Sushi toppings are further topped with just a top of certain condiments. Can you identify them? Why are they used? Even Japanese people can’t answer these questions, but you can learn the answers here.
Tsume (marinating), Nikiri (boiling down), citrus juices and salt. These remain main four seasonings used at sushi restaurants. Sudachi was the first citrus juice used in preparations, then use of yuzu and lemon became common, and there are some chefs that also use yuzu salt, spicy mustard and grated garlic. Setting aside the debate that some of these condiments deviate from the essences of Edo-style sushi, there is no doubt that condiments bring out the flavors of sushi toppings.
Let’s take a look at the characteristics of spices and condiments often used in Japanese cuisine.
“Asa” means shallow and “tsuki” means green onion, and this particular plant is named because of its color, which isn’t as dark as green onions. It is a separate species from onions and is characterized by its more pungent spicy flavor.
These are also known as “long onions” or Japanese leeks. These onions are common in East Japan, characterized by the thickness and large white space. Usually the white portion is eaten. It softens and has a sweetness when it is heated. It also has spicy, onion components and the white portion has high allyl sulfide content, which is known for aiding in digestion, so it has more medicinal effects than leafy onions.
Ao-negi is also called leafy onions and refers to onions with more green space. It mainly grows in Western Japan, is thinner than shiro-negi and is characterized by how it branches near the root. The leaves are soft, it has the unique onion scent and is great for condiments, stir-fry and miso soup.
This is a brand name for small green onions. Small green onions are young ao-negi. They are generally 5 mm in diameter and 50 cm long and used for condiments. Fugu-negi (Yasuoka onions) is another type of small green onions.
Kujo-negi are green onions indigenous to Kyoto and have been growing mostly in the Kujo Village (currently Sakyo-ku of Kyoto city) since the Nara era. It is soft and has a pleasant taste and is perfect for dressed fish/vegetables (aemono), condiments and hot pot dishes. There are 2 types: Light-yellow (hoso-negi) and black (futo-negi). The texture is soft and there is a sweet element, and the inside of the leaves is slimy.
These are green onions harvested immediately after sprouting. They are 6-10 cm in length and look like pine needles. They have a refreshing taste that isn’t as spicy, so it is used as a condiment or a sushi topping.
Wakegi (Tufted stone leek)
This is a mixed breed of green onion and white onion mainly found in Kansai and further west. It’s not as pungent and the fragrance is more subtle without the unique onion spiciness and there is an element of sweetness.
This is the perilla leaf (shiso), but generally it is only called green shiso when used in full leaf form as a potherb.
It is about 100-120 g in size and as a rugged, yellow rind. Yuzu is a kosan citrus (fragrant/acidic citrus) fruit* with a unique fragrance and acidity and plays a role in bringing out the flavor of a variety of foods.
*Citrus fruits not good for eating raw, with stronger acidity than the typical tangerine type of citrus, are called “kosan citrus”. The most common are lemon and lime. They have a nice fragrance so they are squeezed and added as seasonings or used for juice.
Sudachi, from the same kosan citrus family as yuzu, weigh 30-40 g. They are a famous specialty of the Tokushima prefecture. They are characterized by the brisk acidity and refreshing aroma.
Like sudachi, kabosu are also from the same family as yuzu and are similar in looks, but they are much larger, weighing 100 to 150 g and have even stronger acidity. They aren’t just sour, they also have a gentle sweetness. A specialty of Oita prefecture, they are often used to add flavor to fugu (blowfish) dishes, hot pot and grilled fish.
This kosan citrus from Hyuga, Miyazaki is similar to the kabosu and sudachi. It is characterized by its thin rind, few seeds, fresh acidity and unique fragrance.
The mature Daidai fruit doesn’t fall from the tree as easily as other edible fruits, so it is used as a decoration for the New Year as a symbol of good fortune. While the juice has a hint of sweetness, it has a strong acidity and also a bitter element.
Daikon-oroshi (Grated daikon)
This is grated daikon radish. When using daikon radish as a condiment, the tip is used if a more pungent flavor is desired and the area closer to the base of the leaves is used for less spiciness.
Momizi-oroshi (Grated daikon and chili)
This is made by sticking a chili pepper in the daikon and grating together.
Bainiku (Plum pulp)
This is the part of a pickled plums with the seed removed.
This is finely ground, lightly toasted laver.
Next we would like to introduce the typical sushi dishes that use these types of condiments. Here we explore the uses and potential uses of the major condiments.
Just by serving with grated ginger or grated ginger and green onions, the peculiar taste of mackerel fat completely transforms into something elegant. Grated ginger is effective in accentuating the unique umami flavor of sushi toppings and is also used with Pacific saury, sardines and horse mackerel. Most sushi restaurants use it in a standard way.
In order to cancel out the raw odor of bonito, sushi chefs smoke the fish with straw and typically treat it with green onion and grated ginger.
How to prepare squid is something that each sushi chef has to decide. Some use salt and sudachi for a refreshing sweetness. Others sneak Oba between the topping and shari to bring out the natural umami of the squid.
Fugu (Blowfish) known for its light and delicate taste, so it’s not suitable to use condiments that are too strong. Fugu-negi is ultra-thin and soft with a nice fragrance without being overbearing and it’s the best onion for the delicate blowfish. And instead of nikiri (boiling down), it goes well with mellow, acidic Ponzu*, which brings out the flavor of fugu.
*Traditionally ponzu refers to a vinegar sauce made from citrus fruits like kabosu, but “ponzu soy sauce” (traditional ponzu sauce combined with soy sauce and mixed with bonito stock and kelp stock) is also generally known as “ponzu”.
Sushi chefs struggle to bring out the sweetness of the pen shell, which is stronger than that of scallops. Adding the oba leaf between the topping and the rice does wonders in bringing out the sweetness and umami.
This was the brainchild of legendary sushi chef, Shuzo Okada, in order to emphasize the umami of fish with peculiar tastes such as horse mackerel. Just a dash of deep green seasoning made from grinding down Asatsuki and ginger is placed on top of the sushi topping.
In addition to making the sushi look beautiful, it also gives toppings with delicate tastes a more distinct flavor, subdues the persistency of fat. As I mentioned before, too much flavoring deviates from traditional the Edo-style sushi, turning the dish into “Sousaku-zushi” or “creative sushi”. Of course whether or not to use condiments is up to how the sushi chef feels. And a sushi chef may not use the same condiments every time. Considering each of the individual condiments used, you can’t help but feel the depth of Edo-style sushi.