Sushi bar ginger salad habit

If you’ve ever eaten sushi, there’s a good chance you’ve eaten the ubiquitous ginger salad that tends to be a go-to at the start of any sushi feast.

This mini salad usually costs about $3, and comes out quickly in a small bowl. What it consists of is typically a mix of iceberg lettuce, a few shredded carrots and some red cabbage, and not much else. But the magic ingredient is the orange-ish ginger dressing with the unique flavor that drenches these otherwise mundane ingredients.

My question this week is: What is it about this dressing that people love so much?

I have a confession to make regarding these salads in that, years ago, when I began eating sushi in earnest, I, of course, ended up trying one of the salads. I soon began to crave them.

At one point, I asked a sushi bar owner if he would sell me some of the dressing to go. Five bucks later, I was the proud owner of a Styrofoam cup of the stuff that I knew would last me at least a week, even if I ate it every day. So, I went to Kroger, picked up a bag of pre-packed salad blend, and went to town.

For the first couple days, I ate two of them. Those salads were my dinner. But by Day No. 5, my palate began to notice more of the nuances of the dressing, and fatigue set in. I was growing tired of the ginger dressing.

And I quickly figured out why: The stuff is sweet to the point that it tastes like it is loaded with sugar. I did a little research and learned that the Americanized version of ginger dressing we usually find at sushi bars is a bit different than what you’ll find in Japan. In Japan, the key ingredients are rice vinegar, ginger, garlic, olive oil, chili sauce, soy sauce and a few other ingredients, including honey.

But the version you’re more likely to get at your favorite sushi place will have less of the ginger, and, more likely than not, will contain sugar, lots of carrots (which adds sweetness and also helps with that nuclear-orange look) and even ketchup.

And for the record, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of nutrition in the dressing itself. Per MyFitnessPal.com, a single tablespoon has 24 calories, 124 milligrams of sodium, and two grams of fat. Those salads come with a lot more than one tablespoon of dressing, so do the math in your head.

But for those who love sweeter dressings, these salads are like crack. I hadn’t had one in some time until recently when I had a splendid dinner with friends at the restaurant Sapporo. The first words out of my girlfriend Cynthia’s mouth when we have sushi are usually “ginger salad,” so I decided to enjoy one with her to remind myself just what made me briefly addicted.

The salad hasn’t changed any.

The vegetables were crisp and fresh, which always makes for a nice summertime experience. The dressing’s flavor didn’t seem to pop as much as I’d remembered, and this particular dressing seemed a tad thinner than some I’ve tried. But, per usual, there was a lake of the stuff in the bottom of my small bowl. I simply didn’t get the sense that there was a lot of ginger, which would have provided more of a spicy element, or even black pepper, which helps balance some of these dressings.

Cynthia inhaled her salad, and had probably a half inch of dressing left at the bottom of the bowl, which she always keeps through the rest of the meal. I’ve seen her pour it over rice, and I’ve even seen her dip sections of her maki rolls into it. Usually, she makes a remark like, “I kind of want to drink the rest of this with a straw.”

Most of the people I have sushi with have similar reactions. I like the salads, but about halfway through, I’m finished with the flavor (meaning Cynthia often gets access to seconds). That’s why I typically order miso soup and skip the salad entirely. But I even have a couple of friends who, when I order soup instead, will shake their heads and say, “I can’t believe you aren’t getting one of these salads.”

Maybe I’m just a bleu cheese guy.