Rice is to sushi, as bread is to sandwiches

Look at that rice. Katsugo-tai (Young Japanese Seabream)

I first heard it from my uncle: “The basis of good sushi is the rice. If the rice isn’t good, then the sushi isn’t good.” I was surprised, honestly. Given the variety and choices over the fish, it seemed logical that the fish toppings are the stars of the show — as they’re what’s usually featured. It’s not like the menu ever offers different varieties of rice.

Sushi is a simple concept — simple enough that people spend years going deep into each of its simple parts. A sushi apprentice for restaurants in Japan can spend his first year just making rice, before they can be allowed to touch the fish. At first, I thought this was just a part of the hazing newbies get in a craft with a long tradition. But given rice is considered to be so important in good sushi, it’s a way for novice chefs to get their footing with a solid base and basics before moving on to the flourishes of toppings.

Making sushi rice. Source
You absolutely cannot make delicious sushi if the vinegared rice isn’t at body temperature. — Jiro Ono from Chapter 5 of Sushi Chef: Sukiyabashi Jiro

Some sushi restaurants go as far as finding specific varieties of rice and making their own blend. Some use specific sources of water, or water filtered with coal. Some swear by hand adjusted wood-fired rice cooking, whereas others use an electric rice cooker. And it seems almost everyone completely discards the bottom layer of rice in a cooker, because it’s impacted; hence unsuitable for making nigiri.

But is it really true? Does the rice make or break a piece of sushi? Perhaps a good starting point is a quip on reddit:

Rice is to sushi, as bread is to sandwiches — InsaneNinja
Look at that bread. Source

Like many here in the United States, I had eaten my share of sandwiches and had even made a couple for myself. For the most part, they were uninspired and the way by which I filled my belly during lunch before headed back to work. Given the story about the Earl of Sandwiches, I never gave too much thought to bread other than a way to eat meat without getting my hands dirty.

But I distinctly remember the first time I had a sandwich that made me pay attention to it, because it tasted phenomenal. The bread had give, but it wasn’t too soft. It was toasted, and the edge was chewy and dusty. And more importantly, it smelled like a bakery where it was warm and toasty. Every bite I took, the bread added an extra note and contrast to the meat, lettuce, and tomatoes.

A sandwich enthusiast.

Given Keanu Reeves is a well-known sandwich enthusiast, I couldn’t find him talking about what makes a good sandwich, as much as I tried. But according to Serious Eats:

Starting with good bread is something our experts unanimously agreed on. “If you’ve got great bread, you’ve got a great sandwich — it really is half the battle,” says Charles Kelsey, of Boston’s Cutty’s.

So I might not be far off there. If the bread isn’t good enough to eat by itself, it’s not good enough for a great sandwich. But that’s only the base, as it’s the balance of the bread with the meat, vegetables, and condiments that make for a great sandwich. [1]

And so it is with sushi. I think what my uncle was trying to say about sushi rice is what people say about sandwich bread. If the rice isn’t good enough to eat on its own, it’s not good enough to be eaten with sushi. Just as there’s a world of a difference between fresh and stale bread, there’s the same yawning gap between freshly made rice held at body temperature, and rice made hours ago that was allowed to cool.

Different varieties of rice. Source: Fuki’s guide to making sushi rice

That said, not all sushi restaurants in the United States do this, since collectively, we don’t know to demand it. Some places make a huge batch in the morning, and use it through out the day. Some places allow their rice to cool, and sometimes get dry and grainy. And like stale bread on a sandwich, stale rice distracts from an otherwise fantastic fish.

I personally like warm rice that makes a sharp contrast with the cool fish. The rice is fluffy and loosely clumped together, but not packed too tight. When I put the nigiri sushi in my mouth, I taste the fish first, then the soy sauce and wasabi come into play moments later. Soon after, the texture of the rice as it spread out over my mouth adds to my enjoyment of the toppings, as the more subtle smell of rice rounds out the experience.

You might have a different relationship to sushi rice. But the next time you’re at a sushi restaurant that serves warm rice with cool sushi, pay attention, and see if you like it much better.

A more rigorous set of step
Or if you just sushi at home

Liked what you read? Get it in your inbox.


One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.