A Primer On Sushi


It’s hard to imagine the American culinary landscape without sushi. A primary food in Japan for centuries, sushi was introduced to America in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s but didn’t gain a foothold as a dining choice until the 1970’s. Since then the demand for sushi has grown by leaps and bounds with many new American menu selections developed as the dish adjusted to regional tastes.

Many traditional menus do not describe the dishes in detail or translate certain Japanese words which can create a confusing and self-conscious situation for the casual diner. The goal of this article is to acquaint the reader with some Japanese words and explain the different types of sushi so that the next time you go out for sushi you will have a better idea of what to order, how to order, and how to eat. 

Sushi comes in a wide array of shapes and sizes.

First things first. If you think sushi is just raw fish then you’re in for a surprise. The Japanese word su means vinegar and shi is from meshi, the Japanese word for rice. Hence, sushi is vinegared rice. Today, the term is typically used to describe a finger-sized piece of raw fish or shellfish on a bed of rice. That’s all well and good, but if you’re out with friends you might score a few points when you tell them that sushi is only the cooked vinegared rice.

Over time, both in Japan and beyond, there have been different takes on traditional Japanese sushi leading to many different types of sushi to satiate but sometimes confuse the venturesome palate. The endless possibilities of different seafood combinations with the vinegared sushi rice are immeasurable, spoiling (but also perplexing) sushi lovers with a huge selection of choices and variety. 

The endless possibilities of different seafood combinations with the vinegared sushi rice are immeasurable, spoiling (but also perplexing) sushi lovers with a huge selection of choices and variety. 

Before we get into the different types of sushi let’s rid ourselves of some puzzlement that people have.…what is the difference between sushi and sashimi? Many people unwittingly use the terms “Sushi” and “Sashimi” interchangeably, however they are two completely disparate and independent items. Let’s examine sashimi first since it’s simpler to understand sushi once we know what sashimi is. 

What, Specifically, is Sashimi?

Technically the word sashimi means pierced body from sashi meaning pierced and mi meaning body or meat. Incorporated into the English language, it’s usually used to indicate uncooked fish preparations.

Generally speaking, sashimi can be classified as a piece of meat (not automatically  seafood and not inevitably raw) typically bedecked over a garnish (such as daikon, asian white radish shredded into long strands) and possibly accompanied by a perilla leaf (herb in the mint family). Sashimi is usually served with a dipping sauce with soy and wasabi paste or ponzu sauce (citrus based by mixing soy sauce, lemon juice, rich vinegar, dashi, and mirin). Some common meats served as Sashimi include:

Maki Sushi

Salmon (Sake)

Scallop (Hotate-gai)

Tuna (Maguro)

Yellowtail (Hamachi)

Shrimp (Ebi)

Fatty Tuna (Otoro)

Squid (Ika)

Mackerel (Saba)

Sea Urchin (Uni)

Octopus (Tako)

But not everything called sashimi is served raw.

Takati is a sashimi that is briskly and lightly charred on the outside while still leaving the inside raw. It is then briefly marinated in vinegar, thinly sliced, and seasoned with ginger. Octopus, which is very popular in Japan, is normally served boiled due to its chewy texture.

Sashimi also doesn’t just imply seafood. A popular misconception is that sashimi is only seafood, but that isn’t the case. There is a chicken sashimi called Toriwasa and a horse sashimi called Basashi, though the latter is not something you’re going to find in your local sushi restaurant.

Understand sashimi now? Just think of meat with no sushi rice.

Now let’s keep this simple. For the normal restaurant patron keep in mind that sushi is any dish made with vinegared rice. That was easy right? Now that we’ve dispensed with the preliminaries let’s talk about the different types of sushi that you should try.

Nigiri Sushi

For Nigiri Sushi, a slice of raw or cooked fish or shellfish is pressed onto a mound of vinegared rice, with a little wasabi in between.

In some instances nigiri sushi uses a small strip of toasted seaweed, called nori, to bind the whole mixture together. Nigiri sushi is commonly called two-kinds-sushi because it involves two ingredients: sushi rice and a single topping. 

The topping is also known as a neta, and usually takes the form of a type of seafood such as tuna, eel, snapper, haddock, shad, or shrimp. Depending on the type of fish, it may be served raw in thin slices, grilled, or batter fried.

Maki Sushi

Maki Sushi is probably the most recognizable type of sushi for the average diner. This sushi consists of raw or cooked fish or shellfish, vegetables, and vinegared rice laid on a sheet of dried sea kelp, rolled into a cylinder, then cut into pieces. The word “maki” means roll. 

Within the maki sushi type, there are a variety of subtypes including uramaki, which is complex and requires the attention of a skilled chef. Uramaki is an inside out roll, meaning that the sushi rice is on the outside. Nori is covered with sushi rice and then flipped over. The fillings are added and the maki is rolled up. The roll may be dipped in (or topped with) garnishes like sesame seeds or fish roe. This type of maki is very popular in the US and includes the well known California and Philadelphia rolls.

Emaki is a sushi roll formed in the shape of a cone. Nori sheets are cut in half so that a small pile of sushi rice and fillings can be made on one corner. Then the nori is tightly rolled in a conical shape which can easily be held by hand while it is dipped into an assortment of sauces (including soy and wasabi) before being eaten. These hand rolls are a more casual type of sushi, and also have a fun visual appearance with ingredients overflowing from the cone like a horn of plenty.


Translated to “scattered sushi,” this type of sushi consists of a sushi bowl with a base of vinegared rice with raw fish and other ingredients on top. The types of raw fish vary, but the most popular are salmon and tuna.

It is often garnished with shredded egg, nori and salmon roe for a mouthwatering dish. It is popular in Japanese homes but isn’t usually a mainstay on American menus.


Not your typical maki or nigiri, the inarizushi is composed of sushi rice in a pocket of aburaage (thin, deep-fried tofu). Rather than savory, the inarizushi is quite sweet, though it isn’t regarded as a dessert in Japan. In America, it is commonly found in a bento box.


Temari directly translates to “handball” in English. Temarizushi is like a smaller, cuter form of nigiri sushi and is normally topped with raw fish.


Oshizushi means “pressed sushi” or is also called “box sushi.” This is one of the oldest forms of sushi and stems from the ancient method of preserving fish by packing it tightly in boxes with fermented rice.

A wooden mold, called oshibako, is lined with a topping (usually mackerel) then covered with sushi rice. Finally, the lid of the mold is pressed down to create a firm rectangular box. It is then cut into squares or rectangles before serving.

How to Order and Eat Sushi

Order and eating sushi need not be complicated, though there are gatekeepers that would have you believe differently. Your sushi experience should not be confusing and you should never feel self-conscious. Here are a few simple tips that will lead to an enjoyable dining experience.

The best piece of advice when it comes to ordering sushi is to go to the bar and ask the chef what they recommend. They’re the ones who know what fish looks best since they’re the ones handling it, not your server. You can ask them directly if you’re concerned about the level of spice or want to avoid certain flavors or textures. Most importantly, the chef will take note of your trust in their advice and almost always reward you with extra care. Remember, chefs are humans too.

Order items that you’ve never had before. Part of the pleasure of sushi is pushing your comfort zone.

If you aren’t comfortable eating with chopsticks, don’t worry, forks are available almost everywhere, except in pretentious food temples. Remember, nigiri is customarily eaten with the hands so no worry there. Sashimi, however, is eaten with a utensil, since it is, in most cases, fish without rice.

Don’t use too much soy sauce. Soy sauce is meant to bring out the flavors of delicious fresh fish, not mask it. That goes for wasabi too.

Sushi is a communal meal, and rolls might come to your table individually as they are prepared. They’re meant to be shared so don’t be shy.

Sushi is an authentic Japanese cuisine that is known worldwide. It is, indeed, very complex, no matter how small the dishes look. Sushi is meant to be a pleasure for all of the senses. I hope this article makes sushi a more approachable food, one that is very tasty and can accomodate all taste buds no matter where you are in the world.