If you have ever eaten at a specialist Japanese sushi restaurant or bought a pack of sushi rolls in a disposable bento box, chances are that you have also been served a small cluster of pale pink or yellow Japanese pickles alongside. This is sushi ginger.
There are two main varieties of Japanese pickled ginger currently utilised in Japanese cuisine. One kind, known in Japanese as beni shoga, is made by pickling thin strips of ginger in plum vinegar. It has a sharp, dominating flavour, and is used to garnish hearty savoury dishes like beef donburi (gyudon) or yakisoba noodles. The culinary purpose of beni shoga is to provide a strong flavour contrast. Sushi ginger, on the other hand, is made by marinating flat strips of young ginger in vinegar and sugar, giving it a far sweeter, milder flavour than beni shoga. Known in Japanese as sushi gari, or just gari, sushi ginger is considered a vital component in the traditional presentation of sushi, and it serves the dual purpose of masking any raw fish smells present in sushi restaurants, and cleansing the palate in between different sushi courses.
Sushi ginger is traditionally made using young ginger, as it is both the tenderest and the most naturally sweet. When young ginger is pickled it turns slightly pink; a feature that has now come to be sought after with pickled sushi ginger. Nowadays what normally makes sushi ginger pink is the use of food colourings, although some makers will forego these and sell older pickled ginger in its natural pale yellow colour. The best-tasting sushi ginger sticks to the traditional method and specially selects young ginger for a natural pink tinge.
Read on to find out more about Japanese sushi ginger, including how to properly eat sushi ginger and how to make sushi ginger for yourself. Alternatively, explore japancentre.com’s Pickles section for top-quality sushi ginger products.
Like many Japanese foods, there is a traditional, ‘correct’ way to eat sushi ginger. You may have witnessed people piling sushi ginger onto their maki rolls or nigiri pieces before digging in. This is incorrect, and as well as defeating the sushi ginger’s original purpose of cleansing the palate, it might suggest that the consumer does not appreciate the efforts the sushi chef has made to make their sushi as delicious as possible.
In traditional Japanese sushi restaurants, sushi is delivered in a series of courses, with only one or two pieces being served at a time. Each sushi ‘course’ will carry differences in flavour, but these differences are often so subtle that they are unnoticeable unless the consumer cleanses their palate between each course.
The acidity and spiciness of sushi ginger makes it an almost perfect palate cleanser to the full-bodied, umami flavours of raw seafood. Therefore, in order to fully appreciate the different sushi flavours, a small bite of sushi ginger should be eaten between each dish.
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