Until I had sushi at the Kona Grill in downtown Houston, I used to revere it as a delicious health food. Some may argue that the ‘delicious’ part here is highly debatable because while some of my friends will kill for sushi, others get ill at the thought of it.
In fact, some of my sushi-loving friends have even promoted themselves to sashimi [(sashi (pierce) and mi (flesh)] which cuts through the frills of vinegar flavoured cold rice, vegetables or egg that sushi comes dressed up in and goes straight to being raw fish, eaten dipped in soya sauce and wasabi. Let’s agree that it is an acquired taste but once you have it, there is nothing else that can taste or feel as good as sushi. But whatever the ingredients are, sushi must have three qualities to its credit; fresh, fresh and fresh. There is nothing worse than stale sushi or sushi that has been sitting around for a while.
For the uninitiated, Nigiri is sliced raw fish with a ball of rice underneath. Maki is sushi that is rolled up, usually in a seaweed mat. Enough already with the definitions. When it is time to eat, there is utter gluttony to be performed at all-you-can-eat sushi places, there are deep-fried rolls, crab canapés and fancy mayo-based sauces that have overtaken the artistic minimalism of this iconic Japanese food. I have a record of devouring 20 assorted sushis from an all-you-can-eat platter that Kamamishi in Karachi used to do.
If you don’t pay attention to what all is rolled up for you, sushi can be fattening
Sushi, in its traditional form, is rice and fish, which makes it a light and lean meal option. However, as sushi’s popularity proliferated in the West, especially in the US, some of its health benefits were lost in translation. After all, this is the land of the super-sized meal.
So for anyone who secretly loves American junk-styled food or in other words simple, delicious food that is denuded of its soul and drowned in cheese, mayo, cayenne pepper and grease or French fries, American-style sushi is quite exciting. There is a generous sprinkling of crisp fried onions, panko crumbs and dabs and squirts of spicy mayonnaise on sushi rolls.
At some point in the 1960s, Los Angeles, California became the entry point for sushi chefs from Japan seeking to make their fortune in the United States. At one of the first sushi bars in Los Angeles, too woo American palates, a sushi chef began substituting avocado (because of the oily texture) for oily tuna and after a bit more experimentation, the California roll came into being.
Traditionally sushi rolls are wrapped with seaweed on the outside but eventually sushi was made outside-in for Americans as they do not like to see and chew seaweed on the outside of their food. The roll soon became popular and other states decided to Americanise sushi further and came up with their own rich, fattening but delicious hybrid versions: hot crunchy crab and spicy crunch scallop rolls.
The menus at sushi restaurants are lengthy and, for novices, intimidating. Fun names like Spider Rolls and unfamiliar foreign words like futomaki only add to the confusion. There is octopus, eel and red clams; sushi named Out of Control and Incredible. Likewise, Sushi pizza, in salmon and tuna versions, The Sweetheart, Tiger Rolls and True Love rolls — who knows if McSushi is round the corner.
For those who want to retain the healthiness of sushi, stay clear of the trendy American versions. Here are some tips:
Skip the tempura rolls. “Tempura” is code for “fried”! The five lettered word which is a four-letter word for health freaks. Plus, the crisp texture becomes mushy when wrapped in a roll.
Forgo rice. Some restaurants can create rice-free wraps and instead use cucumber, soy-based wraps or just nori (seaweed). Ask at the restaurant if any such alternatives are available. Rice just bulks you up.
Limit the avocado. Though the fat in avocados is heart-healthy, the calories do add up fast. Also, the avocado flavour is often lost when combined with other ingredients.
Choose cucumber, carrots and spring onions or scallions. For crunch and flavour for almost no calories, ask for extra veggies in any roll.
Stick to two rolls. Though each roll only has eight to 10 bites, they contain up to 400 calories each, thanks to the cup of sushi rice in each one. Get one fancy roll and one basic roll, add miso soup or a simple salad, and you’ll be plenty full.
Stick with the basics. Fancy rolls tend to pile on caloric extras like cream cheese, tempura coating, and mayonnaise. Choose fish, brown rice and vegetables for a lighter meal or if you are making your own sushi.
Get the appetiser-size sashimi platter. Slices of raw fish are a great choice if you have the palate for it, but the typical platter has at least three servings. Share with a friend or get the appetiser portion.
For spice, choose wasabi. Spicy sauces that you want to lap up are usually mayonnaise based, so choose wasabi instead to save calories.
Go easy on the soy sauce. Choose low-sodium soy sauce, but use it sparingly. A tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce still has 25 per cent of your daily sodium.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 31, 2014