Sushi 101: An Expert’s Guide to the World of Sushi
November 8, 2023
5 min read
Sushi has been a staple food in Japan for many centuries and understandably so because let’s be honest – it is absolutely delicious!
Are you already a fan of this delightful cuisine? Or are you still pretty new to the world of vinegared rice with its many mouth-watering toppings?
No matter where you are on the scale, even we will admit that the world of sushi can be a little intimidating. From all the different types of sushi to the proper etiquette, there’s a lot to learn.
Don’t worry though, by the end of this guide you will be a true sushi connoisseur, explaining to your friends why they can’t roll their chopsticks together and what the difference is between chu-toro and o-toro.
You’ll be a true expert on everything that encompasses this incredible Japanese delicacy.
Sushi - what exactly is it?
Upon hearing the word sushi, a lot of people will think of raw fish or perhaps those little seaweed rolls (makis).
However, it is actually the rice that is the most important ingredient, because without it can’t be called sushi!
The word “sushi” refers to the sour flavour that the rice gets from being mixed with rice vinegar, salt and sugar. This mixture (awase-zu) combined with the rice is called sushi-meshi. The rice is like a thread weaving together infinite flavour possibilities.
Simply put: any type of dish made with vinegared rice is called sushi, any dish without sushi-meshi isn’t.
However, don’t be fooled by the seemingly simplistic nature of this dish. In Japan being a sushi chef is highly revered and honourable. The chef (Itamae) trains for decades and making sushi is seen as a true form of art. Just learning how to perfectly cook the rice takes years and that is before they are even allowed to handle any of the other ingredients such as the fish.
Insider's tip – Eating sushi is somewhat like a ritual and when dining in Japan it is actually considered rude not to ask the Itamae for recommendations, as they are seen as true masters of their craft. Therefore, it is very common to order an Omakase, which is like a tasting menu curated by the chef.
Talking sushi (like a pro)
Let’s start with some of the basics of this Asian delight. This is some common terminology to help you get started:
Sushi-meshi: The vinegared sushi rice mixture. Short-grain rice is most typically used in Japan and is known as Japonica rice or shari. There is also medium and long-grain rice but this is less commonly used.
Awase-zu: The literal meaning is “combined vinegar” and this is the mixture of vinegar, salt and sugar that gives the sushi-meshi its flavour.
Nori: Thin sheets of dried or toasted seaweed that is used to make the makis.
Aburi: Literally this means “flame-seared”. The fish gets seared on the top and the bottom is left raw. Such as the salmon on our Eun roll.
Wasabi: This green paste is served alongside the sushi or is already added by the chef. The Japanese horseradish gives a burst of flavour and if you use too much you’ll feel the heat running right through your nose.
Shoyu: Aka soy sauce, which is made from fermented soybeans. This salty sauce is to be used in moderation because it is meant to only lightly accent the other flavours of the food.
Types of sushi
Okay, we covered some of the basics of the wondrous world of sushi but what about the actual dishes? Maybe you’ve stared down a menu before and felt completely lost.
Don’t worry, you’re definitely not alone in this! At first, it might seem like a lot but once you understand the main distinctions you’ll be able to navigate the menu quite easily.
In case you get a complete brain freeze when the waiter takes your order, just confidently ask for the Omakase. Everyone will think you know exactly what you’re doing and you won’t have to choose a single thing.
Busting the myth: Sushi vs Sashimi
First, we have to set the (sushi) record straight here. Some people use sashimi and sushi interchangeably, and although a very common misconception, the two are most definitely not the same thing.
Sashimi translates to “pierced meat” and refers to a dish that consists of thinly sliced, seasoned cuts of fish, seafood or even meat. Most importantly, there is not a single grain of rice involved here.
Another misconception around sashimi is that it has to be raw, which again is not true. The fish or meat can briefly be seared, braised or boiled.
The last noteworthy distinction is that sashimi is meant to be eaten with chopsticks, whereas sushi is supposed to be eaten by hand.
Now that we have debunked these common myths, let’s have a look at the different styles of sushi you may find in a Japanese restaurant.
Broadly speaking there are really only two types of sushi – nigiri and maki.
Nigiri or Nigiri-zushi
The word "nigiri" comes from the Japanese word "nigiru," which means "to grasp or hold tightly." It refers to the way in which the sushi rice is shaped and moulded by the chef to create an oval-shaped mound, which is then topped with a slice of raw or cooked fish or seafood. You’ll often find a little dab of wasabi between the fish and the rice. Occasionally a small strip of nori is used to belt an ingredient to the compacted oval-shaped rice.
Common toppings for nigiri sushi consist of various types of raw fish or seafood such as bluefin tuna, salmon, yellowtail, or shrimp.
The combination of fresh, raw fish or seafood with sticky rice creates magical sensations for the palate.
Little nugget of wisdom – when it comes to eating nigiri, pick it up with your hands and flip it upside down placing it in your mouth so that the fish lands on the tongue. Before you start to chew, try to break the nigiri apart a little by pushing it onto the roof of your mouth. Really, your tastebuds will be grateful.
Cuts of the fish
The specific cut of fish that is used for the nigiri is crucial as it determines the quality and flavour. It could honestly be an entire study in itself but we outlined a couple that you are likely to spot on a menu.
Tuna for instance can be listed as Akami or Toro and refers to where the cut comes from on the fish.
Akami is the lean, deep red meat of the tuna that comes from the back and sides of the fish. It has a firm texture and a rich, meaty flavour that is often described as "beef-like." If you order tuna sushi in a restaurant without specifying you want toro you will likely get this cut.
Akami is divided in:
Senaka: the highest quality akami
Sekami: medium quality akami
Seshimo: the lowest quality akami
Toro comes from the belly of the fish and is the fattiest part. This hard-to-come-by cut is a true delicacy and a feast for the tastebuds. There are two types of toro.
Chu-toro: This cut is the “medium-fatty” part. It has a tender texture and a mild, buttery flavour that melts in your mouth.
O-toro: The most prized and expensive cut of tuna and is the fattiest part. It is marbled just like a high-end steak and has a silky, almost creamy texture and a luxurious, rich flavour.
Kama or Kama-toru is the part of bluefin tuna that is located just behind the head. It contains tender, fatty meat that is highly prized in Japanese cuisine. Kama sushi is prepared by grilling the fish collar, which is then cut into small pieces and served atop a bed of sushi rice.
Hamachi: This is yellowtail tuna, and is commonly used in nigiri sushi. It has a firm, buttery texture and a mild, slightly sweet flavour.
Sake: Sake is salmon, another popular fish used in nigiri sushi. It has a soft, buttery texture and a delicate, slightly sweet flavour.
These are just a few examples of the many cuts that can get used. Each one has its own unique flavour and texture, and if you can definitely try a variety of them. Skilled sushi chefs carefully select and prepare each of them to create a delicious tasting experience.
Maki or Makizushi
According to legend, makis were created by criminals or yakuza because they could easily eat them while playing cards.
Makizushi is a sushi dish that is made by rolling the rice, vegetables, and fresh fish/seafood in a sheet of nori seaweed. The result is a cylindrical roll that is often cut into six to eight pieces.
The word “maki” in Japanese means “roll”, hence the name makizushi. There are different types of makizushi such as:
Hosomaki is a type of sushi that is prepared by rolling rice, nori, and a single filling into a tightly packed cylinder using a bamboo mat. Unlike other types of sushi that may contain multiple fillings, hosomaki allows for a more focused flavour experience. Once rolled, the hosomaki is cut into six to eight bite-sized pieces for serving. An example is a cucumber roll aka the kapa maki.
Futomaki is a type of sushi that originates from the hosomaki tradition but includes additional fillings. It typically contains two or more ingredients of raw vegetables and cooked or raw fish and is wrapped in nori seaweed to create a roll that is about two inches in diameter.
Uramaki means "inside-out" and is that distinctive roll with sushi rice on the outside, and nori seaweed inside, with the fillings in the centre. This roll was invented in de the ’60s in de US (by a Japanese chef, don’t worry) and the most well-known one is probably the California roll. Of course, there are many different variants and fillings can vary widely.
Temaki aka the hand-roll is a type of sushi that is known for its unique cone shape presentation. It is typically made by placing a sheet of nori seaweed onto a flat surface, adding a layer of sushi rice, and then adding a variety of fillings. Pro-tip: It's best eaten immediately after construction, as the nori will lose its crispness if it absorbs too much moisture from the fillings.
Gunkan-maki translates to "warship roll". It’s a type of sushi known for its distinctive boat-like shape. The sushi rice is moulded into a small rectangular shape, and a strip of nori seaweed is wrapped around the sides to create the "boat". The hollow centre is then filled with a variety of ingredients, such as chopped fish, roe, or other seafood. It’s often used to serve ingredients that are difficult to handle or shape, as the boat-like structure can contain the ingredients and prevent them from falling apart.
By now you know so much about the dish that obviously we don't want to see you fail at the attempt of actually eating it.
Japanese culture has a rich cultural heritage with unique characteristics and countless traditions and specific customs to show respect. Sushi etiquette is an important part of Japanese culture and by following these rules you are showing appreciation for the chef's skill and craft and the art of sushi.
While it can seem intimidating at first, understanding these rules can actually enhance the dining experience.
Chopsticks are an essential part of the Japanese dining experience but there are some rules when it comes to using these Japanese utensils. They can be made from wood, bamboo or steel. They might be lacquered and nowadays there are even foldable travel chopsticks (#sustainable).
There are a couple of key rules to keep in mind when using chopsticks:
If you are using disposable chopsticks (waribashi) definitely don’t start rubbing them together after you’ve split them! If you’re anything like us you might have made this mistake a couple of times (or like, a million) but it is actually seen as an insult. By rubbing them together you are implying that you are getting rid of splinters because the chopsticks are cheap.
Don’t pierce or cut your food with your chopsticks. Additionally, don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your food especially in a donburi or a bowl of rice as this a practice that gets associated with funerals (because the chopsticks resemble the incense).
Sharing food or grabbing a nigiri from a communal plate? Use the end of the sticks that haven’t touched your mouth.
Similarly, never pass food directly from your chopsticks to someone else's, as this resembles a funeral ritual where the bones of a deceased person are placed in an urn after cremation.
Additionally, it's important to never cross them or leave them directly on the table, but instead, place them on a chopstick holder (hashioki) when not in use. If there is no hashioki around you can leave them on the edge of your bowl or plate.
Although the chopsticks are an instrument for which the Japanese have deep respect they are actually not used when eating nigiri or maki rolls. You can pick these up with your hands.
There are many more rules when it comes to indulging in the Asian delight such as what to do with the wasabi for instance.
Maybe you dunk it straight into the little shoyu bowl as you sit down and start mixing it until you get that fiery greenish-brown liquid. We hate to break the news, but this is another absolute no-go. It is seen as disrespectful to the chef, as he already puts the wasabi on the sushi, and you’re implying that he hasn’t prepared well.
If you do want to spice it up, take a little smudge with your chopstick and put it directly onto the nigiri or maki.
When it comes to the soy sauce itself, again less is more. When dipping the nigiri make sure you dip fish down, as the rice acts like a sponge and might soak up a little too much of the good stuff, ruining the delicate flavours.
The yummy ginger (gari) next to the sushi is to be used as a palate cleanser in between bites, so please don’t throw that onto your roll.
It's also customary to eat sushi in one bite, rather than biting it in half, and to not pick through the sushi to find the best piece. If a piece is too big of course you can eat it in multiple bites.
We personally love everything sushi and all the beautiful traditions and rich heritage that comes with it.
As you start to see it as more of an art form, it will hopefully enrich your entire culinary experience and make it even more than eating some delicious food.
Ready to put your knowledge to the test and treat your tastebuds?Come and try the wonderful sushi made by our own Itamae (and let us know which is your favourite one).