Get Hooked on Sushi: Tips and Recipes

Go ahead, dive into that sushi platter - and stay safe doing it.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

As an advocate of all foods rich in omega-3s, I see sushi as a wonderful opportunity to eat fish and get a good dose of these healthy fatty acids. Of course, I'm also a food safety fanatic, so I only order sushi made with cooked fish -- but more on that later.

Ordering sushi is a visual treat as well as a taste experience. At a good sushi bar or restaurant, attention is paid not only to the combination of flavors, but to the presentation of each dish. The sushi itself is beautiful to behold, and so is the speed and mastery of the chef behind the sushi bar.

There are several different types of sushi: nigiri sushi (in which mounds of sticky rice are wrapped or layered with seafood and other ingredients); maki sushi (in which sticky rice and other ingredients are rolled into a cylinder, using thin sheets of dried seaweed); and then there is sashimi (sliced raw fish, served with a variety of condiments).

Speaking of condiments, there are three no sushi platter is complete without: soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger. Pickled ginger, you ask? Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it! These mild-tasting, pretty pink slices have a purpose -- they help to cleanse the palate and offer relief from the spicy wasabi. Wasabi is basically Japanese horseradish, and it's HOT, HOT, HOT! It comes as a powder that you make into a thick, bright green paste by adding liquid.

Many people blend some of the wasabi with soy sauce to make a tasty dipping sauce for their sushi. I'm a purist though (and a hot-spicy wimp), so I top each slice of sushi with a slice of the pickled ginger that I've dipped into the soy sauce.

Sushi in the Raw

How risky is the raw fish in sushi? California Health Services researchers recently studied seven risky foods that can carry infections, and what should appear on their list? You guessed it: raw fresh fish.

Properly prepared and handled sushi fish is safer than other raw fish, but it's obviously not as safe as cooked fish, says Erica Weis, a research scientist with the California Department of Health Services.

The good news: According to Phillip Spiller, former director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Seafood, generally, seafood is very safe to eat. He says that on a pound-for-pound basis, seafood is at least as safe as other meat sources. But he adds that no food is completely safe.

The bad: If you do encounter raw fish parasites, the effects can range from mild discomfort to severe illness, depending on the type of worm you ingest, according to the Environmental Nutrition newsletter. If the culprit is a tapeworm, fluke, or flatworm, you may not even know it until it passes out in your stool. Or you might experience nausea, cramps, and diarrhea.

And the ugly: If the worm you swallow is the roundworm (Anisakis simplex), it may tickle your throat as it is swallowed, causing you to cough or vomit it up. Or it can bore into your stomach or gut lining, causing severe abdominal inflammation and pain that mimics appendicitis or an ulcer, often within an hour of eating. Getting the worm out at this point is no simple matter - it requires an endoscope or surgery.

The cure: Commercial freezing for at least 72 hours at 4 degrees Fahrenheit kills the parasitic worms and their larvae. Please note, though, that home freezers usually can't reach temperatures this low.

So what's a sushi lover to do?

  • Order sushi from reputable restaurants, where the restaurant and fish provider follow food safety standards. You can ask if the fish has been previously frozen.
  • Completely cooked is always the safest way to eat fish
  • The FDA recommends that you don't risk eating raw fish if you're pregnant or have a compromised immune system.
  • Don't make your own sushi with raw fish unless you can freeze the fish for more than 72 hours at 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead, use cooked fish or vegetables. For example, California roll (see recipe below) is made with avocado and cooked crabmeat.

Roll Your Own Sushi

Here's a recipe for "sticky rice" that you can use in any sushi dish, along with a recipe for the popular California roll sushi.

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