We tend to believe that Japanese food is healthy. Yes it’s healthy, at least theoretically, because Japanese cuisine attempts to make the most of natural ingredients and natural flavors. But in reality, it’s often served in an unhealthy way. Many Japanese dishes served at local restaurants are often high in carbohydrates and sodium. Sushi is not an exception. In addition to that, sushi can get tricky because one of its main ingredients is raw fish, many species of which are caught unsustainably and decreasing its population drastically.
Then how can we eat sushi sustainable way? Let’s take a good look at each ingredient.
Eating sushi is almost equal to eating rice, which is high in carbohydrates. But sushi rice is even more than that. Sushi vinegar, which is mixed with rice to make sushi rice, is made of vinegar, sugar and mirin (Japanese cooking sake). Since Japanese vinegar is typically made of rice, flour and corn, and mirin is made of rice, all of the ingredients in sushi vinegar are carbohydrates! Sushi rice is carb on carb. One of the reasons why sushi is sort of addicting is because sushi rice contains a lot of carbohydrates and is sweet to your tongue.
So be careful. Really authentic sushi is served as a very small portion. Contrary to what you may believe, sushi was not conceived as an “all-you-can-eat” type of food. It is rather like wine tasting. When you taste good quality wine, your senses are aroused – taste, smell and visual – and try to savor all of the delicate, subtle aromas and tastes. It also helps to enjoy wine better if you know about the wine grape species, climate and soil condition that grew the grapes. The same applies to sushi. It’s designed for you to to enjoy its subtle and delicate texture and flavor coming from the combination of good quality seafood, a small portion of rice, and natural condiments, each of which has its story.
And since good sushi requires exquisite work by experienced sushi chefs, authentic sushi is often served at a counter, facing the chef. And the chef tells you which ingredients are in season, what kind of cooking techniques he uses, and how to eat each preparation to enjoy it at its best. That kind of communication is part of your meal – not just because you get a lot of good tips, and enjoy conversation. It also slows down your eating. When you eat slow, you can control your appetite and satiety much better, and can avoid over-filling your tummy.
Eating large portions of sushi like fast food can be as junky as fast food. Choose smaller portions, reduce the amount of sushi vinegar if possible, eat slowly, and pay attention to each ingredient.
As I wrote in another post, soy sauce is NOT a dipping sauce. It’s very concentrated. Take a look at its nutrition facts: this is Kikkoman, the most widely known Japanese soy sauce brand. On the left is regular soy sauce, and the right is reduced sodium.
If you end up consuming two table spoonsful of soy sauce for your sushi dish (which doesn’t sound a lot), you already ingested 50% ~ 75% of your daily value. (It’s also striking to see “reduced sodium” is not so light in sodium) It’s easy to take in too much sodium, if you misunderstand what soy sauce is all about. Just a few drops will work in many cases. Resist the desire to fill the dish with soy sauce, like shown in the picture (left). It’s also not “chic” or “elegant” to use a lot of soy sauce.
Another tip: soy sauce oxidizes and loses its flavor pretty fast. When you are finished using it, put the cap back on as soon as you can. If you use oxidized, flavorless soy sauce, you will end up using more to compensate for its diminished flavor.
The most popular condiment is wasabi, which does not grow just anywhere. It needs a mildly cool climate and very clear water. (Left: this is how natural wasabi looks like. You grate it on your dish. Image by 克年 三沢 by [CC2.0] via Flickr Creative Commons)
Therefore, most “wasabi” we typically consume at local restaurants is not really 100% natural wasabi. Horseradish is often used as a substitute, and is made with a variety of additives: vegetable oil, sodium, artificial colors, spices etc. If not labelled “natural,” packaged wasabi can be pretty un-natural.
Also, cream cheese, mayo, ketchup, spices and other condiments used abundantly in sushi, especially in rolls, are not authentic. While they may trick you to believe that they are the sources of deliciousness, they are often killing the natural flavors of the fresh ingredients, and adding even more sodium and carbohydrates. So think about that.
Traditional and authentic sushi condiments are natural: sesame seeds, sansho, grated ginger or green onions.
It turns out sushi can be pretty unhealthy if you carelessly eat it – which we always do.
Then what can be changed? It’s a difficult question, because you will soon realize that you would have to pay a lot of money to experience authentic, natural and healthy sushi. And it is very true: sushi is high-end food. Before sushi became an everyday dish, thanks to extensive “individualization” from the sourcing of fish to making of sushi, it was a “special-occasion-only” party food in Japan. You would only eat it when there was something to celebrate.
So what does this all mean? It means that delivering good quality raw fish is a lot of work. It costs money. You have to go deep into the ocean to meet the demand (often illegally), freeze the fish right away, and ship them thousands of miles away to the consumer. That is because even with today’s advanced technology, many fish species, including blue-fin tuna, cannot be farm-raised. We still need to rely on a natural stock of wild fish, to satisfy billions of sushi-lovers’ mouths. As a result, the fish population is drastically decreasing. And aquaculture cannot single-highhandedly solve the problem: it’s associated with its own issues.
The situation does not look good. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium issues a “Seafood Watch,” which identifies which fish are relatively okay to eat, and which fish we should avoid. Below is the list of fish to “avoid.”
Awabi/Abalone (China & Japan)
Bincho/Albacore Tuna (except troll, pole and line, and US longline)
Buri/Hamachi/Hiramasa/Yellowtail (Australia & Japan farmed)
Hon Maguro/Bluefin Tuna
Iwashi/Atlantic Sardines (Mediterranean)
Kani/Crab (Asia & Russia)
Kanikama/Surimi/Pollock (Canada trawl)
Katsuo/Skipjack Tuna (imported purse seine)
Maguro/Yellowfin Tuna (Atlantic troll, pole and line)
This is a lot of fish. So basically, is it better not to eat sushi?
Roll your own sushi
It’s always good to know what you eat. Instead of eating sushi at a restaurant, buy ingredients and have a “roll-your-onw” sushi party.
Go to a local Japanese or Asian grocery store and buy high quality ingredients. Don’t buy cheap ones because quality is everything for “raw” food: you cannot “dress” it in any way. Of course high quality items are more expensive, but that’s the point. Just try to correlate the price and the scarcity of the item.
For example, is eel (unagi) your favorite sushi ingredient? As it is in the “avoid” list, its population is decreasing at an alarming rate. The above table reflects the eel production in Japan, which comprises domestic production and imports, primarily from neighboring Asian countries. It’s a complicated topic, so please read XX if you are interested. But this demonstrates how the eel is facing a dangerous situation, and is reflected on the price. When you buy a frozne unagi in the US, it used be around $5 per piece, but lately it’s probably more than $10.
You would definitely “avoid” unagi, even if you don’t know how endangered they are, because the price would tell you.
Just read the label carefully: name of the fish, where it comes from, and whether it’s wild caught or farm-raised. And compare that information with the price. You will get a rough glimpse of which species are declining.
And once you make sushi, compare the price with taste. Which one tastes good and which one not so much? (try to avoid too much soy sauce to focus on the flavor of the raw ingredients) If some ingredients are not as good as the price tells, maybe there is something terribly wrong with that species. On the other hand, if some ingredients taste good for their prices, maybe they are “okay” fish.