Gone are the days when Sushi elicited disgusted expressions. A proliferation of Japanese restaurants in the city has opened foodies to new gastronomic possibilities

In the not-so-distant past, the mention of sushi would have elicited disgusted expressions and cries of “I wouldn’t touch smelly raw fish with a ten-foot pole”. This, despite the fact that sushi is not actually raw fish (that would be sashimi) and doesn’t have the smell associated with fish. But nowadays, Bangaloreans have become more open and ready to try out new cuisines, as can be witnessed by the proliferation of Japanese restaurants in the city.

What has made sushi so popular in recent times? Probably it is the fact that it is one of the healthiest foods around. Says food blogger Ruth D’Souza Prabhu, “I like sushi because I find it light on the palate and on the stomach. A single platter can give you an entire meal in terms of fish, meat, vegetables and more. Also, all the ingredients used are fresh and it is often rolled in front of you. If you eat at the right place, it doesn’t matter if the seafood you are eating is raw or not.”

Hiroshi Sakamoto, who manages a Japanese restaurant, concurs. “Stale or even slightly rotten fish can be passed off as palatable when fried or cooked with lots of masala. But you can’t do that with sushi, as no oil or spices are used. Only fresh fish of particular kind, like tuna, halibut, salmon or red snapper, can be used.”

Sushi as we know it today originated as fast food on Tokyo’s streets in the early 19th century. Street vendor Yohei Hanaya is said to have put slices of fresh fish on top of blocks of vinegar rice to satisfy his hungry customers, thus creating the first nigiri sushi. World War II spread sushi across Japan, and an enterprising chef brought it to American shores in the form of the California roll, a sushi roll of cucumber, crab meat and avocado. The California roll’s popularity served to initiate Westerners into the more traditional types of sushi and led to an explosion of Japanese restaurants across the globe, attracting celebrity fans like Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name a few.

Most sushi are named for the shapes in which they are created. The most common type is makizushi- sushi rolls wrapped in nori (seaweed). Other popular sushi are nigirizushi- hand-pressed rectangular mounds of rice topped with fish, temaki which is conical and uramaki (inside-out), which has rice surrounding the seaweed. Chirazisushi, a bowl of sushi rice topped with sashimi and vegetables, is a common dish in Japanese households.

As sushi travelled the world, chefs began adapting it to regional food styles, using local ingredients and flavours to create new types of sushi. Meat is not a traditional ingredient of sushi, but many chefs use chicken, pork and beef in their rolls.

“One of the most memorable sushi I’ve had,” says Ruth, “is a surf and turf maki roll- a filling of rice, avocado, crabmeat and salmon rolled in thin slices of beef, topped off with Japanese mayo and tempura crisps. It was quite a mouthful, and absolutely delicious.”

Japanese restaurants in India often get requests to customize sushi to Indian palates. “I have had customers asking for avocado sauce or mango sauce with their sushi,” says Sakamoto, “which actually makes for an interesting combination of flavours. Tropical fruits like mango and passion fruit, not found much in Japan, go surprisingly well with sushi.”

Indians living in metros, brought up on a surfeit of food-based television shows such as Top Chef and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, are venturing beyond pasta and manchurian to try new cuisines, and Japanese seems to be the most exotic kid on the block.