Supermarket sushi is a $750 million industry.
It’s a third of all sushi sales in dollars, but since it’s the cheap stuff, it’s more like half of all the sushi we eat. There’s another $75 million in sales at drug stores, dollar stores, convenience markets, and gas stations (that’s right, gas station sushi is a thing), and it all adds up to a pre-made, pre-packaged sushi majority.
At the more rarified end of sushi, there’s attention to every detail of taste, temperature, texture, and timing. A good chef even plates the sushi precisely to accommodate right- or left-handed chopstick users. At a more relaxed and informal operation, the chef may not bow to every tradition of authentic sushi, but there should still be artful construction and a passion for freshness.
A supermarket, even the most well-intentioned, just can’t compete. There are too few qualified sushi chefs, too many health code restrictions, and endless compromises to the demands of scale and convenience. Even when it’s pretty good, supermarket sushi always falls way short of the mark. Here’s why:
It sits in a refrigerated case.
Nothing ruins more sushi than cold rice. Proper sushi rice should be just shy of body temperature when it meets up with a cool piece of fish. At a legally mandated 41°, each distinct, gently-warmed grain cools and congeals into a single. solid mass.
It’s not the same fish.
A supermarket might carry quality fish, but it won’t have the kind of relationship with its wholesalers that a decent sushi bar has with its suppliers who specialize in sushi grade. Supermarkets also have pressure to maintain inventory so that it’s always yellowtail season in the sushi case, regardless of the seasonal variations in origins and condition.
Condiments matter too.
Any place that’s serious about its sushi is serious about the condiments. Ideally, the wasabi is grated from a fresh root, the ginger is pickled in-house, and the soy sauce is specifically paired, if not custom blended, to complement the fish. Along with generic foil packets of soy sauce, most supermarkets use sweetened and artificially-colored ginger that mimics the petal pink of a true slow-cure, and the wasabi is a mass-produced paste that’s typically concocted from a powdered blend of horseradish, mustard, tapioca starch, and something to color it wasabi green.
Still, you could do a lot worse than supermarket sushi.
It’s a relatively healthy choice, especially if you steer clear of tempura and mayo squiggles. It’s also a relatively safe choice, responsible for less food-borne illness than most other prepared foods. And it can be pretty good, even if it’s not the real deal.