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I love sushi. Those who know me know that all too well. There is a reason I stopped just a little short of becoming a vegetarian. Yet people, probably the majority of people, are either weirded out by sushi or frightened of trying it in light of recent news stories.
Sushi was created, originally, as a preservation mechanism. Sushi as it’s known today was invented by Hanaya Yohei, who used freshly caught fish from the bays surrounding the city of Edo, and marinated them in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar. Nigirizushi–sushi defined as a layer of fish on top of a small, pressed block of seasoned rice–originated in Tokyo. Other types of sushi include temaki (hand rolls) and makizushi (rolled sushi).
Here are the two arguments that deter people from trying sushi. The first is the all-encompassing “it’s raw fish” argument. The second is the mercury content. Should we be scared?
Sushi-grade fish has to be of a higher quality and freshness than other fish, obviously, and it takes a trained eye to know how to handle the fish. The argument among sushi critics is that raw fish means there is a high risk of bacterial contamination. Yes, that’s true, if it’s not handled well. The fish, as a matter of procedure, is flash frozen to kill most bacteria. Then during preparation, there are two modes of defense. The first is the vinegar. Vinegar is combined with rice to impart both flavor and a slight antimicrobial effect. The second is wasabi–a condiment often served with sushi–is a strong antibacterial agent. Here’s a journal article investigating its effects on Helicobacter pylori, a particulary nasty bacterium linked to stomach ulcers:
Ginger, often served in thin slices alongside sushi, is a great antimicrobial and antiparasitic as well.
The second concern, mercury, is a bit harder to tackle. The New York Times ran an article earlier in the year, revealing that sushi samples from several top notch sushi restaurants in Manhattan were found to have levels of mercury far greater than recommended, or expected:
Here’s the thing. It’s just tuna sushi, for the most part, that happens to contain a high amount of methylmercury. Methylmercury is regular, old, elemental mercury (Hg) that, generally after being metabolized by oceanic bacteria (since a lot of mercury ends up washing out to sea), ends up with that methyl group. This methyl group makes it much more readily absorbed in organisms. The mercury content in organisms is also amplified as one goes up the food chain, not unlike say, DDT. Hence tuna, the top of its food chain (or near the top) once consumed by humans, delivers a high dose of methylmercury.
The issue, therefore, is not that all sushi has mercury but that certain types of fish do. Tuna is one culprit, as well as any other so-called predatory fish near the top of their respective food chains. So long as one doesn’t have tuna sushi all day, everyday, they’re in the clear. Maybe once every two weeks, max. Otherwise, other sushi is generally all right. The FDA does put out a list of fish and their respective mercury contents, it can’t hurt to use that as a guide if you are worried.
Oh and if you’re worried about pufferfish? I don’t think many restaurants, if any at all, serve it in the U.S. If you want to go out on a limb and try it, just be careful. The issue with pufferfish is tetrodotoxin which, while generally removed from properly prepared pufferfish, has the potential to kill within minutes. Yet the thrill, I guess, is in cheating death.
So why do I like sushi? Oddly enough I didn’t always like fish, mostly because fish smelled and tasted…well…fishy. Not the case with sushi. Assuming you don’t like fish as it’s normally prepared, this is a valid alternative. The omega-3 fatty acids in many types of fish make fish an ideal addition to one’s diet. Plus, at least for me, it got me more interested in fish in general, sushi or cooked.
To end off, I leave you with an informative and hilarious video a friend sent me a while back detailing traditional rituals when going out for sushi in Japan: