My eyes are drawn to the ruby red and the iridescent opal white of each handmade masterpiece sitting like gems atop a display case.
Mesmerized by the creation of these skilled artisans, my gaze is locked, and I begin to daydream.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take these home? What if I got one of each; would it be too much? What would my family think?
Thankfully for my pocketbook, I’m not at Tiffany’s, but the local grocery store’s sushi counter looking at their display of hand-rolled sushi.
Like most counters, there’s an array of sliced rolls and nigiri (individual pieces on rice). Arranged on platters; some have an assortment of fish; others are simply a single variety.
So now that I’ve loaded my basket with a few different ones, what else should I serve for dinner?
Surprisingly, sushi is easy to pair with side dishes because most foods, either western or Asian, will complement sushi. For a quick weeknight meal, salads, grilled vegetables, or skewers will have your family gathering ‘round the table in no time.
For a more substantial weekend dinner, try pairing sushi with a broth soup, appetizers of cut vegetables (raw or pickled), dumplings, and ice cream.
And for special added touches, some pickled ginger slices and a glass of sake, ice-cold beer, or tea are everything you’ll need for an enjoyable sushi night.
Sushi Has All Five Flavor Elements
Sushi can complement and enhance an endless variety of Asian-inspired and western side dishes because it has all five flavor elements: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. That means most dishes will complement or enhance one of these elements.
Depending on how adventurous you’re feeling or how much your family wants to depart from standard American fare, you can create and combine many different flavors at your table.
You can make sushi the only exotic item or surround it with dishes from all around the globe.
A few years ago, my family and I moved to Tokyo for my husband’s job, where we had an endless routine of sushi nights, never serving the same meal twice.
I knew that if the day got too busy (as most of them do), I could stop by the local store and pick up a sushi platter for dinner. When we returned to the US, we kept that tradition.
Even a modest side-dish will not detract from the sushi, but simply let it continue to shine as the star of the show
Top 4 Side Dishes For Sushi
1. Fresh lettuce salads
My favorite side dish for sushi is a fresh lettuce salad. It’s full of nutrition, and usually, the kids are hungry enough at the start of a meal to eat a few fresh vegetables.
And for sushi, fresh salads of lettuce are quick and can be decidedly western or include an Asian flare.
For western salads, I like to think about ways to incorporate the five flavors: for example, sweet (add dried cranberries), salty (roasted peanuts), sour (vinaigrette), bitter (raw vegetables), umami (mushrooms or bacon).
For a salad with a bit of Asian flair, try some of these ingredients: sweet (fresh fruit like mango or orange), salty (miso or soy sauce in an Asian vinaigrette), sour (vinegar), bitter (fresh vegetables), umami (roasted seaweed strips).
2. Vegetable Salads
Living in Japan, I was fortunate to have ready-made wakame (seaweed salad) at my local grocery store.
But it’s a little more challenging to find it now that we’re back in the US. But I still think either store-bought or homemade vegetable salad is an easy and well-appreciated side for sushi.
Sometimes my deli counter has a fresh broccoli salad with sunflower seeds that I buy with sushi.
Other times I have seen a spicey green bean salad, which you could easily do at home. Snap, rinse, and toss green beans with chili oil and season. Roast and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve warm or at room temperature.
3. Grilled Vegetables
Another quick weeknight side for sushi is grilled vegetables. It’s even faster than the vegetable salads and can be made with just one variety or combine a few you already have in your fridge—no need for a fancy sauce, just simple seasoning and maybe a few chopped cashews for crunch.
Grilled vegetables pair so nicely because they have the same umami element that you find in sushi’s seaweed wrapper and glazing sauces.
In Tokyo, at casual dining restaurants called Izakaya’s, it is common to order a plate of grilled chicken skewers with your sushi. But don’t limit yourself to just chicken.
The advantage of fusion cooking is that you can mix and match cuisine elements. Feel free to choose your favorite meat, slice it thinly, and thread it on a skewer.
For a richer flavor, brush it with your favorite sauce: soy, ponzu, or gluten-free tamari before grilling.
Make It A Multi-Course Meal
The remarkable aspect of a sushi dinner is that it’s not only suited for those busy days when I can’t get a home-cooked meal on the table.
With a little extra preparation, sushi night can be a more elaborate meal.
In every restaurant in Japan, you’ll get a steaming bowl of hot miso soup with your sushi.
Warm, salty, and usually with a little bit of tofu, this broth helps to heighten and match the robust flavors of the seaweed and soy sauce.
But if your family would like a more western version (or if you’re like me and you just forgot to buy the miso), a bowl of chicken soup made with fresh broth and roasted chicken would be an excellent way to begin a sushi dinner.
Appetizers – Pickled Or Raw
You might have noticed a strong vegetable theme for sushi night. And you’re right; this is your opportunity to try a wide variety of vegetables, prepared in many different ways.
For an easy appetizer, make quick homemade pickled cucumbers. Seed and thinly slice cucumbers, toss with rice wine vinegar, and marinate for 20 minutes. Drain and serve. For extra spice, sprinkle red pepper flakes on top.
If you’d like to serve vegetables, but maybe not with spice and vinegar, try making traditional crudité.
Cut rectangular slices of carrots, celery, and bell peppers. American ranch dressing is still the best dip for raw vegetables and is sure to put a smile on the face of your little ones.
Dumplings And Buns
It might be hard to find fresh dumplings at the local grocery store, but I’ve seen many quality frozen ones.
The traditional Japanese dumpling, gyoza, is similar to the American deep-fried potsticker.
It’s a crescent-shaped dumpling, filled with meat or fish, sauteed on one side, and then steamed.
A similar dumpling that I have served for sushi night and easily found in the frozen section is sui mai, a round Chinese steamed dumpling filled with meat or fish.
For a more substantial side, try serving bao buns. Technically not a dumpling; it has many of the same elements.
The main difference is that boa buns are made with yeast dough and a little sugar, giving it a lighter, fluffier texture.
My family is always enthusiastic about a dinner that includes dumplings or buns. Be sure to make a little extra; you’ll be surprised how fast they disappear off the table.
5 Best Drinks To Serve With Sushi
Like the side dishes, there are have a wide variety of drinks that are especially good with sushi; some may be more familiar to you than others.
An easy drink to pair with sushi is tea. Whether you choose a warm green tea or a simple cold brewed tea with a slice of lemon, tea’s earthy characteristics balance the more powerful sushi ingredients.
Most syrupy, carbonated drinks would be a mistake to serve with sushi, and the flavors would compete and clash. However, ginger beer is many people’s favorite non-alcoholic choice.
The ginger perfectly complements that meal, and ginger beer has a lot less sugar than other carbonated drinks.
Ice-cold beer is a refreshing choice with sushi. If you haven’t tried a Japanese brand, maybe this would be the time. Otherwise, a Pale Ale or IPA also pairs well with all types of sushi.
For sushi night with friends, try serving a bottle of champagne. I wouldn’t have suggested this had I not tried it at a world-class sushi restaurant in Tokyo.
As a first course pairing, the chef poured everyone a glass of dry champagne. The clean, sparkling taste was the ideal beverage to wake up my palate and anticipate the flavors to come.
Finally, for a more immersive experience, try drinking sake. Most stores that sell sake will be happy to share a little about the various flavors and find one that suits your tastes. Slightly warmed or chilled, it makes for a fun evening.
Best Deserts For A Sushi Dinner
One of the benefits of all the vegetables in a sushi dinner is I don’t feel guilty about including dessert. And sometimes, a little bit of sweetness makes a satisfying ending.
My personal preference is simple fruit desserts, so I would choose an orange or ripe mango.
But if your family has a strong sweet tooth, like mine, ice cream or fruit sorbet is a perfect choice.
There is no need for exotic ingredients with dessert, and you’ve already treated your tastebuds to a tremendous amount of flavors and given it a culinary workout.
Just soothing, sweet, cold familiar ice cream is enough.
You may also be interested in our guide Is It Worth It To Make Your Own Sushi
What Are The Packets In The Sushi Boxes?
Most sushi comes with three condiments, soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger.
The soy sauce is for dipping the sushi. Pour it in a small bowl and try to dip just the topping, not the rice, in the soy sauce. If the rice soaks up too much soy sauce, it will fall apart.
Pickled ginger is sometimes pink and sometimes pale yellow. Used as a palate cleanser, try tasting a little between different varieties of fish. There’s no expectation of eating all the ginger, so just a nibble or two is fine.
The other condiment for sushi is wasabi. Made into a paste from a green Japanese horseradish root, it can be very spicey.
I can share from firsthand experience; it can sting and burn your sinuses if you have too much at once.
Some sushi are made with wasabi, and some are not, so be sure to inquire before adding more. If you have it made to order, it’s also OK to ask for sushi without wasabi.
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What Is The Green Plastic Leaf In The Sushi Box?
The final item in all sushi boxes is a small green plastic “leaf,” which symbolizes freshness.
Originally sushi was packaged in a box and separated with bamboo grass leaves which have anti-bacterial properties and helped preserve freshness.
With refrigeration, the natural leaves are no longer necessary, but the symbol of freshness is still a part of every presentation. Today, the green “grass” is just a decoration.
One of the most appealing parts of sushi night is that it’s delicious, quick, and visually appetizing.
By arranging these glamorous geometric shapes on a platter, it looks like you’ve been working hard all day in the kitchen.
Fresh vegetable salads, grilled vegetables, or meat skewers are a fast and nutritious side dish for a busy weeknight.
For a more substantial meal, adding soups, appetizers, dumplings, and flavored drinks help to transform this same main dish into a sushi-inspired feast.
If you’re like me and find yourself gravitating towards the glistening gems in the sushi counter, don’t hesitate to choose a few and bring them home for dinner. Your side dishes are only limited by your appetite.
Kelly is a native of California. After graduation from UCLA, she began her travels living and cooking in Europe, Asia, and the Northwest. In Tokyo, she earned the Grand Diplôme, for both Cuisine and Pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu.
Kelly is a freelance food writer. She started the website, Tokyo-Table.com, where she reviews Tokyo restaurants from the perspective of a professional chef. Kelly has written for publications in Asia and North America on all aspects of cooking. Kelly now lives in Los Angeles with her family and her vegetable garden.