Ask someone outside Japan to name one Japanese food and the chances are high they’ll say sushi. The lightly vinegared rice topped with seafood has become the unofficial national dish. Sashimi – sliced fillets of raw fish served without rice – is perhaps less well known internationally, but is no less of a Japanese culinary classic.
What the world calls sushi nowadays developed in Tokyo in the 1800s. Initially a dish of raw fish on a bed of vinegared rice, it evolved into bite-sized format as a quick-to-eat street food. Sushi in its current form spans multiple culinary levels, from three-Michelin-star restaurants such as Sukibayashi Jiro in Ginza, Tokyo, to low- cost kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi). Go high-end for a special occasion and you can expect to enjoy a tasting menu of seasonal seafood prepared directly in front of you – typically starting with lighter flavours such as flounder and then progressing to heavier tastes like sea urchin and eel.
Go low-end – the way most people would enjoy sushi with family or friends – and you can still eat well, plucking anything you fancy from the conveyor belt and even ordering very un-sushi sides like fried chicken, cheesy chips and creamy parfait. Even cheaper are supermarkets, where you can get a good-quality sushi bento (take away) – ideal for a picnic.
More often seen than sushi on izakaya (pub) menus or as part of dinner at home, not to mention a staple in the early courses in refined kaiseki-ryori, is sashimi. Sashimi is more popular full stop, though it has nowhere near the same kind of profile outside Japan that sushi enjoys. Maybe that’s because it’s such a simple dish – just skilfully sliced fresh seafood served with a little soy sauce and wasabi or grated ginger. Sashimi’s simplicity goes perfectly with a nice sake as a starter to a meal, when the palate is still clean enough to appreciate the delicate flavours of the seafood prepared this way. Tuna, salmon, sea bream, squid, bonito, yellowtail and octopus are among the typical options you’ll see on menus.