55 Savory Facts about Sushi

By Karin Lehnardt, Senior Writer
Published September 15, 2016Updated September 19, 2016
  • Sushi did not originate in Japan but in the rice-growing region of Southeast Asia over 2,000 years ago along the Mekong River. The technique then spread to other regions, specifically appearing in Japan around the 8th century AD.[13]
  • In AD 8th-century Japan, sushi was so highly prized that people were allowed to use it to pay taxes.[13]
  • The “authentic” sushi that is typically associated with traditional Japanese sushi is called Edomae-zushi. It is a relatively recent invention that was initially limited to the region around Tokyo.[14]
  • Scholars believe the word “sushi” comes from an older Japanese word meaning “tart” or “acid.”[11]
  • Sushi is traditionally a finger food
  • It is traditional to eat sushi with one’s fingers, not chopsticks. However, it is appropriate to eat sashimi, which is slices of raw fish, with chopsticks. Sushi should be eaten immediately and usually in one or two bites.[13]
  • During the Japanese internment of WW II, Japanese Americans were fed potatoes and processed meats, such as hot dogs or SPAM. While the prisoners disliked the potatoes, they ate the SPAM and adapted it into Japanese American food traditions, such as sushi. Today, SPAM-Nori—a SPAM- based sushi—is still popular.[2]
  • During the U.S. sushi boom in the late 20th century, bluefin tuna—a big costal fish sold for cat food a decade earlier—became a luxury item.[1]
  • In the 1985 cult movie Breakfast Club, rich girl Claire, played by Molly Ringwald, brings sushi for lunch, which adds to her “princess” status. Her raw-fish lunch highlights how sushi was both becoming more popular in America and also how it was initially seen as an elitist food.[11]
  • The term “sushi” originally referred to the fermented rice that was used to preserve fish.[16]
  • Sushi can be prepared with either brown or white rice, raw or cooked fish. Raw fish sliced and served alone is called sashimi (“pierced body”).[16]
  • Ancient sushi chefs would use nori, or roasted seaweed, to bind rice and fish together.[14]
  • Sushi chefs take as much care in choosing and preparing sushi rice as they do fish and shellfish.[2]
  • Sushi rice should not be dipped in soy sauce and it is considered sloppy if the rice becomes saturated and falls apart. Only the fish part of the roll should be dipped. Additionally, it is considered rude to remove the fish from the rice to dip it in the sauce. A sushi chef has undergone long training to put the sushi and rice together.[13]
  • As a rule, only the fish portion of the sushi should be dipped in soy sauce
  • Wasabi is traditionally from the root of the wasabia japonica plant. However, most wasabi in restaurants is a mix of green-dyed horseradish and mustard powder.[14]
  • Sushi rice is called sumeshi (vinegar-flavored rice) or shari. Shari literally means “Buddha’s remains” because the very white appearance of the rice reminded people of Buddha’s mortal remains.[14]
  • Sushi isn’t just about flavor. It is about the balance of flavor. The fish must complement the rice and vice versa. If sushi lacks balance, it is not good sushi. When sushi is balanced, it is considered oishii or “delicious.”[2]
  • About 99.99% of all sushi rice that is served in the United States was grown in the United States.[14]
  • According to tradition, Japanese sushi should provide a strong sense of the seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Consequently, many sushi chefs in Japan and America avoid out-of-season cultured fish. Fish are in season when they are tastiest and fattest, usually when they are preparing to spawn.[13]
  • Sushi should be eaten from light to dark, as dark sushi has a more heavy taste.[14]
  • June 18 is International Sushi Day.[14]
  • Early sushi chefs would pack fish in fermented rice. After months, the rice was thrown out and the fish was eaten alone. Only later, during the Muromachi period (1337–1573), would the rice be consumed with the fish. During the Edo (1603–1868) period, vinegar, rather than fermentation, was used to sour the rice.[13]
  • The modern style of sushi was created by Hanaya Yohei (1799–1858) in 1820 and was sold in fast food stalls. It was considered fast food because this type of sushi was not fermented and could be eaten with fingers or chopsticks. It was popular to eat in public or as a movie snack.[13]
  • There are six types of sushi: Chirashizushi (scattered sushi), Inarizushi (named after the Shinto god Inari), Makizushi (rolled sushi), Narezushi (matured sushi) Nigirizushi (hand-pressed sushi), and Oshizushi (pressed sushi).[13]
  • "Fugu" is the Japanese word for pufferfish
  • Fugu is a famous type of sushi made from puffer fish. Fugu is particularly difficult to prepare because the organs of the puffer fish produce a lethal neurotoxin that is 1,200 times more toxic than cyanide. Chefs must receive a special license to prepare fugu, and the emperor of Japan is forbidden from even tasting it.[14]
  • Bluefin tuna populations have dropped more than 96%, primarily due to increasing sushi demands. Most of the bluefin tuna fishing occurs off the coast of Japan, which has very few limits on tuna fishing.[21]
  • Ordinary, inexpensive fish used for sushi—such as sardine, mackerel, and horse mackerel—are caught in a net and then immediately placed in iced salt water that both kills and cools them.[13]
  • For expensive sushi fish—such as flounder, sea bass, sea bream, great amberjack, yellowtail, and tuna—ike-jime (proper slaughter) includes quickly cutting through the fish’s spinal column and aorta and then inserting a thin steel wire into the spinal column. This instantly kills the fish, and it is then placed in cold salt water for bleeding and cooling.[13]
  • Sushi became increasingly popular in the U.S. in the 1980s when Americans became more health conscious.[13]
  • The most expensive price ever for a sushi-grade bluefin tuna was $1.8 million for a 222-kilogram fish in Japan. Over 80% of the world’s declining tuna stock are eaten by the Japanese.[3]
  • While salt was initially used to preserve fish in ancient times, the salt hardened the fish. Using rice as well as salt helped better preserve the fish and imparted a pleasant, sharp, tart flavor. Additionally, the moist rice grains kept the fish tender and moist.[13]
  • Primitive sushi making is still practiced in some rural parts of Japan. For example, funa-zushi is made from local freshwater carp, which is pickled in rice and salt for a year. The strong smell and distinctive taste is compared to mature Roquefort cheese.[13]
  • The first American sushi bar was opened in the early 1960s by Noritoshi Kanai, a Japanese native who ran a food import business in Los Angeles.[13]
  • The California roll, or the inside-out roll, was the first American-born type of sushi.[13]
  • Sushi chefs have one of the most difficult training of all professional chefs. They must know how to prepare raw seafood, know which fish contain harmful parasites, and know how to eliminate parasites. They must also know about biochemical changes that happen after seafood is slaughtered.[14]
  • Women have only recently been allowed to become sushi chefs
  • Until recently, women were forbidden to work as sushi chefs because it was believed that their hair oil and makeup up would alter the taste and smell of sushi. Additionally women were thought to have a higher body temperature, especially during menstruation, and that their warm hands would spoil the chilled fish.[14]
  • A sushi chef (itamae or “in front of the board”) traditionally could work in a restaurant only after training for 10 years. However, modern sushi chiefs can start working after just 2 years of training.[14]
  • Approximately 80% of fresh bluefin tuna that is caught worldwide is made into sushi and sashimi.[21]
  • While sushi is high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, regularly eating sushi may lead to overexposure to mercury and an increased risk of heart disease. Larger fish—such as large tuna, swordfish, shark, and mackerel—have higher levels of mercury because they prey on smaller, contaminated fish.[4]
  • Some diseases that can be transmitted by eating sushi include herring worm, roundworms, and other human parasites. Sushi can also cause several bacterial infections.[7]
  • People with liver disorders or weakened immune systems—such as small children, the elderly, and pregnant women—should avoid eating sushi.[7]
  • A salmonella outbreak linked to raw tuna in sushi sickened over 50 people in 9 states in May 2015.[12]
  • Some people seemingly become addicted to sushi. Researchers believe it is because of the makeup of a fish’s muscle. Fish have a softer and smoother texture when prepared raw. Even when cooked, fish have a lighter feel than beef or chicken.[5]
  • Sushi contains fatty acids that can act as an aphrodisiac
  • Sushi is commonly thought of as an aphrodisiac because two common sushi fish, salmon and mackerel, are high in omega-3s, which are fatty acids that aid in sex-hormone production. Additionally, tuna is a source of selenium, which helps increase a male’s sperm count.[10]
  • The common saying about sushi is that it is like sex: “Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”[5]
  • “Sushi Monster” is a popular game created by Scholastic. It helps students practice addition and multiplication fluency. In the game, kids feed the monster numbered plates of sushi. Feeding the monster the wrong sushi causes him to have a temper tantrum.[18]
  • There are about 3,946 sushi restaurants in the U.S. Japan has about 45,000.[17]
  • A standard nigiri sushi roll contains about 350 calories, 10 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbs, 3 grams of unsaturated fat, and 0.5 grams of sodium.[14]
  • Sushi restaurants in the United States generate $2 billion in annual revenue.[19]
  • Sushi represents a “fifth taste” after salt, sweet, sour, and bitter. This fifth taste, or umami, is also found in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, meat, and kelp.[6]
  • The record for the largest sushi mosaic is 452 feet squared by 140 inches squared. It was created in Ono, Fukui, Japan, on January 31, 2015. Imitation crab meat and mackerel were used to make the tasty mosaic.[8]
  • The longest sushi roll ever created measured 2,521.74 meters (about 8,270 ft.) and was constructed in Russia in December 2011 at the Sushkof Restaurant.[9]
  • Eighty-six-year-old Jiro Ono is considered to be the world’s best sushi chief. Customers make reservations at his Tokyo restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, up to a year in advanced. His rice is described as a “cloud that explodes in your mouth.” He also holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s oldest three-Michelin star chef.[15]
  • Unlike American knives that are sharpened on both sides, sushi knives are sharp only on one side
  • Japanese chefs believe that a good sushi knife has a soul that was imbued by the craftsman who made, sharpened, and fitted the blade. Consequently, Japanese chefs treat their knives with the utmost care and respect, and professional chefs in Japan sharpen their knives every night after closing.[14]
  • Misao Okawa—who was the world’s oldest person until she died a few weeks after her 117th birthday in April 2015—said the secret to long life is “sleep and sushi.” Her favorite meal was sushi, specifically mackerel on vinegar-steamed rice.[20]
  • According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest mention of sushi in English is in an 1893 book titled Japanese Interiors, though there are sporadic references to sushi in other English sources dating back to 1873.[13]

1 Arnold, Joel. “The ‘Global Catch’ in Our Insatiable Taste for Sushi.” NPR. August 2, 2012. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

2 Baggett, Marisa. Sushi Secrets: Easy Recipes for the Home Cook. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2012.

3 Boehler, Patrick. “Japan: World’s Most Expensive Fish Sold for $1.8 Million.” Time. January 7, 2013.

4 Borreli, Lizette. “Too Much Sushi Could Increase Risk of Heart Disease, Counteract Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” Medical Daily. November 25, 2013. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

5 Fern, Ashley. “17 Reasons Scientists Say It’s Not Your Fault You’re Addicted to Sushi.” Elite Daily. January 29, 2015. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

6 Fleming, Amy. “Umami: Why the Fifth Taste Is So Important.” The Guardian. April 9, 2013. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

7 Koo, Ingrid. “Sushi Scares—Infectious Disease Associated with Eating Sushi or Raw Fish.” Infectious Diseases. Updated August 3, 2015. September 27, 2015.

8Largest Sushi Mosaic.Guinness World Records. 2015. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

9Longest Sushi Roll.” Guinness World Record.” 2015. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

10 Nersesian, Elise. “Feed Your Libido! Get the Better Sex Diet.” Today. November 19, 2009. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

11 O’Connell, Libby H. The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc, 2014.

12 Rocha, Veronica. “Salmonella Outbreak Possibly Linked to Sushi Spreads to Nine States.” Los Angeles Times. May 21, 2015. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

13 Shimbo, Hiroko. The Sushi Experience. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

14 Sone, Hiro and Lissa Doumani. A Visual Guide to Sushi-Making at Home. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2014.

15 Stern, Marlow. “Jiro Ono, Considered to Be the World’s Greatest Sushi Chef, Is Subject of New Documentary ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The Daily Beast. March 11, 2012. Accessed: September 26, 2015.

16Sushi Facts.” Sushi Sushi. 2015. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

17Sushi Industry Statistics.” Statistic Brain Research Institute. August 1, 2015. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

18Sushi Monster.” Common Sense Media. 2015. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

19Sushi Restaurants in the US: Market Research Report.” IBIS World. December 2014. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

20 Tan, Avianne. “World’s Oldest Person Turns 117, Reveals Secret to Long Life.” ABC News. March 5, 2015. Accessed: September 27, 2015.

21 Welsh, Jennifer. “Our Love of Sushi Has Nearly Killed Off the Bluefin Tuna.” Business Insider. January 11, 2013. Accessed: September 27, 2015.