Grocery Store Sushi Never Lets Me Down

Illustration by Hazel Zavala

In Underrated we review the ordinary rituals we build around food. Next up: dining on grocery store sushi.

On long road trips when I was growing up, one food headlined my family’s snack rotation: grocery store sushi. My mom stockpiled trays of it ahead of our departure—cucumber-avocado rolls, shrimp tempura—and periodically fed us from the passenger seat, mechanically twisting an arm to offer pieces to me and my sister stationed in the back. We’d happily munch on the chewy, tangy morsels as we settled into our 17th watch of The Lizzie McGuire Movie, locked and loaded in the portable DVD player.

Grocery sushi is a known quantity: predictable, serviceable, and beautiful for both of those reasons. A plastic-encased California roll tastes basically the same from one supermarket to the next—creamy from avocado, ever-so-slightly sweet from the fake crab tucked alongside. It’s a dependable meal, and my realistically set bar for it is almost always met, if not exceeded.

Sure, it’s not necessarily fresh. Chilled rice inevitably tastes and feels different on the tongue than the room-temp kind. The refrigerated sushi we encounter at the grocery store, while safe to eat, also won’t excite the palate the same way as fish “warmed slightly when it’s handled by sushi chefs’ hands,” as Tasting Table puts it. (Particularly after it oxidizes, losing flavor while exposed to air.)

But dismissing store-bought sushi by comparing it to the restaurant variety means misunderstanding its merits entirely. It’s like trying to measure Trader Joe’s soup dumplings against Din Tai Fung. I love good sushi—indeed, I’d go so far as to call it my favorite food—but I don’t intend to replicate its caliber in the supermarket. I’m not expecting to find, next to Whole Foods’ rotisserie chickens, the melt-in-your-mouth toro sashimi of an omakase dinner in Tokyo, one of the most transcendent meals of my life.

This is a food best eaten hungover in your pajamas, ravenous in the middle of a work-from-home day, or as my family does, in transit. In fact, some of supermarket sushi’s supposed “flaws” can actually be understood as virtues. The sushi rice may be cold and slightly hard due to its extended time in the fridge, but that’s a good thing too. Firm rice boasts a particularly strong constitution, able to withstand travel and/or being jostled around in a bag. In the absence of chopsticks, the pieces seamlessly assume finger food status, easily plucked by hand. Cooked fillings—like unagi and shrimp tempura—keep the best, risking less of a mealy fish fate. Vegetable ones are great too.

And it must be said: It’s a fraction of the price of a sushi dinner on the town. My love for sushi tragically misaligns with my current…budgetary constraints…as a 20-something in New York City on a media salary. So when the craving for vinegary rice and raw fish comes around like clockwork, the spendy devil on one shoulder says to order takeout, while the angel on the other makes the convincing case for ever-reliable supermarket sushi.

Paradoxical as it may sound to love “good” sushi and supermarket sushi at once, the latter actually enjoys a robust fan base. Take, for example, the Reddit threads like “Grocery store sushi is delicious, idc what all the haters say” and “Grocery store sushi FTW.” Tellingly, the grocery chain Kroger is the country’s largest sushi purveyor. Even fourth-generation sushi chef Tatsuya Sekiguchi endorses the grocery kind, heralding its accessibility compared to high-end restaurant sushi. “It’s not a competition,” he said in a Wall Street Journal report on Kroger.

Supermarket sushi certainly isn’t a luxury good, but it’s a sight to behold. The display case is a fluorescent-hued jewelry box of precious gems: glistening unagi nigiri, belted with nori strips, brushed with eel sauce, and segmented with a strip of fake grass; shrimp tempura rolls arranged in artful crescents, adorned with zigzags of spicy mayo; magenta spicy tuna peeking out from under a shower of crunchy tempura flakes, a baby dollop of artificially Kelly green wasabi piped in the corner. I’ll take it all.

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit

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