Sushi already has a lot going for it. It’s tasty, one of the quickest, most easily accessible contact points for Japanese culture, and with its extensive use of raw fish, a boon for those who can’t cook anything without burning it.
Even better, almost every ingredient that goes into or is traditionally eaten alongside sushi is bursting with health benefits, right down to the cup of green tea of green tea that generally caps off the meal.
Let’s start with at most obvious point, the nutritional value of fish. While “sushi” doesn’t technically refer to raw fish (that’s what the word sashimi is for), nobody goes out to eat sushi in Japan and spends the whole time eating nothing but egg and cucumber rolls. Fish always makes an appearance in sushi meals, which means plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, lauded by nutritionists for their neurological and cardiovascular health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels and preventing high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries. Sardines, mackerel, and salmon are all particularly high in omega-3 content, and all are also mainstays of sushi restaurants around the globe.
Like we said, the word sushi doesn’t mean raw fish–the term is actually used for a mixture of rice and vinegar. In a sort of perpetual grain loop, the vinegar itself is derived from rice, as well. Rice vinegar has strong antibacterial effects and is also believed to lower blood pressure, and shows up in a variety of other Japanese dishes as well.
Although it’s often ignored by Westerners, a helping of gari, or pickled ginger, is an intrinsic part of an authentic sushi meal. Conveyor-belt sushi restaurants usually even have canisters of the stuff sitting on the counter for customers to help themselves to.
Although its culinary purpose is to act as a palate cleanser between different types of sushi (and not for dipping in your soy sauce!), the nutrients in gari are also effective in fighting off cold viruses.
It’s customary to dip each piece of sushi into a saucer of soy sauce before placing the morsel in your mouth, and here again there’s reason for both your mouth and body to be happy. Nutritionally, soy sauce is high in both iron and protein. It also aids digestion, and is highly effective in killing infection-causing colon bacillus.
Although you won’t find it in each and every piece of sushi, nori, or dried seaweed, is used to hold together the ingredients in sushi rolls, as well as give shape to the squat pieces referred to as gunkan sushi, as pictured below.
Nori is a metabolism booster, and is also rich in vitamins, minerals, and iodine. While that last element may set off images of the problems that can come from an overabundance of it, a certain minimum amount is actually necessary, as deficiencies can lead to various physical and even mental disorders.
We mentioned soy sauce above, and while the condiment is flavorful enough on its own, it’s traditional to add a dollop of the paste made from the root vegetable wasabi. Sushi chefs will also often insert a pinch of it into the rice for each individual piece they knead.
Wasabi is fiery stuff, and in recent years an increasing number of even Japanese diners have been ordering their sushi sabi nuki, or without wasabi. They’d be wise to leave it in place, though, as wasabi not only provides vitamin C, it also has antibacterial properties that come in handy when consuming raw fish.
Finally, green tea, the quintessential Japanese beverage, has tannins that are good for your digestive tract. It’s also loaded with catechin antioxidants, and is believed to be effective in eliminating the bacteria vibrio, one of the leading causes of food poisoning.
So remember, no matter how nice a mug of ice-cold Ebisu beer or porcelain bottle of Japanese sake might taste with sushi (and believe us, they’re both great), make sure to finish off a cup of green tea, too, before you head home.