Why Pickled Ginger Is Like Ice Cream


That mound of pinkish pickled ginger on the plate next to your sushi isn’t an appetizer, nor is it a garnish to be added to the sushi. Believe it or not, it’s more like a serving of ice cream. But it’s not dessert, either. It has a much more specific purpose.

In the traditional style of eating at the sushi bar, the chef serves just one or two pieces of nigiri at a time, featuring a different fish or shellfish with each serving. Each type of fish or shellfish has a particular flavor profile and fat content, and often the differences can be subtle. To fully appreciate the distinctions, it helps to have a clean palate before sampling each new piece of sushi that the chef serves.

The acidic spiciness of pickled ginger is the perfect antidote to the tastes of seafood. And here’s the parallel to ice cream. In sushi, the ginger serves as a palate cleanser between courses—just like sorbet in Western cuisine.

So the proper way to employ your pickled ginger at the sushi bar—or even when dining at a table—is to eat a slice between each different type of fish. It’s like resetting your tongue so each piece of sushi seems new.

All the more reason not to put a piece of ginger on top of your sushi when you eat it, as some of us have always thought we’re supposed to. In fact, this achieves the exact opposite of what’s intended, preventing you from appreciating the subtle flavors of the fish instead of enhancing them.