Once considered the preserve of the discerning diner, sushi is here to stay as a mainstream dish for many consumers right across the UK. PBUK unwraps what it is that makes sushi a popular lunchtime choice, and an increasingly popular healthy dinner option, and assesses where the opportunities lie for introducing more fresh produce to the cuisine
Healthier choices catch on
The latest figures from Seafish show that the chilled sushi retail market is now worth £68 million in the UK. Waitrose alone has seen year-on-year growth of 13%, taking the grocery retailer’s market share to 18.1% on pre-packed sushi. Added to this, the retailer recently announced a national roll-out of fresh sushi counters in selected stores, delighting customers with the opportunity to see their eat-on-the-go lunches assembled fresh before their eyes.
Growing demand for convenient, healthier options at lunchtime and dinner too might be the motivation for this move. Anthony Wysome, head of store development for Waitrose, explains: “Our customers’ lifestyles are changing with the growth of eating on the move and we are responding to this shift with our continuously developing food-to-go offering, including the new sushi feature.”
The great fish debate
However, perhaps surprisingly, a large proportion of consumers are still unsure about sushi. The Grocer has previously noted that 31% of restaurant goers considered “raw fish a considerable deterrent”. But Atsuko Ikeda, founder of Japanese culinary school Atsuko’s Kitchen, is quick to point out that ‘sushi’ literally means cooked and vinegared rice. “There are countless toppings you can add to it and they certainly don’t have to be fish-based,” Ikeda says.
Additionally, with household culinary names, including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, raising awareness of the impact of overfishing, eco-minded diners are also looking to make more sustainable choices.
Raising fresh produce alternatives
The use of more fresh vegetables in sushi seems like an obvious alternative to fish. Kiyoko Hay, tutor at Bristol-based Your Sushi School, which specialises in training professional chefs in the craft, couldn’t agree more. “We try to open people’s minds about non-fish sushi,” Hay says. “Vegetables are definitely great alternatives; adding colour, flavour and texture.”
Hay also insists more people are looking to learn about vegetarian and vegan sushi to offer such options in response to consumer demand: “With so many sushi businesses coming onto the market, chefs are having to relook at how they are making sushi so they can retain the customer base.”
Feng Sushi – a growing London-based chain – has received praise for its efforts in providing a diverse selection of vegetarian choices. It’s green goddess maki consists of seaweeds (wakame and aonori), cucumber, avocado, mizuna, chives and is seasoned with furikake, giving just one example of the innovative use of fresh produce in place of fish.
Less common ingredients
Carrot, cucumber, daikon and avocado currently all feature heavily in ready-made sushi. More specialist ingredients that one might find in upmarket restaurants include lotus root, specialist potatoes, such as the yamaimo root, and different types of seaweed. However, broadening the use of fresh produce specifically in mainstream pre-packed sushi needn’t mean relying on just exotic ingredients.
“People want to be able to identify what is on top of their sushi, so selecting vegetables that are not too unusual is important,” states Ikeda from Atsuko’s Kitchen. “Consumers want to feel comfortable with choosing sushi and familiarity is important.”
Diversifying the use of fruit and veg
The ability to see what’s in sushi marries well with the Japanese ethos that the aesthetics of a dish are as important as the way it tastes. Creativity with colour and texture is vital – criteria that are easily delivered with produce such as beetroot, different varieties of bell pepper, asparagus and fresh herbs, all which are already making an appearance on bite-sized rice morsels in some outlets.
Meanwhile, ever-popular amongst healthy-eating bloggers such as Ella Woodward, the sweet potato is a great example of an on-trend superfood that works well in kakiage too, while it can also be roasted, pureed, or used to roll sushi.
Ikeda from Atsuko’s Kitchen describes other techniques using vegetables that can incorporate an array of taste sensations into sushi. “As well as cooking vegetables, pickling and marinating gives richness to sushi dishes, and will help vegetables to last longer,” she says.
The evolution of produce in sushi
Quality is key in sushi because it showcases the main ingredient against the rice it is served with, unlike the typical lunchtime choice of say, sandwiches. “Businesses have to pay more attention to quality than ever before,” points out Hay from Your Sushi School.
Scott Hallsworth, head chef at trendy London restaurant Kurobuta, is also passionate about using only the best quality produce in his dishes. “Produce has to be in great condition,” he says.
And when it comes to innovation and potential for new ingredients, Hallsworth adds: “Forget the next trend. Suppliers should concentrate on the ingredients that they already grow really well.”
Opportunities well within reach
Fresh produce provides an array of benefits to suppliers and retailers in the sushi industry, most notably a longer shelf-life when compared to fish, which can be extended further by using some of the techniques covered in this article.
Great opportunities for fresh produce in the ready-to-eat sushi industry therefore remain, with chefs placing a big focus on not alienating consumers by introducing too many lesser well-known varieties, and instead creating novel ways of using already well-loved vegetables.