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Ten Fun and Fishy Facts about Sushi

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

There are few foods tastier than sushi. Okay, maybe that statement doesn’t apply to absolutely everyone. After all, sushi can be an acquired taste! And many simply can’t get down with eating raw fish, eel, sea urchin, and everything else that comes with it. But for those of us who enjoy pulling out the chopsticks and dining on the latest catch from the ocean, well, today’s list is sure to make your mouth water!

Sushi may seem simple enough to the casual observer: a little rice, a little fish, perhaps a little spicy tuna, some cucumber, and some spicy mayo or eel sauce to top it off. But there is so much more to this delectable delicacy than that alone! In this list, we’ll take a look at ten fascinating, strange, and hunger-inducing facts you never knew before about sushi. After you’re done reading through this one, you’ll not only be hungry for its fishy goodness, but you’ll never look at it the same way again!

Related: 10 Strange Bits of British Food Folklore

10 How’d It Start, Anyway?

How we fell in love with sushi | BBC Ideas

When you really think about it, the idea of sushi is somewhat strange. After all, humans have been cooking meat for ages before eating it. We learned pretty quickly that eating raw meat was not the greatest way to preserve our health and maintain our stomachs, so we put it over a fire long ago, and that was that. But sushi has always been different.

The reason behind it was ingenious for the time—and continues to be so today! You may think sushi originated in Japan, as it’s most common and much enjoyed there. But you’d be wrong! Instead, sushi actually originated in Southeast Asia. Historians think it came about somewhere between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC.

At that time, southeast Asian farmers and fishermen alike were seeking a way to preserve fish for a long time after their catch. So they took rice, wrapped the fish very tightly into the little kernels, and packed it in for the long haul. They gutted and salted the fish before doing that, of course, but the effect the rice had on the seafood catch was to ferment it. In turn, the fish could be preserved for months on end without spoiling even a little bit.

The practice was so effective that it spread from Southeast Asia into China over the next several centuries. From there, Japanese fishermen learned the technique, too. When they took it home with them, fishmongers in markets all over Japan began to experiment with it further, and voila! Sushi as we know it was born sometime in the 8th century AD.[1]

9 Fast Fish Food!

Why Aged Sushi Is Better Than Fresh Sushi

From the long process of fermenting fish and keeping it healthy and safe to eat for months on end, sushi really blew up in the early 19th century. It was the 1820s, and Tokyo was bustling with people running around and street markets doing brisk business. During that decade, food stall owners came up with the idea to sell their fermented fish as a quick snack to passersby.

They called it “Edo-Mae sushi,” named after an old word previously used to refer to Tokyo, and it was the most closely related precursor to what we today know as modern sushi. At the time, the business world was opening up to Japanese commoners, and emperors were allowing regular people to go into business and own things like food stalls and other stores for themselves. So people had money for commerce and trade, and the sushi stall industry boomed.

Then, just as now, people in Edo (or present-day Tokyo) were known for the go-go nature of their bustling lives. They didn’t have much time to waste as they went about their days building their businesses. So they wanted fast food that they could eat on the go. Tightly-wrapped sushi that they could take with them was perfect. It was that era’s drive-thru, in a way.

People would descend on the food stalls down on the streets of Edo, purchase a sushi roll for the road, and walk wherever they were going while eating it. Soon, this Edo-Mae sushi spread outside of Japanese port cities and into inland communities, too. And as Edo became Tokyo, the process continued to evolve. Today, the sushi many of us enjoy can point directly to its inspiration from those food stall vendors from two centuries ago![2]

8 Bow Down to Wasabi

Why Real Wasabi Is So Expensive | So Expensive

We all know that wasabi—that green paste that comes with pretty much every sushi roll whenever you order it in a restaurant—can be very, very spicy. But as it turns out, there’s a whole lot more to that delicacy than just a surface-level purpose of adding heat to your meal.

Historically, wasabi’s pungent paste was meant to be an antibacterial agent that would kill potentially dangerous microbes in raw fish. Sushi chefs and fishmongers alike would use wasabi to ensure that the raw fish they were hawking and then hacking up didn’t go bad before a customer paid for it and dined on the delicious morsel.

In our era, wasabi is more of a garnish-slash-delicacy. If it’s even that. In many sushi restaurants around the world, the “wasabi” you receive with your order is very often a horseradish-like paste that is tinted green and made to look like real wasabi. Sorry to break it to you.

But if you do get real wasabi, it turns out that the substance has some seriously positive traits. For one, the compound “6-methylsulfinylhexyl isothiocyanate” that makes up part of real wasabi has been identified as a key ingredient in killing bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. And even beyond that, scientists have also discovered that wasabi gives those who eat it a major brain boost and increases the capacity of one’s memory![3]

7 Beware of the Fatal Fugu

Fugu | how to prepare the deadly pufferfish as shown by “Uosei” chef Rikizo Okamoto | Tokyo

Did you know that a certain type of sushi could kill you within hours of eating it if it’s not prepared correctly? The style of sushi is known as “fugu,” and it’s a deadly pufferfish that is a very famous and dangerous delicacy in Japan. This pufferfish contains a lethal toxin that can kill a human if it’s ingested in such a way after it’s been prepared incorrectly.

Tetrodotoxin, the substance inside the pufferfish, makes for rapid, violent pain. First comes intense and sudden numbness all around the eater’s mouth. Then, the toxin spreads across the rest of their body, leaving them paralyzed. Then, in short order, death descends on the consumer. Just. Like. That.

It’s terrifying to realize, then, that there is no known antidote for this poison anywhere in the world. The toxin is said to be as much as 1,000 times more potent than cyanide, too. Should it get out and be consumed by people in a sushi restaurant without any awareness of its place, it would quickly create a jaw-dropping tragedy. Yet fugu is still commonly eaten in Japan. It is considered a delicacy even in spite of (or perhaps because of) its lethal toxin.

Not surprisingly, then, chefs must be specially licensed to prepare the pufferfish and remove the toxin. It is most typically found in all parts of the pufferfish besides the actual flesh that is consumed—so a smart and certified chef can safely prepare the meal with tragedy averted. Still, would you risk your life for a few bites of sushi?[4]

6 Know Your Etiquette

How to Eat Sushi: You’ve Been Doing it Wrong

Sushi isn’t meant to be a free-for-all where you eat it however you feel like. This isn’t pizza, people! There are rules to sushi! And being careful and conscientious about how you consume the raw fish is half the fun!

For one, proper sushi etiquette dictates that you do not mix wasabi into the soy sauce. It is meant instead to be dabbed directly onto the sushi to serve as a fiery spice addition to the fish you’ve ordered. And the pickled ginger that also comes with sushi—a briny concoction commonly known as gari—is meant to be eaten in small bites in between various rolls and sushi pieces. That cleanses your palate of one type of fish and primes it for the next.

However, the biggest piece of sushi etiquette has to do with soy sauce. You are not supposed to dip the rice in the roll into the soy sauce directly. The rice will soak up too much of the soy sauce in a dip like that. Then, the soy taste will overpower the fish and the natural flavors of the nigiri piece. All you’ll get on your palate at that point is soy.

While soy is good as a garnish of sorts, it’s not meant to totally take over a dish. So, instead, with a common nigiri roll, you dip the fish into the soy sauce and allow that raw piece of flesh to soak up just a bit of the flavor as the perfect addition. Yum![5]

5 Quick! Stop That Sushi!

$50 Conveyor Belt Sushi in Japan – Waited in Line for 1 Hour!

If you’ve had quite a bit of sushi in your life—and certainly if you’ve ever gone to Japan and tried the sushi there—you’ve probably had conveyor belt sushi. Known in Japan as “kaiten-zushi,” this phenomenon involves a little conveyor belt that runs endlessly in a loop across a dining room in a sushi restaurant.

Diners sitting at tables next to the conveyor belt pick out the pieces of sushi that look good to them, pull them off the belt, eat, and then cover the bill when it’s all said and done. It’s a quick and efficient way to get the sushi you want whenever you want it. And it’s sort of a reverse drive-thru, as it were. Instead of you driving to a couple windows to order and pick up your food, the food comes to you! What could be easier than that?

The history of conveyor belt sushi is a fascinating one. It began in a sushi restaurant in Tokyo in the 1950s. At the time, the restaurant owner was a man named Yoshiaki Shiraishi. He was having trouble finding reliable people to staff his restaurant. Even worse (or better), his restaurant was very popular with customers.

Since he couldn’t satisfactorily serve them like he wanted without trusted waiters and other staff members, Shiraishi got creative. He came up with the conveyor belt idea to serve more customers in a quicker, easier way. And from that efficient invention came a conveyor belt culture that is still very common in many sushi places worldwide today![6]

4 California Rollin’

How to Make a California Roll – 2019 Update!

The California roll is one of the most common sushi rolls in the world. Okay, that’s not entirely true. It’s actually very rarely found in Japan—if at all! Instead, it is a standard roll that is very often found in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other Western nations. The standard California roll is made with avocado, crab, and cucumber. Simple, tasty, and to the point. And its history is… confusing.

According to certain accounts, the California roll was not created in the Golden State at all. Instead, it was supposedly made in Vancouver, Canada, by a Japanese chef named Hidekazu Tojo. He was frustrated that he couldn’t get his Western customers to eat raw fish in sushi as he liked to prepare it. So he put together a few locally enjoyed and well-known ingredients—Dungeness crab and avocado—and the rest was history!

That may not be the whole story of the California roll, though. Other historians and food buffs claim that the roll was actually first made in California in the 1960s. They claim that it was first built by a sushi chef named Ichiro Mashita in Los Angeles in the early ’60s. He, too, was searching for a fresh and accessible way for his customers to eat more fish. So, at his restaurant in the city’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, he went all-in on fresh California fare (the avocado!) and made history by popularizing a roll that is now seen on sushi menus all over the place.[7]

3 That’s How We Roll

Eating Japan’s Biggest Sushi

Sushi rolls just keep getting bigger and bigger. Aside from the nigiri and sashimi styles of sushi that are common in places like Japan, more American-style rolls have taken hold all over the world. These rolls very often have tempura (as in, cooked) qualities to them, with fried shrimp, cooked fish, or baked scallops sitting atop a long, rice-rolled tube of raw fish underneath. And every year, it seems like these rolls get bigger, longer, and more involved!

But none can beat the claim of the longest sushi roll ever created. It was done on November 20, 2016, in Tamana, Kumamoto, Japan. There, the Tamana Otawara Festival Executive Committee held an event at the local Tamana City Labor Athletic Center. They asked nearly 400 people to come together to create a record-breaking sushi roll. And they did just that!

According to Guinness World Records, the Tamana roll officially became the longest sushi roll ever made when it measured more than 9,332 feet (2,844 meters) in its final production. That roll produced by the 400 participants consisted of a ton of pickled daikon radish and sesame in addition to rice and sushi paper. And it gave Japan back the important title of “longest sushi roll ever produced.”

Five years before that, in 2011, a Russian group had bested previous attempts with their own record-breaking roll. But now, after the 2016 Tamana achievement, Japan is once again home to the longest roll ever. Just as it should be![8]

2 That’s Some Costly Tuna

Why Bluefin Tuna Is So Expensive | So Expensive | Business Insider

The most expensive sushi ingredient ever purchased occurred back in 2013 when the president of a popular Japanese sushi chain dropped $1.7 million on a 489-pound (222-kilogram) bluefin tuna fish. Kiyoshi Kimura, the president of a very popular Japanese sushi chain brand, paid up the seven-figure amount at the famous Tsukiji fish market’s groundbreaking auction in January of that year.

He did this because bluefin tuna is seen as a delicacy in Japanese tuna houses and is also very, very difficult to come by. Tuna stocks have been crashing in oceans all around the world after decades of overfishing, so the cost of bluefin tuna has gone through the roof. Plus, in Japan, sushi eaters know it as the “black diamond” sushi ingredient simply because it’s so scarce.

As for Kimura’s record purchase, he would have had to have doled out pieces of the bluefin for as much as $325 per single slice of sushi to break even on the auction buy. That wasn’t going to happen, though; he told reporters at the time that he planned to sell the fish at a huge loss and price the bluefin pieces at about $4.30 per portion in his restaurants.

“I wanted to meet the expectations of my customers who said they wanted to eat Japan’s best tuna again this year,” Kimura told media outlets after buying the insanely expensive tuna. “With this good tuna, I hope to help cheer up Japan.” Cheer them up, he did—despite doling out a pretty penny to do it.[9]

1 Chasing New Trends

Sushi Burrito Recipe | Sorted Food

Gone are the days when sushi was merely sushi. Now, sushi has been reappropriated into all different kinds and styles of food. Of course, it’s still sushi as we know it in terms of the ingredients: rice, seaweed, raw fish, spicy mayo, and stuff like that. But the world changed a bit (for the better, we might add!) when Peter Yen invented the sushi burrito in 2008.

The setting was the fast-casual restaurant Sushirrito in the city of San Francisco. At the time, Yen was looking for a new way to get sushi in front of new customers, and he wanted to draw some eyeballs to his establishment. He noticed how popular burritos had become in the United States, and drawing some inspiration from Mexican-American culture, he did the same with sushi!

The sushi burrito was a nearly immediate hit, and it wasn’t the only one. Since then, things like sushi burgers and even sushi donuts have been created. Basically, if a sushi chef can figure out a way to mash, move, and mold sushi into the shape of another food, it seems like he or she is going to try it.

Since Americans’ palates are endlessly craving sushi in pretty much any form, the likelihood is that the new inventions will pretty much always prove popular. No sense in not getting creative with how to get sushi to customers in new, unique, and memorable ways, right? We’ll gladly eat it up no matter what![10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen