In our new series, Supermarket sweep, we will be taste-testing the nation's favourite supermarket snacks. First up, that healthy Japanese lunchtime standby, sushi
You speak, we listen. That is the way it works at Word of Mouth. Consequently, after the enthusiastic response to our recent supermarket sandwich taste test (as one contributor, Edinburgh17, put it: "Forget gadget porn. THIS is consumer journalism I can get into"), we have decided to do a regular supermarket sweep, browsing the aisles monthly to put one of Britain's lunchtime favourites to the test. First up, supermarket sushi, a once glamorous product that is now a staple on the high street.
Purists will scoff at this packaged product prepared in factories, which cannot by law include raw fish. It is like a rolling insult to Japan. The labyrinthine ecological concerns around the use of, say, farmed salmon and Thai prawns in supermarket sushi (even if many retailers now use line- and pole-caught tuna) is another reason why many people steer clear. However, the fact remains that for the weight-watching office worker, sushi – according to Seafish, a market worth £64m and growing at 14% annually – is one of the few readily available options out there. Little wonder it is on a (maki) roll. But which of our supermarkets take sushi seriously? Tesco is chasing hard, but can it compete on flavour with the slicker market-leaders, M&S and Waitrose? Onwards, to the check-out chow down ...
Shapers sushi mini-rolls, Boots, £3 (186g, 283 kcal)
Boots plays pretty fast and loose with the concept of sushi. It is home to both "street sushi" (BLT sushi, anyone?), and, in this pack, smoked salmon "nigiri", which, rather than a block of rice draped with fish, is (admittedly, properly glutinous, sticky) rice into which the fish has been chopped and mixed, pretty meanly. Both it and the red pepper version taste blandly sweet. The cucumber maki rolls are almost devoid of all flavour and cry out for more than the rather caramely, low-salt soy sauce that is included (where is the wasabi or pickled ginger that is standard elsewhere?). The smoked salmon in the maki is reasonably meaty, albeit with a curiously citric edge. As for duck maki, what's that all about?
Fish sushi selection, M&S, £4 (174g, 245 kcal, without soy sauce)
It murmurs reassuringly in your ear: pole- and line-caught tuna; cured Lochmuir™ salmon (that sounds good, right?); pickled ginger and real Japanese wasabi. It is eye-catching, too. Trouble is, with the exception of the sesame-seed coated California tuna roll, it tastes – even that fabled Lochmuir™ salmon – of very little. This set is all about the condiments: that clean, fiery wasabi (Kinjirushi brand, used by several supermarkets it transpires) and the well-balanced soy. Pickled ginger is supposed to be a palate-cleanser, but chuck that on too, and you can turn the prawn nigiri into a pretty explosive mouthful. But, basically, you are building flavour in retrospectively.
Fish sushi selection, Co-Op, £2 (158g, 245kcal)
Only £2, yet this pack includes Japanese wasabi and a tangy, umami-rich, naturally brewed soy. The prawn (dry, fibrous, flobby) nigiri on overly dense rice is a washout. However, the black-sesame-coated sweet chilli prawn and red pepper California roll delivers reasonably interesting, not overly sweet flavours, as does the teriyaki tuna and cucumber one. Assorted little vegetable hosomaki (red cabbage, carrot and pickled ginger etc) taste predominantly of the nori seaweed wrap, but, again, a bit of diligent work with those condiments will jazz up that rice. Factoring in the price …
Variety sushi, Sainsbury's, £3.50 (319kcal, approx 200g; weight not discernible on packaging)
With the exception of a deeply unpleasant smoked salmon and cream cheese (yes, cream cheese and rice!) futomaki, there isn't anything too crazy going on in this, "variety sushi". In fact, I would hazard a guess that Sainsbury's shares a supplier with the Co-Op, as this set features the same condiments (yay!), similarly woeful nigiri (sad prawn; compacted, drying rice), and teriyaki tuna and sweet chilli prawn Californian rolls that, while not identical, are close cousins of the Co-Op versions. Sainsbury's is marked down for the cream cheese and for including not one, but two of those naff nigiri. Note: Sainsburys tuna and prawns come from MSC-certified fisheries.
Large mixed sushi selection, Tesco, £3.30 (297kcal, 189g)
Serious deja vu now, as I open another Kinjirushi wasabi, another Shoda naturally brewed soy sauce. Overly keen to look authentic, Tesco even includes chopsticks when everybody knows (no, I didn't either), that sushi is finger food. Such kowtowing to supposed tradition is ironic, given that the California rolls – char siu chicken, hoisin duck, sweet chilli and ginger prawn – go disastrously off-piste. In fairness, they do taste of something, but in a cheap, clumsy way, where everything is far too sweet and the flavours clang about. Sweet chilli chicken hosomaki is as bad an idea as it sounds, the red pepper nigiri is almost inedible. The smoked salmon is the only pleasant component.
Taiko sushi – Akane set, Waitrose, £4 (169kcal per 100g; therefore approx 365kcal per 216g)
Waitrose sells a lot of different sushi sets from its persuasively named supplier, Taiko Foods, at up to £6-a-pop. It clearly fancies itself as the UK's premium supermarket sushi dealership and, on this evidence, with good reason. Poached salmon, sesame-coated California rolls finally deliver some of the subtle but true and clean, complementary flavours that you expect from sushi. You don't immediately reach for the imported, Japanese condiments (the wasabi is a real rip-snorter). Mini vegetable and ginger nigiri have a distinctive pep and zing. The shrimp maki are overwhelmed by the nori, but it is a sound platform for the stridently but smoothly smoked salmon. Overall? Pretty classy.
• Follow Tony Naylor on Twitter: @naylor_tony
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