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 found in sushi.
In this article, we'll learn where sushi came from, find out about the different types of sushi, and explore what it's like to visit a sushi bar. We'll also learn how to make sushi at home.
The most common misconception about sushi is that it is simply raw fish or that raw fish is an integral part of sushi. Although sushi originally included raw fish, you can make it with a variety of ingredients.
Steamed rice is the key ingredient in all sushi. To make sushi rice, chefs steam short- or medium-grain and season it with a mix of rice vinegar, sugar and salt.
The texture and consistency are vital to making proper sushi — sushi rice should be a bit sticky, not gooey or clumpy. And the vinegar should not overpower the natural flavor of the rice.
Raw fish, served by itself, is sashimi. Sashimi isn't technically a type of sushi since it doesn't contain rice, but if you visit a sushi restaurant, you’ll probably see sashimi on the menu.
In Tokyo, home to the world's largest fish market, nigirizushi (nigiri sushi) usually takes the form of a morsel of rice with a carefully sliced piece of fish on top of it.
According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the name nigiri comes from the Japanese verb nigiru, meaning to “clasp, clench, roll in the hands.” Nigiri consists of a small, hand-formed oval of rice, typically topped with fish.
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, makizushi (maki sushi or maki rolls) 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.
Chirashizushi (chirashi sushi), sometimes called rice salad or scattered sushi in the United States, is simply a bowl of seasoned sushi rice with toppings.
Sushi dates back almost one thousand years, before refrigeration. To extend the shelf life of fresh fish, people living in coastal areas preserved it by storing it between layers of rice. Over a period of weeks, the rice fermented, and the acidic environment 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. People in Japan still eat a form of this traditional sushi, known as narezushi. To make narezushi, you layer salt, fish and rice in a wooden barrel and top it with a heavy stone for a few weeks.
Widespread adoption of refrigeration made the fermentation process unnecessary, and chefs in the Osaka region began to shape vinegared rice and toppings in small wooden molds, creating oshizushi.
Sushi became popular in the Edo region (modern-day Tokyo), where chefs developed nigirizushi by forming the rice into small pockets by hand and pressing the topping into it.
If you're making sushi at home, you can put whatever you like in your sushi. However, certain ingredients are classics due to the traditions and tastes of Japanese cuisine.
Although raw fish isn't required, some of the best sushi features this ingredient. Keep in mind that species and nomenclature differ between Japan and the United States and that chefs substitute similar varieties 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 yellowfin 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 vibrant orange color and has a strong flavor. Other seafood sushi toppings include shrimp, squid, octopus, eel, clams and tobiko (flying fish roe).
Tamago is a specially prepared omelet made by adding thin layers of egg until they form a dense slice. Chefs fasten tamago 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.
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 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 — U.S. sushi restaurants often use horseradish and mustard paste (dyed green) as a substitute.
At the Sushi Bar
Eating at a sushi bar is a little different from eating at other restaurants. 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 can talk to the chefs and see them in action. Your chef might have suggestions regarding what is in season or what they think you might enjoy, so don't be afraid to ask. You can also let them know if you want something other than fish.
At the bar, you order sushi directly from the chef. Ask servers for drinks and other foods, like soup. The waitstaff can also answer any questions about the sushi bar.
What to Drink
Sake is a traditional sushi bar drink, but you shouldn’t consume sake and sushi at the same time — they are both rice-based, so the flavors are not considered complementary. Light beer (Japanese or domestic) or green tea are traditional drinks to have with sushi. Water or sparkling water works, too.
If you choose to drink sake, remember to pour for the person you are eating with, and allow them to pour sake for you. Pouring for yourself is impolite.
How to Eat Sushi
When you order a type of sushi, you may not receive just one piece. Nigirizushi, for example, usually arrives in pairs. You also may not always be eating raw fish; certain preparations call for seared or torched fish meat.
You should always eat sashimi with chopsticks, but you can eat sushi with chopsticks or as a finger food.
Use soy sauce sparingly, and only dip the edge of the topping, never the rice. Soaking the sushi in soy sauce is an insult to the chef.
Sushi Bar Lingo
Itamae-san: Head chef
Irrashaimase: You might hear the chef shout this. It means, "Come in, welcome."
Gari: Pickled ginger
Shoyu: Soy sauce
Making Sushi at Home
In Japan, people do not usually make sushi at home. 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. However, for special events, making sushi at home can be fun and delicious.
Choosing the Right Fish
If you use raw fish in your sushi, buy it from a trusted source. Terms like "sushi-grade" and "sashimi-grade" aren't regulated by law. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration provides guidelines on freezing raw fish to make it safe for consumption, but it's up to local governments to enforce the guidelines.
When you find the right kind of fish, ensure 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 fillets, watch out for discoloration and soft spots — these are all signs of less-than-fresh fish. Some fish, notably salmon, are flash-frozen on the boat. If you don't live near the ocean, you may not be able to find fresh sushi-grade fish.
Be sure to thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator before use.
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."
Rinse the rice 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. Then, soak the rice in cold water for half an hour, and drain it again.
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.
While the rice is soaks and cooks, you can prepare the vinegar. Asian markets sell bottles of premade 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. Stir these ingredients until the mixture is clear. You can refrigerate the seasoned vinegar, but it should be room temperature when added to the rice.
Mixing the rice and the vinegar is slightly more complicated than simply dumping 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 moistened in the vinegar, tipping the pot upside down and slipping the rice into the bowl. Remember 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 to evenly distribute the vinegar.
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 and keep it at room temperature until you are ready to assemble the sushi.
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 nigirizushi, 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 apply enough pressure to make the grains 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 nigirizushi 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. You can also wrap a strip of nori could also be wrapped around each sushi piece, but if you serve sushi with nori, do so 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.
Makizushi is rolled sushi, and it comes in several varieties, depending on the exact shape and size.
Hosomaki and chumaki are what many people think of when they think "sushi": rice and other ingredients on the inside, nori on the outside. The difference between these two types of makizushi are that hosomaki only contains one ingredient (beyond the rice and nori) and chumaki includes two or more.
Futomaki is also a type of maki sushi that's rolled with the nori on the outside, but its girth is typically much larger and only contains vegetables.
In the pictured examples, we're making chumaki. To follow along, 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 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 chumaki, 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.
You can cover the completed roll in sesame seeds or another garnish before slicing.
A variety of sushi looks very appealing and makes a great hors d'oeuvre (or even a full meal on its own). Don't forget the soy sauce and wasabi for dipping, and ginger root for cleansing the palate between pieces of sushi.
Frequently Answered Questions
What is the main ingredient in sushi?
Rice is the main ingredient in sushi, and it typically contains seafood and/or vegetables.
What are the most popular types of sushi?
Some of the most popular types of sushi are maki sushi (sushi rolls), nigiri sushi (hand-pressed sushi) and temaki (cone-shaped hand rolls).