Why is Ginger Served with Sushi?
Whether you’ve eaten sushi with wise old men in Japan or you’re currently staring down at your prepackaged mid-level grocery store California roll, you’ve likely noticed the little piles of pink and green. No matter what you’ve chosen to do with your colorful sushi condiments, you’re probably doing it wrong.
But first things first. Before we talk sushi rules, we’re here to ask (and answer) the good old question, why is ginger served with sushi?
Gari, Otherwise Known as Sushi Ginger
For now, you can dismiss the green paste on your plate (we’ll get to that later). Before you start stuffing your pie hole (or rather, your sushi hole), we want to talk ginger, specifically gari. Gari is the pink stuff sitting unassumingly on your plate (or perhaps carry-out container), off to the side. It is a type of tsukemono, which literally translates from Japanese to “pickled things.” What kind of things, you ask? It is sweet, young ginger, that has been marinated in a solution of sugar and vinegar. It has been thinly sliced and neatly stacked for your consumption and most importantly, for your sushi experience.
Why Ginger is Served with Sushi
Gari is considered an essential element in the presentation of sushi, and as far as sushi is concerned, presentation is a pretty big deal. Even in that cheap grocery store California roll you bought thousands of miles from Japan, you’ll see the remnants of presentation custom in the decorative green divider separating your sushi from its condiments. But gari is not simply there for its pretty in pink looks.
In the traditional style of presenting sushi at the authentic sushi bar, the chef serves just one or two pieces of nigiri (a style of sushi that consists of an oval-shaped ball of rice topped with a slice of fish) at a time. Who better to dictate a sushi experience than the man who knows the most about his ingredients from what’s fresh to what tastes best? With every small serving comes the presentation of a specially chosen fish or shellfish, each of which has its own flavor profile. But the differences can be subtle. So subtle, in fact, that to fully appreciate the tasting menu the chef has cultivated, it helps to have a clean palate between each sampling. And how, you ask, do you achieve that clean and finely tuned palate? The answer is gari. The acidic spiciness of pickled ginger is a near perfect antidote to the tastes of seafood. In traditional sushi consumption, the gari serves as a palate cleanser between “courses.”
Ginger is also known for its many health benefits. From easing digestion to combating nausea to relief from pain of arthritis, ginger has long been used therapeutically. But if you’re turning to your gari to provide some GI relief, you might want to reconsider where you’re getting your sushi…
So Why is It Pink?
Sushi is all about the experience: its taste and its presentation. So why not make the ginger that accompanies each piece pink? Unfortunately, it’s not just about aesthetics. When traditionally prepared, gari typically has a pale yellow to slightly pink hue from the pickling process, but only very young ginger will develop that slight pink tint. Young ginger is generally preferred for the making of gari because of its tender flesh and natural sweetness. So why the almost neon pink color Americans are so accustomed to seeing? In the best case, it’s the result of very young ginger. In the less than best case, it’s the result of commercial production that has utilized artificial coloring either to intensify the color or because the ginger used was simply too mature to naturally turn pink upon pickling.
How to Use Your Sushi Ginger (Properly)
Yes, there are rules. Lots of them. But we’ll stick to those that concern your sushi accoutrement. We have already learned that gari is meant to be used as a palate cleanser. But what about all those sushi connoisseurs who pile those tender young ginger slices on their sushi before taking a bite? Well, that’s a no go. Almost all sushi etiquette is focused on not offending your table mates or the sushi chef. Not only is putting ginger on your sushi considered a misuse, but it could easily suggest to the chef that you do not appreciate his art. Your chef has crafted your sushi with balance in mind both in flavor and texture – so don’t ruin it with heaping mounds of, well anything. Instead, politely take a bite of gari between different pieces of sushi to cleanse the palate. Your mouth and sushi chef will thank you.
Read this article and now suffer from fear of improper sushi etiquette? Check out this page out for more sushi tips. And whatever you do, go easy on the soy sauce…