How Sushi Works

By: Ed Grabianowski  | 
Maki zushi for sale. See more pictures of international snacks.
Photo Courtesy Nurbis / MorgueFile

­Sushi is both a modern culinary treat and a Japanese tradition dating back hundreds of y­ears. But there are a lot of misconceptions about sushi. For examp­le, sushi isn't just raw fish. Fish is merely one of the many possible ingredients that can be added to sushi.

In this article, we'll learn where sushi came from, find out about the different kinds of sushi, and explore what it's like to visit a sushi bar. We'll also learn how to make sushi at home.


Sushi Basics

The most common misconception about sushi is that it is simply raw fish, or that raw fish is an integral part of sushi. When raw fish is served by itself it is called sashimi. Although sushi originally included raw fish, it can be made with a variety of ingredients.

The importance of fish as an ingredient depends on where the sushi is being prepared. In Tokyo, a city that contains the world's largest fish market, nigiri-zushi usually takes the form of a morsel of rice with a carefully sliced piece of fish on top of it, while sushi from the Osaka region might contain cucumbers and other vegetables or herbs rolled in rice and crisp seaweed, or nori.

In the United States, maki zushi is the most common form of sushi. This form involves rice and nori rolled up with the toppings on a bamboo mat, then sliced into small bite-size rolls. The popular California roll is an inside-out roll with crab meat, avocado and cucumber as the ingredients.

­Rice is the key ingredient in all sushi. Short or medium grain is cooked carefully and blended with a special m­ix of rice vinegar, sugar and salt. The texture and consistency of the rice are both vital to making proper sushi - it should be a bit sticky, not gooey or clumpy. The vinegar used should not overpower the natural flavor of the rice.

So sushi is simply specially prepared rice served with various toppings in a variety of shapes and sizes. In fact, chirashizushi, sometimes called rice salad in the United States, is simply a bowl of sushi rice with toppings.

Sushi dates back almost one thousand years, when raw fish was preserved by storing it between layers of rice. Over a period of weeks, the rice fermented, and the chemicals produced kept the fish from going bad. Once the fermentation process was complete, the fish was ready to eat. Eventually, the Japanese began eating the rice and fish together. A form of this traditional sushi, known as narezushi, is still eaten in Japan, although its taste is said to be rather pungent. It is still made by layering salt, fish and rice in a wooden barrel and topping it with a heavy stone for a few weeks.

The invention of rice vinegar made the fermentation process unnecessary, and chefs in the Osaka region began molding rice and toppings in small wooden molds, creating oshizushi. Sushi became popular the Edo region, which is known today as Tokyo, where chefs invented nigiri-zushi by forming the rice into small pockets by hand and pressing the topping into it.

Learn about the different types of sushi ingredients in the next section.


Sushi Toppings

Salmon roe
Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper

If you're making sushi at home, you're free to put whatever you like in your sushi. However, certain ingredients are considered "classics," due to the traditions and tastes of Japanese cuisine.

Although raw fish isn't required, some of the best sushi is made with this ingredient. Saltwater fish are less prone to bacteria and parasites than freshwater fish. Keep in mind that species and nomenclature differs between Japan and the United States, and that similar varieties are often substituted for each other depending on location and the season.


Several varieties of tuna are among the most famous sushi ingredients, including bluefin, big-eye and yellow fin tuna. The higher the fat content, the more prized the meat, with the belly meat of the bluefin tuna, known as toro, at the top of the list. Raw tuna meat comes in varying shades of pink, and has a rich, almost buttery flavor. Mackerel is also common. Salmon, caught at sea, is a sushi favorite. Raw, the flesh is a startling orange color, and it has a strong flavor. Other seafood sushi toppings include shrimp, squid, octopus, eel, clams, and roe (fresh fish eggs).

Tamago is a specially prepared omelet made by adding thin layers of egg until they form a dense, inch-thick slice. This is then fastened to a morsel of sushi rice with a band of nori. Avocado is a favorite ingredient in Japan, where its name roughly means "tuna of the land." Cucumbers and mushrooms are also high on the list of non-seafood sushi ingredients, but you can use virtually any vegetable.

Wasabi powder
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products
Pickled ginger, or gari
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

Some of the most important sushi ingredients aren't actually part of the sushi at all. Shoyu, a type of soy sauce, is used for dipping pieces of sushi. Eating pickled ginger, or gari, cleanses the palate between sushi servings. Wasabi, a pungent green cousin of horseradish, is made into a paste and either used directly in sushi or added just before eating for a little extra kick. Real wasabi is rare in the United States -- often a horseradish and mustard paste (dyed green) is used as a substitute.


At the Sushi Bar

Saba (mackerel) nigiri-zushi
Photo courtesy Mconnors / MorgueFile

Eating at a sushi bar is a little different from eating at a regular restaurant. Newcomers don't have to worry, though -- sushi bar staff are known for being helpful.

The bar itself surrounds the area where the sushi chefs operate. When you sit at the bar, you will get to talk to the chefs and see them in action. Your chef might have suggestions regarding what is in season or what he thinks you might enjoy, so don't be afraid to ask. You can also let him know if you don't want fish. Sushi is ordered directly from the chef, while drinks and other foods, like soup, are ordered from servers. The wait staff can also answer any questions you might have about the sushi bar.


Sake is a traditional sushi bar drink, but sake and sushi are not consumed at the same time -- they are both rice-based, so the flavors are not considered complimentary. Light beer (Japanese or domestic) or green tea are considered good drinks to have with sushi. Water or sparkling water works too. If you choose to drink sake, don't forget to pour for the person you are eating with, and allow them to pour sake for you. It's considered impolite to pour for yourself.

When you order a type of sushi, you may not receive just one piece. Nigiri-zushi, for example, usually arrives in pairs. Sashimi, which is often served at sushi bars, is always eaten with chopsticks. Sushi can be eaten with chopsticks, but it is also acceptable to eat it as a finger food. Soy sauce should be used sparingly, and only the edge of the topping should be dipped, never the rice. Soaking the sushi in soy sauce is an insult to the chef.

Next, we'll explain how to make sushi at home.


Making Sushi at Home: Choosing Fish

A Toyko fish market
Photo courtesy Wunee / MorgueFile

Sushi is not usually made at home in Japan. Sushi bars are nearly ubiquitous there, and the Japanese often feel that only an expert sushi chef can make proper sushi. When they eat sushi at home, they order it. It also doesn't make sense to buy a large selection of fish and other ingredients that have to be eaten that night. However, for special events, making sushi at home can be fun and delicious.

If you decide to use raw fish in your sushi, be very careful where you buy it. You can't use just any raw fish -- look for sushi- or sashimi-grade fish. You may have to check out Japanese markets or ask at a local sushi bar. Regular fish is not handled with the intention of raw preparation, so it is likely to contain bacteria and parasites that can only be removed by cooking. Fresh water fish are not suitable for eating raw.


When you do find the right kind of fish, make sure it's fresh. Fresh fish smells clean, not fishy. If the fish is whole, it should have clear eyes and firm, attached scales. If you're looking at filets, watch out for discoloration and soft spots -- these are all signs of fish that is less than fresh. Some fish, notably salmon, is flash frozen as soon as it is caught. If you don't live near the ocean, you may not be able to find fresh sushi-grade fish. Frozen fish should be completely thawed in the refrigerator before use.

Making Sushi at Home: Preparing Rice

Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

The first step in making sushi is preparing the rice. The rice itself can be any white medium or short grain rice, but Asian food markets sell rice that is labeled "sushi rice."

The rice must be rinsed until the water runs almost clear from the rice. Do this carefully to avoid mashing or breaking the rice. A strainer can be too rough, but gently swirling water around the rice in a pot works well. The rice should then be soaked in cold water for half an hour, then drained.


You can add a little sake (Japanese rice wine) and a piece of dashi konbu, dark green dried kelp, to the rice before cooking. Bring the rice to a boil and cook it on medium heat with the lid on the pot for 15 minutes, then simmer for another 20 minutes or so over low heat. When the rice is done, turn the heat to up to high for a few seconds. Once the heat is off, let the rice sit for 15 minutes.

Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

While the rice is soaking and cooking, you can prepare the vinegar. Asian markets sell bottles of pre-made sushi vinegar, but making it yourself is easy. You start with rice vinegar -- no other kind will work. Then add sugar and salt. In their book "Sushi for Dummies," authors Judi Strada and Mineko Takane Moreno recommend ¼ cup of vinegar, 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1½ teaspoons of salt for five cups of rice. These ingredients should be stirred until the mixture is clear, and can be refrigerated. However, it should be room temperature when added to the rice.

Mixing the rice and the vinegar is a slightly more complicated process than simply dumping it in and stirring. First, the rice must be "turned out" into a bowl. Traditionally a flat wooden bowl is used, but any glass or plastic bowl will work (metal would react with the vinegar). A low profile bowl will allow the rice to cool evenly. "Pry" the rice out of the pot with a spatula or a wooden sushi paddle that has been moistened in the vinegar, tipping the pot upside down and slipping the rice into the bowl. Don't forget to take out the dashi konbu. Then hold the paddle over the rice and slowly pour the vinegar over it. Move the paddle around over the rice so the vinegar is evenly distributed. Stir the rice by gently dividing it with the paddle and turning it over. At the same time, wave a fan briskly over the rice to help it cool quickly. When the rice stops steaming, you can stop turning and fanning. Cover the rice with a moist towel until it is served, and keep it at room temperature.

Next, we'll show you how to turn your rice and other ingredients into various kinds of sushi.


Making Sushi: Nigiri-zushi and Temaki

These photos and instructions will show you how to create some of the more common varieties of sushi. Keep in mind that we aren't sushi experts -- we were learning how to do it too. For toppings, we used thinly sliced carrots, avocado, and cucumber.

Toppings need to be sliced so they'll fit into or on top of the sushi. The slicing is an art form all by itself. Toppings can be diced, minced, shaved, slivered, or cut into matchsticks. Here we have carrot slivers and long cucumber slices.


Finger sushi, or nigiri-zushi, is made by forming a small morsel of rice into an oblong shape. Dip your fingers into vinegar water first, then shape the rice in the palm of your hand. Don't squeeze the rice together too hard, just enough to make them stick together.

Use your thumb to make a small indentation on one side of the sushi. This side will be the bottom, so the piece of sushi should curve upward slightly in the middle when you set it down.

It's easiest to make several pieces of nigiri-zushi first, and then add the toppings. You can simply put the toppings on, or add a streak of wasabi first. These are the first pieces of sushi we made. They're not perfect, but they tasted good. It will take some practice before your sushi looks as good as it tastes. A strip of nori could also be wrapped around each sushi piece, but if you serve sushi with nori, it should be served immediately, while the nori is still crisp.

Now we will make a hand roll, or temaki. This is a cone of nori with the rice and toppings inside. Start with half a piece of nori. Temaki are easiest to make holding the nori in your hand. Spread rice onto one end of the nori, covering about a third of it. Place your toppings diagonally across the rice.

Fold the bottom corner up and over the toppings, then start rolling the nori in the same direction. When you finish rolling, you should have a cone-shaped piece of sushi. The moisture in the rice will help the nori stick together.

We'll look at how to make rolled sushi, or makizushi, next.


Making Sushi: Futomaki and Uramaki

Makizushi is rolled sushi, and it comes in several varieties, depending on the exact shape and size.

Futomaki is what many people think of when they think "sushi." First, put a sheet of nori on your bamboo mat, shiny side down. Cover about two-thirds of the nori with rice (probably a little less than is pictured here). Place your toppings across the rice.


Fold the bamboo mat over, rolling the nori onto the toppings. Be careful not to roll the mat into your sushi. When the mat touches the far edge of the rice, begin tightening the roll.

Hold the roll with the mat over it, and grab the far edge of the mat. Pull on it at each corner and in the middle to tighten the roll. When the roll is tight enough, finish rolling by pulling the mat forward. You can repeat the tightening process first if you need to.

Now you have a complete futomaki roll. Slice the roll in half with a very sharp knife, pressing straight down through the roll to avoid tearing the nori. Slice each half twice more to end up with eight pieces of makizushi.

Inside-out rolls, or uramaki, are made just like futomaki, but you start with a piece of plastic wrap over the bamboo mat, and spread the rice directly onto it. Then add the nori over the rice, with the toppings placed on top of the nori. Roll it exactly like futomaki.

The completed roll can be covered in sesame seeds or another garnish before slicing.

A variety of sushi looks very appealing and makes a great hors d'oeuvre. Don't forget the soy sauce and wasabi for dipping, and ginger root for cleansing the palate between pieces of sushi.

To learn more about sushi and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

What is the main ingredient in sushi?

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More Great Links


  • Booth, Shirley. "Food of Japan." Interlink, 2002.
  • Detrick, Mia. "Sushi." Chronicle Books, 1981. ISBN 0-87701-238-5.
  • Kawasumi, Ken. "Sushi for Parties.". Graph-Sha, 1996. ISBN 0-87040-956-5.
  • Kawasumi, Ken. "The Encyclopedia of Sushi Rolls." Graph-Sha, 2001. ISBN 4-88996-076-7.
  • Strada, Judi and Mineko Takane Moreno. "Sushi for Dummies." Wiley, 2004. ISBN 0-7645-4465-9.
  • The Sushi FAQ.