This article is part of our in-depth Meat, Fish & Poultry feature.

Sushi has the supermarket sarnie running scared. Wildly more exotic than baps, wraps and rolls and boosted by endorsements from Pippa Middleton and Andy Murray (who reportedly scoffs 50 sushi rolls per day), the rise in popularity of maki rolls and unagi among Brits looks unstoppable.

Fuelled by a booming appetite for sushi in our lunch hour, Japanese now tops the leader board for emerging world cuisines in the UK, according to Mintel, beating dishes from Morocco, Vietnam and Brazil. It says 17% of Brits now tuck into sushi at home, rising to one in five for shoppers under 45.

All of which has left grocers clamouring to improve the range and quality of sushi available in their food-to-go chillers. So what do experts believe they should be focusing on? What do shoppers look for in sushi? And what does the future hold for the category?

Yo! Sushi has expanded its stores by 48% in the past five years, Itsu has doubled to 53 and Wasabi by a whopping 250% to 39 outlets.

Naturally gluten free, sushi appeals to an increasingly health-conscious consumer, says John Want, marketing director at Adelie Foods. While a Tesco Ploughman’s sandwich comes in at 220 calories per 100g and 8.6g of saturated fat, its Smoked Salmon selection of pre-packed sushi is just 169 calories per 100g and 0.8g of satfat. Brits are better educated, too, according to chef Manu Letellier, founder of Your Sushi training school. They’re no longer anxious sushi consists of raw chunks of fish on rice, he laughs, partly thanks to new recipe development that has expanded ranges to include meat and vegetarian options, and partly thanks to the arrival of the high street middle market.

“Before, you used to have either the high-end restaurants or pre-packed sushi from the supermarket” and now there’s an affordable option in between thanks to the rapid expansion of specialist high street providers, he explains. Yo! Sushi has expanded its stores by 48% in the past five years, Itsu has doubled to 53 and Wasabi by a whopping 250% to 39 outlets.

Itsu has seen its customers grow increasingly adventurous, says brand and product director Roisin McCart. “We find they’ll often start with nigiri or easily recognisable rolls like salmon and avocado, and as they become more adventurous, they migrate to more challenging fillings, sauces and even sashimi.”

How salmon won a place in sushi

Salmon might leap to mind as the ultimate sushi topping - but it didn’t always adorn Japan’s rice delights.

In fact, until the 1980s, the Japanese wouldn’t even consider putting raw salmon on their sushi - opting instead for tuna and sea bream.

Pacific salmon was sold grilled, fried or smoked, but considered unsafe to eat raw because it was riddled with parasites and of poor quality.

When Thor Listau, a member of Norway’s parliamentary committee for shipping and fish­eries, visited Japan in 1974 he saw a big opportunity for Norwegian salmon. Fish farmer Thor Mowinkel sent the first Norwegian salmon exports to Japan in 1980, although it took a while to convince the Japanese it was safe to eat raw.

Japan’s food industry didn’t help, denouncing Norwegian salmon as not being red enough, having inferior-sized heads and “smelling like river fish”.

But Norway was determined to capture a slice of Japan’s high-end salmon and sashimi market, and in the 1980s launched Project Japan, an initiative aimed at promoting Norwegian seafood, and particularly salmon, to restaurants and hotels.

Listau returned to Japan with a 20-strong trade delegation carrying premium raw Norwegian salmon in their suitcases and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, salmon is the preferred sushi topping of restaurants worldwide and approximately 50% of all Norwegian salmon exports are consumed raw. Japan and Norway have maintained a close relationship, and in 2015 the renowned World Sushi Skills Institute of Japan (WSSI) and the Norwegian Seafood Council launched the Global Sushi Challenge - a joint project to promote sushi culture worldwide.

The competition saw sushi chefs in countries across the world battle each other to become their nation’s sushi champion and compete in an international final in Tokyo. Rather fittingly, Japanese chef Jun Jibiki emerged victorious in the inaugural year.

Selling sushi is an attractive proposition for both foodservice providers and grocers, too. “Sushi is a high profit margin product and cost-efficient to produce with little training,” says UK distributor Sushi Sushi Trade. 

As a result, the major mults haven’t been content to let foodservice steal sushi away. In 2015 Tesco CEO Dave Lewis axed 30% of the mults’ sandwich range to make way for expanded sushi lines, Asda added new SKUs in 2014 with sushi “flying off the shelves”, and Waitrose continues to update its Japanese-owned pre-packed brand Taiko.

Even discounters and c-stores are having a go. Iceland recently launched a frozen sushi collection, Aldi began trialling a SKU in January this year, and Want says demand from Adelie’s convenience clients led to it adding half a dozen lines to its food-to-go range. “We had been happy for other people to take that business but more and more of our Urban Eat retailers were after a single-delivery solution,” he says. 


But while sushi stocked in supermarket chillers is hardly new (it first made an appearance in M&S in 1988), the quality demanded from suppliers has changed in the last 12 months to satisfy a more sushi savvy consumer, says Letellier. Suppliers have invested in specialist training and installed processes that make scaled-up sushi production possible.

In a bid to stay one step ahead, Waitrose even sends Taiko staff to Japan to “experience the country and submerge themselves into Japanese food and culture” says sushi buyer Shaun Birrell. “We have worked with them on improved authentic recipes and updated several products over the last year.”

Better quality brings its own challenges, however, one of the biggest of which is shelf life. “In Japan, supermarket sushi is delivered three times a day, here you put on two days’ shelf life,” explains Ken Furukawa, MD at Tazaki Foods, a Japanese sushi ingredients supplier. “For sushi the moisture is very important, and after a few hours the rice starts getting hard and you lose all the goodness.” To avoid that, manufacturers are adding water to rice with mixed results on taste and texture.

To prevent waste, Itsu says it sells off sushi at 50% half an hour before store closures, with a new batch prepared each and every morning.

Trials of fresh sushi counters

Balancing quality and longevity in pre-packed sushi means fresh always tastes best, says Furukawa, a view that has prompted both Waitrose and, more recently Morrisons, to trial fresh sushi counters in stores.

Waitrose opened its third Sushi Daily kiosk in January in Godalming after the first counters, in Battersea and Bath, exceeded expectations since launching in November 2015. The retailer plans to roll out more, says Birrell, and build on its 14.4% hike in sushi value sales over the past year.

waitrose sushi counter

Famed for its fresh offer, Morrisons hopes to emulate this success. It unveiled its first pick and mix counter in February at a central Manchester store, selling 12 sushi rolls for customers to choose from. “Morrisons was looking to introduce a smart, modern, on-the-go food offer to appeal to Manchester’s busy office workers, among others,” says Tony Lock, MD of retail design consultancy Sherlock Studio, which helped design the counter. Fresh sushi counters “give a greater perception of freshness, as well as adding theatre to stores” while selling sushi via a pick’n’mix mechanic echoes the experience of eating in a sushi bar.

 “Soon you’ll go out clubbing and you won’t buy a kebab but a sushi burrito.”

Pre-packed will remain a sizeable percentage of the market but the growth in sushi going forward will largely come from chefs whipping up freshly made selections, believes Want. “People want theatre and experience when it comes to their food,” he adds.

And he isn’t convinced the supermarket sarnie should be too worried at the seemingly unstoppable rise of sushi. “Sandwiches will remain absolutely key to a food to go fixture,” he insists. But Letellier isn’t so sure. “Within five to seven years you’ll be able to pick up very high quality sushi for peanuts,” he says. “Soon you’ll go out clubbing and you won’t buy a kebab but a sushi burrito.”