What Does Sushi Taste Like?

Sushi is a Japanese staple originating from China as early as the 5th century BC. It’s enjoyed all over the world today and the variety of styles only continues to grow. From the traditional fish and rice to newer fusions involving fruit, potatoes, and even meat, everyone can find a type of sushi to fit their tastes.

Sushi (“sour rice” in Japanese) is a combination of vinegar-infused rice with a garnish, most often slices of fresh, raw fish. It’s usually combined with a crunchy or dense vegetable such as carrots or avocado to balance out the soft texture of the rice and fish. Sushi is served with soy sauce to add a salty profile to the dish as well as wasabi to add spice.

What is the Texture of Sushi

While the texture of sushi can vary greatly depending on the ingredients used, the balance of textures is arguably the most important part of the dish.

Sushi rice must be just the right balance between sticky and soft without losing its bite. Good sushi rice should be room temperature (or slightly warmer), sticky enough to not fall apart in your hands, and when bitten into should resemble a similar texture to “al dente” pasta.

When raw, the fish should be silky and melt in your mouth. This can vary depending on the type of fish used; for example, tuna and yellowtail are much more firm than salmon which is very soft and almost buttery. The fish must be cut at just the right angle so that the tendons hold the slice together without losing its tenderness.

In a roll, vegetables such as cucumber, cornichon, avocado, carrots, and even peppers are often used to add a bit more density or crunch to the bite. When combined with soft fish and slightly chewy rice, each bite of sushi should have a balanced variety of textures.

What Does Sushi Smell Like

Sushi shouldn’t smell very “fishy”. According to world-renowned sushi chef Hidekazu Tojo, a good sushi restaurant should smell just like cucumber or watermelon. The vast majority of fish for sushi is flash-frozen and, if properly stored, shouldn’t have a foul fish smell. If you walk into a sushi restaurant and get a strong whiff of fish, it’s a good sign that the fish is no longer fresh.

How Does Sushi Vary in Flavor

Nigiri

The most traditional type of sushi is known as nigiri. It’s a palm-sized scoop of sour sushi rice garnished with a slice of meat for an umami boost and brushed with a light layer of soy sauce to add a savory kick. If you like it spicy, a pea-sized ball of wasabi can be placed between the fish and rice for an earthy flavor with a potent burn.

Rolls

Known as “maki” (roll) or “uramaki” (inside out roll), sushi rolls take the three-ingredient combo from nigiri and take it a step further. Sushi rolls are wrapped in seaweed sheets called “nori”. This adds another layer of umami flavor and a slight scent of the ocean. 

Rolls often add vegetables to the fish and rice mixture to add more depth of texture. Below are some of the most common vegetables used in sushi rolls

  • Carrots – Add a crunchy and sweet, woody flavor to the roll.
  • Cucumbers – Add a fresh, slightly sweet flavor to the roll with a firm bite.
  • Avocados – Add a dense texture to the roll with a fatty, neutral flavor.
  • Bell Peppers – Add a slight crunch to the roll with a mild, earthy flavor.
  • Chilis – Add spice to the roll that burns in the mouth rather than the nasal burn of wasabi.

Sashimi

While not technically “sushi” due to a lack of rice, sashimi is thin, bite-sized slices of raw fish that are served plain or with very little garnish such as scallions or sesame seeds.

Sashimi can differ greatly in flavor depending on the type of fish used. Common fish for sashimi include

  • Red Tuna – Whether ahi, bluefin, or yellowfin, tuna is very distinct in flavor. It’s similar to a raw steak but far more subtle. It has subtle hints of creamy fat that make it a top pick for beginners.
  • White Tuna – Similar to red tuna in its creaminess but without the irony pungency of red tuna.
  • Salmon – Silky and buttery, a good cut of salmon should nearly melt in your mouth. The flavors of the flesh are very subtle and reminiscent of the ocean, while the fat marbling lends a rich, smooth bite.
  • Smoked Salmon – Smoked salmon is worlds apart from fresh salmon. It has the deepest umami flavor out of any sashimi and has a noticeable, salty punch. The bite is similar in silkiness to salmon but far softer.
  • Yellowtail – Also known as “hamachi”, yellowfin is similar to tuna but much cleaner. Its opaque, white flesh with a hue of pink is very light on the fishy flavor but makes up for it with a fatty, yet subtle flavor similar to olive oil.
  • Squid & Octopus – Grouped together due to their similar flavor and texture, both squid and octopus have a very subtle flavor that can be difficult to detect for a beginner. Both have a very firm, chewy bite that some would call rubbery. The biggest difference between the two is that octopus is typically boiled to add a slight bit of tenderness to the bite.

Final Thoughts

Sushi is an iconic dish and a Japanese staple that’s enjoyed across the globe. Its sour, chilled rice mixes perfectly with the subtle flavors and soft texture of fresh fish and can be made even better with the earthy flavor and crunch of vegetables or peppers.

Sushi can be made with a variety of toppings from sweet strawberry and almond sushi rolls to spicy chili and cilantro rolls. You can even get sushi rolls without the rice that use thinly sliced cucumber or radish for a fresh flavor without the sourness of the vinegar rice.

That being said, it’s important to sample a variety of different rolls or styles of sushi before deciding whether or not you like it.