Recommendations and SmartPoints™ guide for Japanese and sushi restaurants
What to Know:
Compared to many restaurant cuisines, sushi has few pitfalls. When they do appear, most are glaringly obvious, like crispy tempura dripping with oil. Here’s how to be true to the tradition, and your goals.
When you see “spicy” on a sushi roll, it’s code for mayonnaise laced with hot sauce or chili oil. This orange sauce may be drizzled across the top of the roll or hidden inside. Either way, it can add as much as 4 SmartPoints values (Green, Blue, Purple). Plus, the spicy rolls with chopped-up fish are where the restaurant disposes of less desirable cuts.
Eat your vegetables
Whether you adore the flavour of raw fish or are still getting used to the idea, it's worth remembering that sushi also includes vegetarian rolls such as avocado rolls, with a SmartPoints value of 6 (Green, Blue, Purple), and cucumber rolls, with a SmartPoints value of 3 (Green, Blue, Purple).
Spell crab with a “K”
Most imitation crab (or “krab”) in the United States is composed of 50-percent-or-more Alaskan pollack, making it a fairly sustainable choice of seafood. With additions of egg white, oil, salt, starch, and spice, it’s clearly a processed food and not as beneficial as raw tuna or salmon. However, for many diners, the cooked consistency, lower price, and modest calories of surimi sticks make them the perfect core for a California roll, with only 5 SmartPoints values (Green, Blue, Purple).
Sushi rolls and nigiri sushi rely on rice to fill you up. Most sushi bars now offer brown rice as an option. You’ll get all the fibre and B vitamins you're missing with white rice, and you’ll feel full quicker. If you're on Purple, brown rice is a ZeroPoint™ food.
Watch the hibachi
But don’t order from it. They have that squirt bottle of oil, and often use more than necessary because it makes it easier to cook and improves the display.
Clear your sinuses
In addition to soy sauce, nigiri sushi and sushi rolls are usually served with pickled ginger and wasabi, a green horseradish paste. The lemony heat of ginger and the fiery rush of the horseradish act as contrasts to the delicate sushi and serve to clear your palate. Purists refrain from adding wasabi to their sushi, preferring to leave it in the hands of the sushi chef, but if you crave the rush, both of these bold flavours pack 1 SmartPoint value (Green, Blue, Purple).
What to Eat:
According to Shuji Hiyakawa, executive chef for Philadelphia-area Kome restaurant and a protégé of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, the beauty of sushi lies in the simplicity of preparation. “Nigiri sushi is just seaweed, rice and fish. There is no fat, just a focus on freshness,” he says.
That’s great news for health-conscious diners, according to Diane Henderiks, RD, personal chef and culinary nutritionist at DishWithDiane.com. “With sushi, there are very few surprises. There are rarely sauces or oil that have hidden calories, so what you see on your plate is what you are getting,” she says.
Whole, steamed pods of soybeans make a tasty and nutritious way to kick off your meal. One cup has 3 SmartPoints (Green), or 0 SmartPoints (Blue, Purple). “Any time you can get a plant-based protein, go for it,” says Henderiks. “These are an even better choice than a salad because you are getting the right balance of protein and carbs to fill you up at the beginning of the meal.”
This traditional Japanese soup is not to be missed. Cubes of tofu and seaweed add some substance to this flavourful broth, for 2 SmartPoints (Green), or 1 SmartPoint (Blue, Purple) per 1-cup serving. “When you see clear soup, you know it’s OK,” says Henderiks. “There is some sodium here, but with the potassium, minerals and flavour, there are so many saving graces, it’s totally worth it!”
Cha soba noodle salad
Noodles generally spell bad news, but Japanese soba is a rare breed made from buckwheat, which has no relation to actual wheat. Soba noodles are gluten-free and lighter in density and calories. A typical 1-cup portion has a SmartPoints value of only 3 (Green, Blue, Purple)
In this traditional dish, a breading of potato or cornstarch prepares it for the fryer, where it gets a crisp exterior before a sprinkling of flavourful bonito (fish) flakes and dashi. “This is a good way to introduce someone to tofu, because the taste and the flavour are really fantastic,” says Henderiks. Because it is fried, assume a SmartPoints value of 8 (Green), 5 (Blue, Purple) for a typical 5-ounce serving. Lighten it up: Usually served in small cubes, this app is primed for sharing. Ask the chef to cube it into enough pieces so everyone gets a taste.
“This is clearly one of the best things you can eat. You almost can’t get any healthier,” says Henderiks. (However, without the benefit of a rice buffer, some diners find sashimi a difficult food.) And remember: On Blue and Purple, fish is a ZeroPoint food.
Take that sashimi and place it on a little pillow of rice and you have nigiri sushi – the stuff most of us picture when we think “sushi bar.” The rice is gently flavoured with vinegar, and each piece of sushi should amount to a single bite, according to Hiyakawa. That rice will add SmartPoints values to the bottom line.
Spicy tuna roll
Also called maki sushi, rolls are the sandwiches of the sushi bar. They double up on the rice to fill you up, and they layer ingredients, like yellowtail fish and scallions, bound together with a sheet of nori (seaweed). Spicy tuna roll is one of the most popular preparations, with a SmartPoints value of about 7 (Green) or 6 (Blue, Purple) for a typical six-piece roll. Lighten it up: “You want to choose a roll that has whole fish. Anything that is chopped up means there is probably added fat,” says Henderiks. Try a regular tuna roll and spice it up with wasabi to save some SmartPoints.
According to Hiyakawa, many sushi connoisseurs end their meal with a hand roll (temaki), which is different mostly in its technique of construction, a chance for chefs to show off their craft. You’re likely to get some artistic license with your tuna roll, including mountain potato or a dollop of fish roe.
“Of the specialty rolls, this is one of my favourites because it’s everything sushi should be — pretty, appealing, and flavourful, with a variety of fresh fish,” says Henderiks. One rainbow roll, often in eight pieces, will do plenty to fill you up, with a SmartPoints value of only about 12 (Green) or 10 (Blue, Purple). Think of it as piling sashimi on your California roll.
Unlike soba, udon are thick wheat-based noodles, usually prepared in a simple broth. “Make no mistake, you're eating a bowl of pasta,” says Henderiks. Share these as a side, or get your noodle fix with a soba salad.
Consisting of vegetables and shrimp coated in light batter and deep-fried, a typical sampler of vegetable sticks and shrimp can quickly add up the SmartPoints values. Lighten it up: It might seem counterintuitive, but the vegetables are the biggest culprit in this dish. “They are like sponges and soak up the oil,” says Henderiks.
A typical chicken breast, brushed with this sauce of sake, mirin, soy, and sugar is a good choice, with a SmartPoints value of about 5 (Green) or 2 (Blue, Purple) for a 5 oz piece. Lighten it up: You’ll often see teriyaki accompanied by a cup of white rice, which adds 6 SmartPoints (Green, Blue, Purple). And, if that rice comes fried from the hibachi with a generous squirt of oil, it can add several more. Go for a side of broccoli and keep this sweet-and-savoury dish in check.
Golf-ball-sized ice cream wrapped in sweet rice dough, mochi goes beyond chocolate and vanilla, with flavours like green tea (matcha) and red bean (azuki). Because an order (often four pieces) is easily shared, mochi makes a good indulgence, says Henderiks. Take one for 4 SmartPoints (Green, Blue, Purple) and pass the plate.
Fresh fruit mitsumame
A bowl of fresh strawberries or mixed fruit delivers a lot of satisfaction for 0 SmartPoints (Green, Blue, Purple). You might also see it served as traditional mitsumame, a fruit salad with red beans and agar, a sort of seaweed-based Jell-O that is high in fibre with almost no calories. This is a very traditional dish and a refreshing end to a sushi meal.
*Given that ingredients, cooking methods and portion sizes can vary greatly among restaurants, all SmartPoints values for restaurant dishes are estimates.
What are the best choices?
When it comes to sushi, preferences vary widely. When you add the nutritional and environmental implications, sushi dining becomes a very personal choice. Here are some quick pointers to help you make the most informed choices.
Sushi and Sashimi
Salmon (left) with rice is 3 SmartPoints (Green) or 2 SmartPoints (Blue, Purple) per piece. However, this fish earns big points for being as likeable as lox. And it has bountiful omega-3 fatty acids, known to boost heart health. Mackerel (center) is nutritionally similar and considered a good pick for sustainability. With their sweet flavour, scallops (right) are a great choice, especially when farm-raised. They offer a hearty dose of omega-3s, Vitamin B12, magnesium and potassium. Other similar picks: arctic char, sablefish, aka black cod.
These picks lack the omega-3 potency of the Best Picks, but are still good choices. Shrimp (left) offer pure protein with little risk of mercury and other heavy metals. Ebi are always cooked, so this sushi is similar to shrimp cocktail. Giant clam (center) is similar in taste and texture to conch, yet more sustainable than that long-lived snail. White tuna (right) is usually albacore tuna. Other similar picks: squid, cuttlefish
As you might have guessed, some of the most delicious fish are also the most controversial choices, in terms of both health and sustainability. Bluefin tuna (left) is the prime example, for the reasons mentioned in "Know Your Tuna.” Environmentalists also frown upon eating fresh water eel (center), or unagi, which is diminishing in the wild. Hirame, which includes fluke (right), halibut and sole, all have issues of sustainability.
At just 5 SmartPoints per roll (Green, Blue, Purple), this likable California roll (left) is one of the safest choices, delivering the benefits of lean protein from surimi, omega-3s from avocado, and a tasty topping of flavourful sesame seeds or fish roe. The cucumber roll (right), has among the lowest SmartPoints values on the menu, with 3 (Green, Blue, Purple). These low-cal vegetarian rolls make a good follow-up to sashimi for a filling meal.
These rolls include poorer cuts of high-quality whole fish, which is why you're better off enjoying these fish varieties as nigiri sushi instead (not rolls). Sushi gives you more fish and less rice, which cuts the SmartPoints value. Instead of having the shrimp roll, you could enjoy more shrimp by ordering shrimp sushi. Standbys like tuna roll (right) have 5 SmartPoints (Blue) or 3 SmartPoints (Blue, Purple). Other similar picks: salmon roll, Yellowtail roll.
The shrimp tempura roll (left) isn’t even a Japanese creation. One roll equals 500 calories and about 10 SmartPoints (Green, Blue, Purple). Made with deep fried softshell crab, the spider roll (right) is fast-food in disguise, also with 10 SmartPoints (Green, Blue, Purple). Other similar picks: A Philadelphia roll (salmon with cream cheese) delivers similarly high SmartPoints value thanks to sweet and fatty additions.