For many people sushi is synonymous with Japanese food. However sushi is far more complex than it first seems. In this article, we’ll look at different types of sushi, typical ingredients and good etiquette for eating sushi.
What Is Sushi?
Sushi is actually the name for short grain sticky rice seasoned with vinegar. Although it is frequently served with fish, sushi can also be accompanied by vegetables or omelette. Dried seaweed (nori) is used as a wrapper on some pieces and the fish or vegetable toppings can be raw, cooked, dried or smoked. Sushi is usually served with miso soup, wasabi paste, soy sauce and pickled ginger.
Raw fish served without rice is called sashimi.
Types of Sushi
This is probably the most common type of sushi seen outside of Japan. It’s a rectangular bite-sized block of rice with a piece of topping laid on top. Most Japanese sushi restaurants will stick the topping to the rice with a smear of wasabi, so be careful of adding more when you eat it!
Meaning “Fat Roll”, futomaki is a selection of ingredients surrounded by sushi rice and wrapped in nori. The roll is then sliced to reveal the cross section of ingredients. Futomaki often have vegetables and pickles as well as cooked fish or seafood; ingredients are chosen not only for their taste but for their appearance. Raw fish is unusual in futomaki as the other ingredients overwhelm the delicate taste.
Hosomaki is similar to futomaki, but it is a “thin roll”. While futomaki might have several fillings, hosomaki only has one. This can be fish, seafood or vegetables such as carrots or avocado. Hosomaki filled with cucumber are often served between courses as a palate cleanser.
This is an inside-out version of futomaki, with the rice on the outside, then a layer of nori, and the fillings in the centre. The rice might also be coated with sesame seeds or other small seasonings. Uramakizushi is unusual in Japan as the outer coat of rice is not very stable and disintegrates easily when sliced.
Literally meaning “hand roll” this is a block of sushi rice wrapped in nori to form a cone shape. Toppings are rolled in to the open end of the cone. This is seen as the best way for sushi chefs to show off their artistic skills as well as flavour combinations.
Gunkan (“Battleship”) sushi is a block of rice with an oversize nori wrapper. This creates a cup shape which can hold certain toppings that might become messy if served as nigiri. Popular toppings include fish roe and sea urchins.
A speciality of Osaka, this type of sushi is created by placing the fish or vegetables to be used in the bottom of a small box. Rice is then piled on top, and the box closed tightly to press all the ingredients together. The oshizushi is then removed and sliced in to bit sized chunks.
This is slices of raw fish (although the fish has usually been frozen to kill bacteria) served with garnishes and seasonings, but no rice. This type of presentation allows the diner to appreciate the delicate flavour of the fish.
Meaning “scattered sushi” chirashi is often made from offcuts of fish that aren’t perfectly shaped to be served in maki or nigiri. A dish of sushi rice is made, and then the offcuts and garnishes scattered artistically over the top. As the Japanese value the appearance of food almost as much as the taste chirashi is often cheaper than perfectly shaped sushi pieces, so it’s a great way to sample top quality fish at a lower price.
This is a type of stuffed sushi, where sushi rice is stuffed inside a block of tofu and then deep fried. Sometimes there are small pieces of vegetables such as green beans or carrot included in the rice. Deep fried tofu is often used inside maki rolls as well.
Onigiri is a ball (or triangle) of rice with a small amount of filling in the middle and wrapped in nori. It’s a popular snack and is often sold in convenience stores. Filling can be a pickled vegetable or a small piece of fish.
Notice that sushi on its own is spelt sushi, but when combined with other words is spelt zushi; for example inarizushi.
Common Sushi Toppings
Here are some common ingredients you might come across when ordering sushi in Japan.
Aji – Mackerel
Amaebi – Raw Prawn
Anago – Conger Eel
Ebi – Cooked Prawn
Hamachi – Yellowtail fish
Hotate – Scallop
Ika – Squid
Ikura – Salmon Roe
Inari – deep fried tofu
Kamaboku Kani – Crabsticks
Kani – Crab
Maguro – Ordinary tuna
Masu – Trout
Nori – Dried seaweed sheets
Sake – Salmon
Tako – Octopus
Tamago – Sweet egg omelette
Tofu – Soybean curd
Toro – Fatty Bluefin tuna belly
Umeboshi – Pickled plum
Unagi – Fresh water eel
Uni – Sea Urchin gonad
Yuba – Tofu skin
How to Eat Sushi
Sashimi and small maki are usually eaten with chopsticks as the pieces are small and easy to pick up. Larger sushi is eaten with fingers as it can be unwieldy to eat with chopsticks. If in doubt copy what Japanese diners are doing.
As mentioned previously, many sushi chefs will add wasabi (a spicy paste made from a plant similar to horseradish) when constructing the sushi. In high end sushi bars, it is considered rude to add additional wasabi as this implies the chef has put the wrong amount in. However more casual places will provide a pot of wasabi if you wish to add extra – put a small dab on the sushi pieces after you have tasted the first one to check how much is needed.
Sushi bars often don’t have waiters so the chef takes orders as well as making the food. In larger sushi bars that serve side dishes, waiters will take orders for these while sushi is ordered directly from the chef. Many sushi bars will offer a selection plate made by the chef and served in a sequence that suits the flavours. This is a good way to order if you aren’t sure or want to try a few things. Otherwise just order one or two pieces at a time so the chef has time to serve other customers sitting at the counter.
Sushi can be expensive so if you are on a tight budget look for kaiten-zushi, where dishes are put on a conveyor belt that circles the restaurant. The plates are colour coded to show the price and your empty plates are counted at the end of the meal to calculate the bill.
Order sashimi first, then move on to nigiri and hosomaki. Finally order futomaki, inari and other elaborate sushi. This allows you to appreciate subtle flavours first before trying the stronger tastes. By the same logic, drink sake at the start of the meal, then move on to green tea, beer or water. Wine and soft drinks are too strong and will ruin the taste of the sushi. Eat a piece of gari (pickled ginger) between sushi to cleanse your palate. Edamame can also be eaten throughout a sushi meal as it complements the sushi flavours. Miso soup should be consumed at the end of the meal.
To eat the sushi dip it in soy sauce with the rice facing up; this allows the topping to be used a support for the rice so it does not fall apart on to the table. Pour a small amount of soy sauce into the dish provided, it is bad form to pour soy sauce directly on to the sushi. Do not dip elaborate sushi that has a glaze or sauce already on it, only dip “dry” sushi consisting of rice and toppings. Sushi should be eaten in one bite. If this is too much, hold the sushi until you are ready for a second bite – do not put it back on to the plate half eaten.
You will be given a damp towel to wipe your fingers with. In some sushi restaurants there will be a water pipe running over the counter in front of diners; you can dip your fingers in this to clean them.
The chef will not handle money, so look for a waiter or cashier when it is time to pay.