Since you’re here reading my blog, you’re probably somewhat familiar with sushi.
In recent decades, sushi became well-known and loved around the world. Along with cherry blossoms, electronics and car companies, anime, samurai, and geisha, sushi became one of the widely recognized symbols of Japan.
In many cases, people think of sushi rolls when they hear “sushi”. However, in Japan, the word sushi (寿司) doesn’t specifically refer to sushi rolls.
Sushi comes in many shapes and forms, but always contains one specific ingredient: vinegared rice (鮨飯, sumeshi).
You can use almost anything else to accompany rice – fish, veggies, seaweeds, meat, even chocolate and fruit – the other ingredients (ねた – neta) are completely up to you!
Whatever your favorite style or ingredient combination is, the core concept of all sushi is the same: bite-sized pieces, easy to grab, and rich with flavors and textures.
Sushi is a practical food – it’s easy to pick up and eat without a mess, and it delivers a variety of flavors in a single bite. It’s just perfect for a quick bite on the go or as a snack at social gatherings.
The Many Kinds of Sushi
In a way, there are almost as many kinds of sushi as there are sushi restaurants. Chefs experiment with ingredient combinations in their quest for delicious sushi.
No matter what you put in it (burger sushi? why not), sushi comes in a few typical shapes. Cutting, rolling, shaping, and arranging sushi are crafts that sushi chefs practice to perfection.
Let’s take a look at the most common sushi preparation methods.
Sashimi is the simplest form of serving bite-sized seafood. Technically, sashimi is not sushi because it isn’t served with vinegared rice (or any rice at all).
Instead, sashimi is simply a platter of carefully sliced and arranged seafood. It’s sometimes placed on top of ice to stay fresh longer. The pieces are cut into thin slices so they’re convenient to pick up and munch on at social gatherings. Like in sushi, the fish and shellfish are typically served raw.
Sashimi doesn’t normally come with rice. It’s typically served on top of a vegetable garnish called tsuma (つま). Tsuma contains fine strips of Japanese vegetables like daikon radish, shiso (perilla), or cucumber leaves. The veggies are not only appetizingly colorful but also play a role in deodorizing fish odors.
Nigiri is the basic form of sushi: a molded rice rectangle topped with a slice of seafood.
It’s deliciously simple – yet making nigiri takes years to master. Special technique and carefully applied pressure are necessary to make a rice ball that’s fluffy but doesn’t fall apart. A dab of wasabi is usually carefully applied between the rice ball and the slice of fish or shrimp. A carefully cut slice of fish or seafood is placed on top and sometimes tied with a piece of nori seaweed.
Even though the opposite is quite widespread, when eating nigiri sushi, you should dip the fish into soy sauce – not the rice.
A slight variation on nigiri is a cute round sushi called temari sushi (手まり) after a traditional, colorfully embroidered playing ball. Temari is often a combination of several ingredients with sushi rice. Thanks to its delicious loveliness, temari sushi is served for hinamatsuri, a girls’ day festivity.
Finally, let me address a common misconception – the difference between nigiri sushi and onigiri. Even though they have similar names, the two are not very alike. Onigiri is simply a rice ball (regular rice – not vinegared) with spices and a piece of seaweed. Onigiri is a nice snack, but can’t be considered sushi.
If you come from the west, chances are that maki is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear “sushi”.
Maki-zushi is what we’d call sushi rolls – ingredients rolledtogether in rice and seaweed, then chopped into bite-sized pieces. Maki is tightly rolled, making it an easy meal to master if you’re learning how to use chopsticks!
Maki Sushi Anatomy
Maki means “to roll”, and that’s exactly how the sushi is made. Long rolls are cut into smaller pieces.
The outermost layer is often a sort of seaweed. Most often, maki sushi is rolled inside a piece of nori seaweed, with soybean sheets and rice paper as common alternatives.
As with all sushi, vinegared rice is the only must-have ingredient in maki.
Raw fish and shellfish, roe, veggies, avocado, and fermented soybeans are common fillings.
A sushi rolling mat, usually made of bamboo, is used to create neat, tightly packed sushi rolls.
Other Styles of Maki
Most maki sushi is cut to approximately 1-inch thick pieces, but the thickness of the roll can vary greatly.
Thinly rolled sushi with just rice and one ingredient is called hoso maki (細巻き), and on the opposite side of the spectrum, we have futomaki (太巻き), large maki 2+ inches across with many ingredients.
“Inverse” maki is interesting too: The seaweed holds fillings together inside, and rice is on the outside of sushi. We call that sushi-style uramaki (うら巻き). The rice on the outside may be covered with roe or sesame seeds. Interestingly, this type of sushi doesn’t come from Japan – though it was invented by a Japanese chef living in California. To this day, California roll is the most popular type of uramaki.
Finally, you can find gunkan maki (軍艦巻), which literally translates to battleship roll. In this sushi, the rice and nori are formed into a sort of a cup that looks like a boar. It’s ideal to “pour” soft toppings in, especially various types of roe (caviar).
While you’d need a rolling mat to make maki sushi, you could roll the same ingredients by hand and get temaki (literally hand-rolled). Temaki is rolled into a cone that resembles the Greek gyros and isn’t cut. Instead, it’s eaten in a few bites.
Literally meaning “scattered sushi”, chirashi-zushi is a way of serving sushi ingredients loosely spread in a large bowl. It’s an easy way to serve treats to guests at large gatherings without the hassle of molding sushi.
A typical chirashi includes everything you’d eat in sushi: vinegared rice, diced fish and shellfish, veggies, mushrooms, seaweeds, fish cakes, roe, and much more.
From Fermentation Barrels to Conveyor Belts
Historically, sushi used to represent a way of fermenting fish inbarrels filled with rice. The barrels would be closed off for years, giving rice and fish the time to thoroughly ferment.
But jump to Edo period when the capital moved to the busy streets of Tokyo (then called Edo). At the time, street food stalls became increasingly popular, and the Japanese found many innovative snacks to have on the go. Among them is sushi – now combining pieces of fresh fish and rice prepared with vinegar, packed in bite-sized pieces.
Today, we can find all kinds of sushi restaurants across Japan and the world. Some are gourmet restaurants run by seasoned sushi masters. Some are corner shops (or even vending machines) with cheap but tasty bites. And some are futuristic-looking restaurants with conveyor belts that deliver orders you make on a touch-screen straight to you.
The culture that developed around sushi is big and worth exploring. We’ll take a deeper dive into Japanese sushi culture in a future blog article.
Basic Sushi Ingredients
Rice is THE ingredient that makes or breaks sushi.
Unlike most other Japanese dishes, sushi requires rice that’s fermented or prepared with vinegar. It’s often seasoned with sugar, salt, and even kombu seaweed.
In general, Japanese short-grain rice is used to make sushi rice (sumeshi 酢飯 or shari シャリ). During preparation, chefs pay a lot of attention not to crush or damage rice grains. That’s especially important when adding vinegar because damaged grains tend to mush together.
This kind of preparation makes the rice perfect for nigiri rice balls – sticky enough to hold together, but without sticking to the plate. Nigiri rice balls are specially prepared by hand with carefully applied pressure, and the technique has been passed down for generations.
Fish and Other Seafood in Sushi
Fish is one of the most common sushi neta (ingredients), along with other seafood and vegetables. In the past, sushi used to refer to fermented fish, but today, the dish usually contains raw or salted fish.
The fish is carefully sliced into equal, bite-sized pieces that are combined with sushi rice.
The most common choices of fish in sushi are:
A wide variety of other seafood is added to sushi. As we mentioned – there are as many unique sushi recipes as there are sushi chefs! That means – feel free to experiment with ingredients and find your favorite sushi combination.
Seaweed in Sushi
Seaweed is used in sushi both to add flavor and to hold maki rolls together.
The seaweed most commonly eaten with sushi is nori (海苔).
Dried, pressed sheets of nori are used to roll rice and fish in. The dry weed quickly absorbs moisture from other ingredients – which makes its texture change from crunchy to moist and chewy.
Nori is a great snack on its own too! Just remember to keep your nori in a dry place for it to stay crispy. A bag of nori you get at a grocery store will likely contain a packet of desiccant – a chemical that absorbs moisture. Discard it after opening nori.
Another type of seaweed called wakame is sometimes used as a sushi topping.
But combine the spicy wasabi with a piece of fatty fish, and you’ll get a surprisingly flavorful combination without too much heat. In fact, your nigiri sushi already contains a dab of wasabi between the fish and the rice – just enough to bring out the flavor of the fish without being too spicy.
Along with enhancing the flavor of your sushi, the nostril-burning paste also has an anti-microbial role. It’s usually served with sashimi and sushi, raw-fish-based meals because it prevents fish from spoiling.
Due to the high price of the wasabi root, the paste is usually a mixture of wasabi with mustard and horseradish and some green food coloring.
Unlike a popular practice, you’re not supposed to mix wasabi with soy sauce. Simply put a dab of the green stuff on your sushi.
The pink stuff next to wasabi is pickled ginger called gari.
It has a refreshingly sour-sweet taste, and it’s used as a palate cleanser in between sushi bites. In essence, having a bite of gari in between sushi will help “reset” your taste buds and let you fully experience the flavor of the next sushi you bite.
Like with most Japanese dishes, soy sauce is an essential part of the flavor palate of sushi. The sweet umami flavor of shoyu complements and brings out the aromas in your sushi.
Remember to dip your nigiri into soy sauce fish-down – avoid soaking the rice.
Light salads often accompany sushi platters.
Some of the most common plant-based sides are edamame (young soybeans, boiled and spiced), wakame seaweed, cucumber salads (sometimes featuring sesame – yum!), various kinds of beans, and eggplant.
A Bite of Goodness
Thanks for reading my introduction to sushi! Today, you learned about all the different kinds of sushi and that you shouldn’t dip your nigiri rice-down into soy sauce. In the next article, I’ll cover more customs, history, and dining etiquette related to the most famous tasty bite from Japan – sushi.