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Nutrition Smarts

Sushi Smarts

When Americans think of Japanese food, they usually think of sushi. Interestingly enough, in Japan sushi is mainly eaten on special occasions. But in this country, sushi is becoming an increasingly popular choice for a restaurant meal any day of the week. This unique cuisine, which is centered on rice and fish, offers many healthful choices.

"In the past 20 years, more casual-type sushi restaurants have opened in Japan, but it has been a special meal for the Japanese for a long time," says Kazuhiro Okochi, chef/owner of the acclaimed Kaz Sushi Bistro restaurant in Washington, D.C. His family used to go for sushi once or twice a year when he was a kid. Now he serves sushi to lunch and dinner crowds in his bustling downtown bistro, with plenty of repeat customers.

Sushi is as simple as it is special. "You eat fish and rice," sums up the sushi chef.

Sushi 101

Sushi is the name for the special rice that is used, but it has also become the blanket term for the cuisine. Sushi rice is flavored with vinegar, salt and a lot of sugar (hidden calories to keep in mind). Three of the most common kinds of sushi are:

Nigiri: Bite-sized pieces of sushi rice topped with Japanese horseradish (wasabi) and a slice of raw or cooked seafood. Nigiri is Japanese for "grab."
Sashimi: Raw fish sliced into bite-sized fillets and served solo, often with rice on the side.
Maki: Rice and seaweed rolls with fish and/or vegetables.

Flounder, different varieties of tuna, salmon, scallops, shrimp and clams are some of the fish and shellfish you will usually find on the sushi menu. Seafood is largely high in protein, vitamins and minerals and low in artery-clogging saturated fat. It is also a fabulous source of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that can promote heart health. Experts recommend eating fish twice a week to get heart benefits.

Soy Sorry

When you go out for sushi, you are always given a little dish on the side for soy sauce to flavor your food. Soy sauce is full of sodium, so health-wise it is better to use it sparingly. Chef Okochi says that this is a good idea taste-wise as well

"When you come to the sushi bar, you should realize that if you really dip into the soy sauce, you're getting a lot of sodium," he says. "Balance is especially important for our cuisine. If you use too much soy sauce it destroys the balance."

Some of his dishes don't need soy at all. And the chef adds a little broth, sugar or sweet sake to his soy sauce to get more flavor, so diners don't need as much.

Here's a helpful tip: A lot of people don't realize that when they eat nigiri, they should put a touch of soy sauce on the fish portion--not on the rice portion, which can make it fall apart.

Sushi Veggies

In Japan, sushi is traditionally served with small amounts of cucumbers (kappa), plum paste (shiso), marinated gourd (kanypo) and pickled radish (oshinko). "The expectation is that you are going to eat fish and rice," says Chef Okochi.

However, many Japanese restaurants in America have adopted the Western custom of serving salad with delicious results. Seaweed salads, spinach and other green salads with Asian influences are some of the veggie must-haves you'll find on the menu.

In addition, nutritious, heart-healthy avocados are ingredients in many sushi rolls, and there is often veggie sushi for the choosing.

The sushi bar also offers an opportunity to explore and enjoy soy foods. Steamed soybeans in the pod, known as edamame, and miso soup, made with fermented soybean paste, are two options. In addition, tofu appears in a range of dishes.

Soy foods are low in calories and fat and high in fiber. Soy protein can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. Soy foods are also rich in folate and contain disease-fighting phytochemicals. So for good health, go heavy on the soy foods, not the soy sauce!

— Leila Corcoran


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