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.
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.
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:
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.
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)
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
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