The more you know, the tastier it is! Complete Information on Sushi Ingredients – Gunkanmaki and Others Edition
If you know about sushi ingredients, then you can enjoy sushi even more. For ingredients that crumble easily, they're not used in nigirizushi, but wrapped in nori above vinegared rice in a style called "gunkanmaki." Here is some information about popular gunkanmaki sushi like uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe), as well as other sushi ingredients like anago (conger eel) and shrimp.
What is gunkanmaki?
When most people think of sushi, they think of nigirizushi, which is sashimi placed on a bed of rice. However, ingredients that fall apart easily like fish eggs or aemono (chopped fish, shellfish, or vegetables in a sauce) are very hard to make into nigirizushi, so they're made into gunkanmaki. Gunkanmaki sushi uses nori seaweed as a container to keep everything inside, and the flavor of the nori is an addition to the flavor that can't be found in nigirizushi. There are many kinds of gunkanmaki, but here are some standard types you can find at most sushi restaurants.
Uni (Sea Urchin), Ikura (Salmon Roe), Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe) Gunkanmaki
Uni is always a popular sushi ingredient that has been eaten in Japan since ancient times, and is considered one of Japan's top three delicacies. It's characterized by a sweet creaminess that you wouldn't expect from its harsh appearance. The species mostly used in Japan are bafun uni (Hemicentrotus) and murasaki uni (sea urchin), and bafun uni from Hokkaido has an especially rich flavor. Lately, more shops are beginning to offer uni nigirizushi rather than gunkanmaki.
Ikura is also a popular ingredient. They're salmon eggs, and they're made into gunkanmaki after being pickled in sweet soy sauce. The texture of the eggs popping as you eat them is what makes it so popular. Their season is in the fall, and their best-known production area is Hokkaido.
Tobiko are the eggs of flying fish pickled in salt. They're smaller than ikura, and are a translucent yellow. They can also be pickled in soy sauce for gunkanmaki. They mostly come from Mie.
*Photo on top is of uni (closer) and ikura in the back. The bottom photo is of tobiko.
Negitoro (Tuna Minced with Leek) Gunkanmaki
The really fatty parts of tuna, a popular sushi topping, are minced into a paste, and mixed with chopped leek. It used to be a rare sushi because it's made from shavings taken from under the skin and between bones, but thanks to the evolution in technology, you can now have it at affordable prices even at conveyor belt sushi restaurants. There are restaurants that still make it using the original manual method, so if you go to one, definitely try it!
Anago (Conger Eel), Unagi (Freshwater Eel)
The following ingredients don't fall into the categories of shiromi (white-fleshed fish), akami (red lean meat), or hikarimono (sliced fish with the silver skin left on). First is anago, an ingredient representative of sushi. It's best in the summer, and sometimes it's included in shiromi. There are various types, but in Japan, the most common one is ma-anago (whitespotted conger). The cooking techniques vary by region, with Kanto usually stewing it and Kansai often grilling it. As sushi, it's frequently topped with a concentrated sauce. The fluffy texture and the sweetness of the meat makes it a delicious ingredient.
Unagi has a similar long, skinny appearance like anago. It's more often eaten as kabayaki (dipped and broiled in a thick soy sauce-based sauce) than sushi, so in the past it wasn't often seen as nigirizushi, but in recent years it's become available at conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
*Photo above is anago, photo below is unagi.
An octopus is a many-legged mollusk, and the type most often used in sushi is the madako (common octopus). It's said that the octopus from the Seto Inland Sea and Osaka Bay are best in summer, while those from Tokyo Bay are most delicious in winter. The octopus caught in the Akashi Strait is the highest class of octopus. Usually, they're boiled, and it's a delicious ingredient with the perfect amount of chewiness and sweetness. There are also other types like mizudako (North Pacific giant octopus) which is often eaten raw, and the small iidako (ocellated octopus).
Squid is another multi-legged mollusk like octopus that is a standard ingredient in sushi. There are various types, including surume ika (Japanese common squid), kouika (golden cuttlefish), hotaru ika (firefly squid), yari ika (spear squid), aori ika (bigfin reef squid), and depending on the type, the texture, flavor, and sweetness varies. The most common kind is the surume ika, and it can be enjoyed all year round.
Shrimp are eaten all over the world, and they're also popular as a sushi ingredient. There is an incredible amount of shrimp types, like botan ebi (botan shrimp), amaebi (northern shrimp), kuruma ebi (Japanese tiger prawn), and more. Botan ebi and amaebi are eaten raw, while some shrimp usually served boiled are black tiger shrimp, Mexican brown shrimp, and kuruma ebi, though the varieties used vary by restaurant. Shrimp are most delicious in the winter, and the shiroebi from Toyama has gained plenty of attention.
Shako (Mantis Shrimp)
Since shako used to be caught often in Tokyo Bay, it became a standard ingredient in sushi. However, since the amount being caught has reduced, it is now a luxury ingredient. It's best in the summer, and since it's in the shrimp family, it has the characteristic sweetness of crustaceans. Many people say it tastes like an in-between of shrimp and crab.
Crab can be enjoyed all year round, thanks to the different seasons of the many types of crab available, such as zuwaigani (snow crab), tarabagani (red king crab), aburagani (blue king crab), Hanasakigani (spiny king crab), and kegani (horsehair crab). Generally, they're boiled and used in nigirizushi or shredded and made into gunkanmaki. Lately, some restaurants have offered shredded crab and uni mixed with a dressing as a nigirizushi. This is an ingredient that only gets more exciting as time passes.
This egg is made by adding dashi (soup stock made from kelp and fish), soy sauce, salt, sugar, and other ingredients to eggs and cooked using time and effort. It's said that by eating their egg sushi, you can understand the true skill of the chef at the sushi restaurant. It's great as a palate cleanser or as a savory dessert. It's popular with kids. It's usually offered as nigirizushi, but since some of the vinegared rice often gets into the gaps of the egg, it may also be offered alone.
There are plenty of other sushi ingredients as well, and the same ingredient may have an entirely different flavor depending on the restaurant. Please discover your favorite sushi!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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