All You Need to Know about Sushi

When people think of Japanese cuisine, one of the first foods to come to mind is, of course, sushi. A major symbol of Japan, sushi is much more than just raw fish. It’s been a beloved food for centuries in Japan and enjoys great popularity around the world. Try this unusual yet delicious food, but first—let’s take a look at what exactly sushi is.

Some westernized styles of sushi, such as the California roll, are supremely popular overseas, and for good reason. It doesn’t take much for a person to fall in love with sushi. Sushi is low-fat but high in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and omega acids. It’s one of the healthiest dishes in the world. It also has a delicate and natural taste that few dishes can contend with.

The art of sushi making is handled by sushi masters, or taisho, who take exceptional pride in their craft. It takes decades of training to receive the title of sushi master. Although regular people don’t have to spend decades to learn how to enjoy sushi, learning the manners and vocabulary involved in eating this wonderful dish helps a diner make the most of the experience.


Introduced to Japan from Southeast Asia in the 8th century, the original version of sushi was quite different. It involved wrapping fermented rice around a piece of gutted fish. By doing so, fish could be kept for several months. However, the rice would be thrown away. It wasn’t until later that the fish was eaten with rice—Japan’s staple food—and the combination was called nare-zushi, still available today. Each region created their own variation of nare-zushi, which reflected the local tastes; Osaka has oshi-zushi and Shiga is famous for its funa-zushi from Lake Biwa.

The sushi that people are most familiar with today - nigiri-zushi - wasn’t invented until the 19th century by Hanaya Yohei, who now has a Japanese chain restaurant named after him. This kind of sushi is called haya-zushi, or “quick sushi”, and it’s what we know around the world as “sushi”. When it first debuted, haya-zushi could be found at sushi yatai (food stalls) all over Tokyo, using fish from Edo Bay. Everyone was enjoying fresh fish with vinegared rice. One common theory is that due to the 1923 Kanto Earthquake, many sushi chefs evacuated and returned to their hometowns, thus allowing the spread of sushi culture all over Japan.

Types of Sushi

There are numerous variations of sushi in Japan. Each region specializes in using either different methods of preparation or their local fish. Below are just some of the basic types of sushi:

  • Nigiri-zushi – Also known as Edo-mae sushi, this is the most common type of sushi. It involves raw fish or another topping on top of an oblong pillow of rice.

  • Gunkan-maki – A piece of nigiri-zushi but with seaweed wrapped around it. Sea urchin, salmon roe, and natto are often served as gunkan-maki.

  • Maki-zushi – A sushi roll made of raw fish and other ingredients wrapped in rice and seaweed. They come in varied sizes, like futo-maki (thick roll) or hoso-maki (thin roll) and are often cut into pieces.

  • Temaki-zushi – A conical-shaped maki-zushi that is eaten by hand.

  • Chirashi-zushi – Pieces of raw fish on top of vinegared rice. Literally “scattered sushi”, this dish is recommended for people who want to try a variety of fish or a lot of one kind at a cheap price.

  • Inari-zushi – Vinegared rice and sometimes vegetables inside a pouch of flavored fried tofu.

  • Nare-zushi – The traditional form of fermented sushi.

  • Oshi-zushi –Cured fish and rice that has been pressed into a box shape or other mold. It’s popular the Kansai region. Literally “pressed sushi”.

  • Sashimi – Slices of raw fish served without rice.

How to Eat

There are three common condiments for sushi:

  • Soy sauce – Nearly every type of sushi is eaten with soy sauce. (One such exception is anago.) Rather than pouring soy sauce directly onto the sushi, first pour some into a small round dish and dip your sushi accordingly.

  • Wasabi – There’s a “love it or hate it” approach to this condiment that comes with most nigiri sushi. Wasabi, or Japanese horseradish, is a pungent green paste that enhances the flavor of the sushi by adding a kick to it. It also reduces the risk of food poisoning.

  • Shoga – Another spicy condiment that’s essential to sushi is shoga (also called gari), or pickled ginger. Its astringent taste has been described as soapy by those who don’t care for it. But, like wasabi, it has antibacterial properties and cleanses your palate. In addition, there’s another bonus to shoga - if you accidentally put too much wasabi on your sushi eating some shoga will cancel out wasabi’s spiciness.

Here are some tips on manners for eating sushi at proper sushi restaurants:

  • Do not wear too much perfume. It can interfere with the delicate taste of the sushi.
  • Sushi can be eaten by hand or with chopsticks—both are perfectly acceptable. Sashimi, on the other hand, is only eaten with chopsticks.
  • Putting too much soy sauce on the rice can kill the taste of the sushi. To enjoy the sushi to its fullest, flip the sushi upside down and dip the top of the fish in the soy sauce.
  • Putting soy sauce on the rice of a gunkan-maki or maki-zushi is inevitable—but just a tiny dab should be enough.
  • If you want to be a bit fancier while applying your soy sauce, use the foolproof method of dipping the pickled ginger into the soy sauce and then brushing it onto the gunkan-maki. Or if you’re lucky enough to get some cucumber slices with your portion, dip those into the soy sauce to apply it to the sushi.
  • It’s a common opinion that sushi tastes best rice-up—but it’s all a matter of preference.
  • It’s typically recommended to start off with a subtle fish—usually white-fleshed—before eating the stronger-flavored sushi, such as tuna and sea urchin. But, of course, enjoy sushi your own way.
  • Cleanse your palate with shoga or tea in between pieces of sushi. Tea also serves as an antibacterial. Shoga, wasabi, and tea were crucial during the early years of sushi, as the raw fish preservation methods were underdeveloped.
  • To enjoy the harmony between the taste of the rice and sushi—not to mention the texture—eat the sushi in one bite. You can always ask the master for less rice. The only time to eat the rice and topping separately is when you enjoy chirashi-zushi.
  • There’s no need to rush but it’s generally thought that the sushi is best when eaten as soon as it is served, especially for any that’s accompanied by seaweed.
  • Tell the master beforehand if you don’t like wasabi.By default, nearly all sushi comes with wasabi inside. However, if you really like wasabi, you can ask for more, and the same goes for shoga.
  • Don’t forget to say “Itadakimasu” before eating and “Gochisousama” after!
  • It isn’t necessary to tip in Japan.

Sushi-ya or Kaiten-zushi

You can get cheap sushi at a conbini or supermarket for less than 1,000 yen. But visiting a proper sushi restaurant is a must-do activity in Japan. If you have the budget for it, eating at a formal sushi-ya—sushi bar or restaurant— offers a true Japanese experience. Of course, if you are watching your pocketbook, then kaiten-zushi—“spinning” sushi—is a great experience in its own right.

Points of note for sushi-ya:

  • Sushi-ya are a formal affair and while there may not be a dress code, your manners will be important if you want to make sure you don’t offend the master. The advice and tips above are useful for this, so be sure to remember them and practice.
  • Making a reservation beforehand is the way to go. If you don’t speak Japanese, it may be better to ask someone who does for assistance (the hotel concierge, for example).
  • Most sushi-ya have a counter and tables. The master makes his sushi at the counter, right in front of the customers, to ensure the ingredients are fresh. Sitting at the counter provides an opportunity to chat with the master.
  • If you don’t have a preference or want to try something new, tell the master your budget and say “omakase de onegai shimasu.” This leaves the sushi selection to the master’s recommendation. You’ll get some in-season fish and maybe find a new favorite.
  • At high-end sushi restaurant, there are typically three ways to order: omakase (mentioned above), okimari (set menu), and okonomi (your choice). Okimari menus are often classified as sho (pine), chiku (bamboo), and bai (plum) (in descending order of price).
  • At formal sushi restaurants, a serving of sushi usually consists of one to two pieces. Depending on your tastes, you can also ask the master to make just one of a specific sushi if you’d like to try a wider selection.
  • You may find yourself in a restaurant which offers a “full course”. In this case, you might get an assortment of other dishes before or with your sushi, such as sashimi, savory egg custard, or grilled fish.
  • Depending on your budget eating at a formal sushi restaurant can cost as little as 2,000 yen to over 30,000 yen at high-end places. Prices are usually between 5,000 to 15,000 yen.
  • While many sushi restaurants only do business during the evening and night hours, some establishments do offer lunch. You may even find a “lunch special”, for example chirashi-zushi.

Points of note for kaiten-zushi restaurants:

  • Kaiten-zushi restaurants are a popular image of sushi in Japan. They’re known for the conveyor-belts that carry plates of sushi around the restaurant to the customer. You can always ask one of the masters behind the counter to make something fresh if you can’t find what you want. Some places even have touch-screen panels for ordering fresh sushi.
  • Although the sushi isn’t the high-quality fare of a respected sushi-ya, it’s still quite tasty. Kaiten-zushi is more geared toward families and those on a tighter budget.
  • Kaiten-zushi is a great form of fast food—not only is it healthy but also affordable. One plate of sushi with two pieces usually costs between 100 yen (such as egg) to 600 yen (such as fatty tuna or sea urchin). It’s easy to eat until you’re satisfied for just 1,000 or 2,000 yen.
  • As opposed to sushi served at formal restaurants sushi, at kaiten-zushi often comes in pairs.
  • At most kaiten-zushi, cups, green tea powder, and a hot water faucet are provided (though be warned that the water coming out of the faucet is extremely hot). Some restaurants will bring you the first cup of tea, but afterward it becomes self-service.
  • Dishes are color-coded and you should stack them at the end of the table for the staff to calculate your bill.
  • Even if you didn’t touch the sushi itself, do not remove a plate from the conveyor and then return it.
  • Compared to formal sushi restaurants, kaiten-zushi restaurants tend to have innovative and even non-sushi menu items. There are many side dishes and desserts, as well as unusual sushi combinations with unique ingredients!
  • Although you should always try to remember the proper way to eat sushi no matter the establishment, kaiten-zushi restaurants tend to have a much more relaxed atmosphere.
  • If possible, sit so the master is diagonally right from you. Almost all conveyor belts run clockwise, and this ensures the sushi on the conveyor belt nearest you is the freshest it can be.


Basic sushi terms

  • aburi-zushi - lightly grilled sushi

  • akami-zakana - “red-fleshed” fish, such as tuna; usually has a stronger taste

  • gohan - rice (also called meshi or sumeshi, which means “vinegared rice”)

  • hikari-mono - “shiny fish,” such as mackerel and sardine

  • kaiten-zushi - belt-conveyor sushi restaurant

  • -kan - counting term for sushi (ikkan, nikan, sankan…)

  • makisu - rolling mat for maki-zushi

  • nori - seaweed

  • ocha - tea

  • otsumami - small dishes served as an appetizer of sorts

  • shoga - pickled ginger

  • shoyu - soy sauce

  • shoyu-zara - dish for soy sauce

  • shiromi-zakana - “white-fleshed” fish

  • taisho - sushi master/chef

  • tane - ingredients (what goes on top of the rice)

Advanced lingo

These terms are exclusively used by sushi chefs:

  • agari - hot green tea

  • gari - pickled ginger

  • geta - wooden slab on which sushi is served (derived from the Japanese sandals of the same name)

  • gyoku - egg omelette

  • murasaki - another name for soy sauce

  • neta - ingredients (what goes on top of the rice)

  • o-aiso - check/bill

  • shari - vinegared rice

  • tsume - sauce used on anago and other certain types of sushi

Types of Fish

  • aji - horse mackerel (also called ma-aji)

    • shima-aji - white trevally

  • anago - grilled conger eel

  • ankimo - cooked monkfish liver

  • ayu - sweetfish

  • buri - adult/large yellowtail

    • hamachi - young/small yellowtail

    • inada - very young/small yellowtail

  • ebi - shrimp

    • ama-ebi - raw “sweet” shrimp

    • botan-ebi - Botan shrimp

    • Ise-ebi - lobster

    • kuruma-ebi - prawn

  • engawa - flounder fin

  • fugu - pufferfish (Note: fugu contains poison so it must be prepared properly)

  • gindara - sablefish

  • hamo - pike conger

  • hatahata - sandfish

  • haze - goby

  • hirame - flounder

  • ika - squid

    • geso - squid tentacles

  • ikura - salmon roe

  • isaki - grunt, striped pigfish

  • iwashi - sardine

  • kai - shell

    • akagai - ark shell

    • aoyagi - round clam

    • awabi - abalone

    • hamaguri - clam

    • hokki-gai - surf clam

    • hora-gai - trumpet shell

    • hotate - scallop

    • kaibashira - scallop or shellfish valve muscles

    • kaki - oyster

    • mate-gai - razor clam

    • miru-gai - surf clam, geoduck clam

    • sazae - horned turban shell

    • taira-gai - pen-shell clam

    • tori-gai - cockle

    • tsubu-gai - whelk

  • kajiki - marlin/swordfish

    • ma-kajiki - blue marlin

    • me-kajiki - swordfish

  • kani - crab

    • kani-miso - miso-like paste found in crab intestines

    • taraba-gani - king crab

    • zuwai-gani - snow crab (also known as Matsuba-gani)

  • kanpachi - amberjack

  • kanpyou-maki - dried gourd roll

  • kappa-maki - cucumber roll

  • karei - flatfish

  • katsuo - bonito

  • kawahagi - filefish

  • kazunoko - herring roe

  • kihada - yellowfin tuna

  • kisu - sillago

  • konoshiro - gizzard shad; a type of sardine

    • kohada - gizzard shad (young konoshiro)

  • kujira - whale

  • maguro - tuna

    • akami - top loin

    • meji - young tuna (also called meji-maguro)

    • tekka-maki - tuna roll

    • toro - tuna belly

      • chuu-toro - medium fatty part of tuna belly

      • negi-toro - minced tuna belly and green onion

      • oo-toro - fattiest part of tuna belly

  • masu - trout

    • niji-masu - rainbow trout

  • mentaiko - spicy cod roe

  • mutsu - bluefish

  • namako - sea cucumber

  • nishin - herring

  • ohyo - Pacific halibut

  • saamon - salmon (also called sake or shake)

  • saba - blue mackerel

    • shime-saba - marinated blue mackerel

  • sanma - saury

  • sawara - Spanish mackerel

  • sayori - halfbeak

  • seigo - young seabass (young suzuki)

  • shako - mantis shrimp

  • shirako - cod milt

  • shirauo - whitebait, icefish

  • shita-birame - sole

  • suzuki - sea bass

  • tai - seabream snapper

  • tako - octopus

  • tamago - egg omelette

  • tarako - cod roe

  • tobiko - flying fish roe

  • unagi - grilled freshwater eel

  • uni - sea urchin

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