‘sushi roll’). In my experience however, this is not the most common kind of sushi in Japan. When you go to a sushi restaurant, you will mostly eat nigirizushi (meaning ‘hand pressed sushi’). Nigirizushi is a rectangular piece of rice with a large sliver of raw fish or seafood on top.

types of sushi: nigirizushi

Delicious nigirizushi. When you eat this kind of sushi in Japan, it is not unusual for the piece of fish to be twice the size of the piece of rice. Yummy!

There is also a particular kind of nigirizushi that is quite common in sushi restaurants, called gunkanmaki. Gunkanmaki means ‘warship roll’. It is the same oblong base of rice as nigirizushi, with a fish or shellfish topping, but wrapped in a piece of nori. The nori serves to keep the topping of the gunkanmaki in place. It is usually prepared with softer toppings or some kind of fish eggs, which benefit from the structural support of the nori. In the picture below you see a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe, but the most common kind is with salmon roe.

types of sushi: nigirizushi and gunkanmaki

A nigirizushi with shrimp and a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe

types of sushi: nigirizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

A snapshot of one of our sushi fests in a local sushi restaurant. You see lots of nigirizushi with one of my favourites: toro salmon. There is also a gunkanmaki with what I think is meat. That is by no means a common or typical type of sushi, but I think we were feeling adventurous when we chose that one.

But despite the dominance of the nigirizushi, you do encounter makizushi (sushi rolls) in Japan. It is possible for a meal at a sushi restaurant to include a few pieces of makizushi, but they are mostly very plain and meant to top off your meal with something cheap and neutral tasting to fill up on, rather than being the focus of the meal. They are also quite thin. This kind of thin, plain makizushi is called hosomaki, which means ‘thin rolls’.

types of sushi: makizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

This is the makizushi that I got at the end of my meal at a more high-end sushi restaurant. They are a lot more simple and narrow than the makizushi served in Belgian sushi restaurants. These narrow makizushi are called hosomaki.

The variety of makizushi that we see most often in the West is called futomaki. This means ‘thick rolls’. In the West, these sushi rolls are filled with a variety of ingredients, usually some kind of raw fish with several other ingredients in one roll. Sometimes they are fried as well. In Japan, futomaki are usually vegetarian. Futomaki is popular during the Setsubun holiday, when it is considered good luck to eat an entire, uncut futomaki roll while facing that year’s lucky direction, as determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.

futomaki sushi roll for setsubun

Futomaki sushi rolls for Setsubun. Eating one of those babies in one go seems like a daunting task. I guess you have to make a bit of an effort if you want to have good luck.

There are some other types of sushi that I mostly came across outside of sushi restaurants. One of those is temaki. This literally means ‘hand roll’. I saw this kind of sushi at sushi parties at people’s homes. At a sushi party, people put all the ingredients for sushi out on the table, the guests compose their own sushi cone to their liking and eat it at once. The procedure is repeated until everyone has had their fill.

sushi party with temaki in Japan

The table setting for a sushi party at my neighbour’s house. You take a piece of nori, put some rice on it, add the ingredients of your choice, roll it up in a cone and eat it directly to avoid the nori getting soggy.

Sushi party in Japan

Another sushi party. On the left, you can see the start of a temaki, with the rice on the nori. Too bad I didn’t take any pictures of the finished cone. The cone usually looks quite messy, but since you eat it right away, that doesn’t matter at all. And the taste is delicious!

Inarizushi is another type of sushi that is fairly unknown in the West. Inarizushi does not contain any fish. It is an oval rice ball, wrapped in a pouch of fried tofu. It is one of the cheapest kinds of sushi. Inarizushi is a popular ingredient of homemade bento lunch boxes.

types of sushi: inarizushi

Making a big bowl of inarizushi. On the top right, you can see the fried tofu pouches soaking, and they are being filled with sushi rice.

Another lesser known form of sushi is chirashizushi, which means ‘scattered sushi’. This is a bowl of sushi rice (i.e. rice seasoned with vinegar), topped off with raw fish. It is typical of Hinamatsuri, the doll festival on March 3rd, but it is also eaten the year round.

types of sushi: chirashizushi

A big bowl of chirashizushi for dinner at a friend’s house. Underneath all that delicious raw fish is sushi rice.

Finally we might consider sashimi, which is raw fish and shellfish. By many Westerners, sashimi is mistakenly considered to be a form of sushi. While sushi and sashimi are often served in the same restaurant, they are not the same thing. The main difference is that sushi always involves rice while sashimi is raw fish without rice. Sashimi must always be eaten with chopsticks while sushi may be eaten with the hands if one so chooses.

sashimi at an izakaya in japan

A plate of delicious sashimi at an izakaya in  Toyota City. As you can see, there is no rice in sight.

What is your favourite type of sushi?

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The sushi train

Ask anyone to name something typical of Japan, and it is highly likely that they will say ‘sushi’. After my return to Belgium, I have often been asked if Japanese people really eat sushi every day. The answer is no! Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and there is so much more to it than just sushi.

Since I am not a fan of these stereotypical ideas about Japan and did not want to encourage them further, I have put off writing about sushi for more than two years. But despite all my ranting, I cannot deny that sushi is in fact a part of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, it is an extremely delicious part of Japanese cuisine. By the end of my stay in Japan, I could be found in a sushi restaurant on a weekly basis. (*´∀`*)

So it seems that the moment has finally come. It is time for a post about sushi.

In Japan, sushi is often enjoyed at a restaurant, rather than at home. There are many different kinds of sushi restaurants, ranging from extremely high-end places where the chef personally prepares each delicacy in front of you, to the more moderately priced conveyor belt restaurants (kaiten zushi 回転寿司 in Japanese). Even in the conveyor belt category, there are different prices and qualities. Today I will talk to you about the lowest of the lowest: Kappa Zushi. Although this is not a great introduction for a restaurant, I assure you that compared to most European (or at least Belgian) sushi restaurants, the quality is still very good.

kappazushi logo

Kappa Zushi logo

kappa_zushi_mascotte

Interior of a Kappa Zushi restaurant. The mascots of Kappa Zushi are these two green creatures. In Japanese, kappa is a water monster from folk tales. But it can also mean a sushi roll with cucumber in the middle. Hence the choice for kappa as mascots I guess. Despite their best efforts to make these kappa seem cute, they still scare me a little – image from the Kappa Zushi website

kappazushi conveyer belt

Kappa Zushi conveyor belt

tuna sushi on the conveyer belt

Tuna nigiri zushi on the conveyor belt

At conveyor belt restaurants, the kitchen prepares a standard selection of different sushi dishes and places them on the conveyor belt. The sushi passes by all the tables and the customers take off whatever they want to eat. Usually the colour of the plate determines how much the sushi costs but at Kappa Zushi, all the sushi costs 105 yen per plate (about 1 euro at the time we were in Japan). At the end of the meal, the plates are counted to determine the price to be paid.

kappa zushi stack of plates

Our stack of plates at the end of the meal

In case you don’t find what you are looking for on the conveyor belt, you can also order  directly from the kitchen (for the full Kappa Zushi menu, click here –  click on each category to see more sushi). Kappa Zushi has a computerized system for those orders. You operate it with a touch screen above your table. Not an easy thing to do if you can’t read kanji. There is one button that summons a waitress. I am afraid we accidentally summoned the poor lady twice before we figured it out. But if you press enough buttons, you will eventually end up in the orders menu.

kappa zushi touch screen

Kappa Zushi orders menu. You might notice some unusual sushi like tonkatsu sushi (fried pork cutlet) and beef sushi. You will definitely not find any meat sushi in a high-end sushi restaurant.

hamburger sushi

Another special sushi: hamburger sushi. I guess you can pretty much slap anything onto a piece of rice and call it sushi.

Now comes the best part: the orders are delivered on a special sushi train! It is shaped like a shinkansen and swishes over to your table in no time. You take off the plates and the train goes back to the kitchen. Never mind sushi quality, that train in itself is a reason to visit Kappa Zushi!

Something else that I love about Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants, apart from all the sushi, is the table side tap of hot water. You get a cup, a tin of green tea powder (different from matcha) and you serve yourself from the tap at your table. All you can drink green tea and an endless stream of sushi passing by under your very nose… pure bliss!

kappa zushi tea

Tea can in the bottom left, cup in the middle, and the tap is below the conveyor belt, next to the red box with pickled ginger. The black box holds the chopsticks. Each table also has their own supply of soy sauce and wasabi.

If this post has made you hungry, or you want to see the sushi train for yourself, you can find your nearest Kappa Zushi restaurant on this map (Japanese only). This is the Kappa Zushi in Toyota City:

KappaZushi_ToyotaCity

Kappa Zushi in Toyota City – image from Google Maps Streetview

New Year’s Eve dinner

For New Years Eve dinner we decided to make ‘yosenabe’, a simmered dish containing many different ingredients. It was a first so I was a little worried how it would turn out. But overall I’m very happy with the result. Real wholesome winter food!

ingredients for yosenabe

ingredients for yosenabe

yosenabe

home cooked yosenabe

Nagoya style eel – Hitsumabushi

Eel is a popular dish in Japan, especially in summer. It is believed to give you stamina so as to better endure the summer heat. Moreover, grilled eel is a Nagoya speciality.

Needless to say I was excited when my friend Mari-san proposed to go to the most famous eel restaurant in Nagoya: Hōraiken. It’s so popular that we had to wait for almost an hour before being seated, while it was just a regular Tuesday at lunchtime. In the weekend there is supposed to be a 2 or 3 hour wait.

Horaiken eel restaurant entrance

The entrance of the restaurant

I ordered the most popular dish on the menu, which is the Nagoya speciality: Hitsumabushi. It’s a special kind of unadon. Unadon is a bowl of rice topped off with grilled eel covered in sweet soy sauce. What makes hitsumabushi different from regular unadon is the seasoning.

Hitsumabushi grilled eel

Hitsumabushi (a kind of grilled eel), a Nagoya speciality

On the picture above you can see the seasoning in the three squares on the top of the tray and in the red flask. The bowl of rice with the eel on top is on the bottom right and in the middle there’s some soup and pickled vegetables.

There’s a special procedure involved in eating hitsumabushi:

1) First you take about 1/4th of the rice and eel, put it in the little white and blue bowl and eat it just like that.

2) Next you take another serving of eel and rice and season it with nori strips, wasabi and green onion.

hitsumabushi second type

The second way to eat the eel

3) For the third serving you use the same seasoning but you also pour hot tea on top of it.

4) The fourth and final serving is meant to repeat the style you liked best.

Four servings of rice with eel, that’s a lot of food. Good thing it’s delicious!

The restaurant is very close to the Temma-cho station on the Meijo Line, the purple line of Nagoya’s subway system. Some advice: put your name on the list at the restaurant, ask how long the wait will be and take advantage of the spare time to visit nearby Atsuta Jinja, the largest shrine in Nagoya.

It’s alive!

During our recent trip to Hokkaido, we enjoyed a host of new culinary experiences. The most spectacular one was without a doubt the sashimi dish that came with the fish’s still moving head in the middle.

I’m not squeamish about food, but this did make me think twice before digging in. But then again, it’s an experience and how can I justify eating regular sashimi or even canned tuna, which also had a head at some point, if I don’t eat this?

By the way, I try to avoid (canned) tuna altogether because tuna is becoming an endangered species. Click here to read a BBC article about it.

In case you’re wondering, the head is purely ornamental. You’re not supposed to eat it.

I tried looking for a scientific explanation of why the head was still moving despite the fish clearly being dead, what with its head being severed from its body and all. But I was unable to find it by just googling. I’m sure that it has something to do with electric signals being automatically generated in the brain or something, but that’s far from accurate. Anyone care to have a go at the science part of it?

We ate this dish at Marukibune restaurant (next to the Ainu Museum) by the side of lake Kussharo. They serve all sorts of typical Hokkaido dishes like milk ramen and ‘jingisukan’ (see previous blog post for a picture of that dish).

Marukibune restaurant, Kussharo Kotan, Hokkaido

'Howaito-ramen', noodles with milk soup

This post was submitted to the November 2011 Blogging Festval J-Festa: Dining in Japan.

Hokkaido – birthplace of the earth

As some of you may or may not have noticed, I have been afk for while. For the non-geeks among you: afk means away from keyboard. The reason was our trip to Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan.

Like many Japanese companies, Toyota had decided to send all of their employees on a mandatory holiday around mid August. To avoid the crowds, we decided to go the most remote Japanese destination we could think off: Hokkaido. Further more, we were looking forward to spending some time in a refreshing 30°C atmosphere instead of the scorching 36°C of Nagoya.

Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan, marked in dark green. The tiny red cross indicates where we live.

I can wholeheartedly recommend Hokkaido (in summer) to anyone who likes any or all of the following: lakes, mountains, volcanoes, onsen, forests, seafood, wildlife (not necessarily in that order). I guess in winter it’s mostly nice for people who like snow.

It was a great trip. We got to see Japanese minshuku and youth hostels from the inside for the first time; an experience that deserves it’s very own blog post later on. The food was delicious, with a lot of fresh fish and seafood and a dish with mutton and cabbage called Genghis Kahn.

Seafood don

The Genghis Kahn dish (Jingisukan in Japanese)

The nature was overwhelming. We bathed in a natural onsen by the lakeside.We walked trough forests and wandered along the shore of beautiful lakes. We met a host of wildlife that we’d never seen before, like cranes, chipmunks, dolphins and a fox. Fortunately we didn’t run into any bears.

Lakeside onsen - free of charge, just dive on in (Lake Kussharo)

Lake Shikotsu

Cranes by the roadside

The cutest little chipmunk

An audacious fox looking for an easy meal

The chipmunk has the children eating out of his hand – or was it the other way around?

Whale-watching trip in Muroran. We didn’t see any whales but there were a lot of dolphins.

 

And then there were the volcanoes. I had never seen an active volcano up close before. It was overwhelming, almost like an apocalyptic scene. A barren rocky landscape with blotches of yellow left by the sulfur. Hissing steam escaping from the rocks and the smell of rotting eggs (from the sulfur). Apparently this is what hell is supposed to smell (and look?) like, only worse.

Volcano crater on top of the mountain (Tarumae-zan)

The hellish mountainside of Io-zan volcano

Boiling water and sulphurous gasses on the slopes of Io-zan volcano

 

Again I was confronted with the fact that the earth which seems so stable to us most of the time, is actually a living thing of sorts. One of the volcanoes we saw just popped up out of a vegetable patch some odd 60 years ago. Another one violently erupted in 2000 and turned a lively little town into a post-apocalyptic ghost town that is now visited by tourists.

Showa-Shin-zan, which emerged out of a field in 1943 after a series of earthquakes

Ghost town. The orange building in the back used to be a cooky factory - image taken at the Nishiyama Crater Promenade

It made me think of Hokkaido as the birthplace of the earth. This also relates to the relationship that the Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people who now mostly live in Hokkaido, have with nature and the earth. Hokkaido, with its mountains and forests, covered in mist and clouds, seems like a mystical place to me. Mysterious things such as the birthing of the earth from an active volcano definitely seem possible here.

Mystical Hokkaido

First impressions

My first impression of Japan: what a green country! On tv we always see skyscrapers and concrete as far as the eye can see. But believe it or not, there is a countryside in Japan and it is beautiful.

Green countryside between Nagoya and Toyota City

We were picked up at the airport by a very friendly driver. Mind the white gloves.

Our driver, who gave us a Japanese vocabulary lesson

Upon arrival in the hotel ‘Hotel Toyota Castle‘ (everything is called toyota-something here), we had our first Japanese bath. One sits on the stool and scubs oneself down from head to toe. Once completely clean, you immerse yourself in steaming hot water. There’s nothing like it to recover from a 12h flight.

Scrubbing area

the bath is deeper than european baths, so it is possible to be completely immersed instead of having to choose between your shoulders or your knees

And of course there is the obligatory picture of the Japanese toilet – with pre-heated toilet seat. Again, I could get used to this. I haven’t worked up the nerve yet to press any of those buttons though.

High tech toilet

control panel for high tech toilet

Another impression: the humidity. It feels like a tropical country because of the heat and the humidity outside. Not ideal for people with frizzy hair! From now on, every day is a bad hair day.

Portuguese often appears on signs and official communication. It seems there is a large Japanese community in Brazil and many people from Brazil and Peru come to find jobs in Japan.

Portugese signalisation in city hall

On our first day, we had dinner in an izakaya (bar/tavern). No easing into Japanese cuisine for us, we went straight for the raw squid. Yum! We got talking with the man sitting next to us. He immediately insisted on paying our dinner and taking us out again some other time. It seems that fortunately the stereotype about the reserved and shy Japanese does not always apply.

Raw squid

Sashimi a.k.a. more raw squid (and other assorted marine creatures)

Asahi-san, our new Japanese friend