Sushi (寿司) does not mean raw fish dipped in soy sauce like you probably imagine when you hear the word. While sushi is often raw, fresh fish, it isn’t always. This Edo period dish is better translated as “sour rice” due to the vinegared rice called sushimeshi (鮨飯).
Look here for our recommendations on the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo, each with their own distinctive dining experience. Especially the top-tier omakase (chef’s choice) sushi restaurants.
The topping is called neta (ネタ), but it more directly translates to “ingredients.” While sushi is often raw, fresh fish, it isn’t always. And sushi is often served with soy sauce and wasabi (not to mention nihonshu (日本酒度), or rice wine).
There are three main types of sushi in Japan:
- Nigirizushi (握り寿司) Hand-pressed sushi. It is the sushi you imagine when you hear the word sushi. A rice wedge with neta on top.
- Gunkanmaki (軍艦巻) Where seaweed wraps around the perimeter of the rice leaving space on top for the neta.
- Makizushi (巻き寿司) Maki means “roll” in Japanese so this one is easy, makizushi means sushi rolls!
* There are more than three, these are the most common.
Uramaki, or “inside out” rolls, aren’t a Japanese thing. That’s something created in the United States, aka California roll.
Nigirizushi is by far the most popular, with neta such as:
- Maguro: Tuna
- Anago: Conger Eel
- Uni: Sea Urchin
- Syake: Salmon
- Ika: Squid
Wasabi (わさび), the tiny dab of spicy green stuff, was originally used for its antiseptic properties to prevent food poisoning!
* Wasabi is Japanese horseradish
Let’s dive deeper into what sushi is in Japan.
Within makizushi there are various sub-types of sushi rolls: futomaki (太巻 thick rolls), hosomaki (細巻 thin rolls), ehomaki (恵方巻 lucky direction rolls), and temaki (手巻 hand rolls).
So what the heck is a “lucky direction roll?”
It’s a sushi roll eaten on a special holiday called setsubun (節分 the day before Spring). The interesting thing is it is fully eaten while remaining silent, and facing the “lucky direction” for the year (where each year will have a different lucky direction).
It’s an intriguing tradition in Japanese culture.
Did you know there is a sort of sushi without the rice? Yep, it’s called sashimi (okay, technically it’s not sushi… but it is very closely related).
Here’s Toshi Maeda from Japan Headlines explaining ehomaki.
The Most Popular Nigirizushi
Real quick I want to go over the most popular fish/seafood items used for nigirizushi. This is just a list. I will revisit this article in the future and add more detail to each entry.
- Maguro (マグロ) — Tuna
- Toro (とろ) — The fatty belly of tuna
- Syake (しゃけ) — Salmon
- Hamachi (鰤) — Japanese amberjack fish
- Uni (うに) — Sea urchin
- Unagi (ウナギ) — Freshwater eel
- Amaebi (アマエビ) — Sweet shrimp
- Ikura (イクラ) — Salmon roe
- Hotate (海扇) — Japanese scallop
- Saba (鯖) — Mackeral
- Ika (烏賊) — Squid
- Awabi (鮑) — Abalone
- Kani (蟹) — Crab
- Mirugai (海松貝) — Clam
- Tamago (卵) — Egg
- Anago (穴子) — Conger eel
- Kohada (小鰭) — Shad
As I said, this is just a list. I will be taking a lot of time to explain each in greater detail in my reference section soon. More to come on these.
So what does it mean if you decided to slice these ingredients up and eat them without rice?
What is Sashimi?
I’ll cover sashimi in another article, but for now, you can think of sashimi as sushi without the rice — thinly sliced fish, octopus, squid, etc. neatly arranged on a plate ready to grab with your chopsticks.
Sashimi is essentially that simple — and it is crazy popular in Japan.
How Sushi is Made
There is so much that goes into making good sushi. So much that it’s easier to watch a very well made video that will answer this for you.
This video exudes the craftsmanship that goes into Japanese sushi. Hats off to the team and Tasty for the effort put into this video.
After watching this very well-made video do you think sushi is special in Japan?
Is Sushi “Special” in Japan?
Sushi in America is super expensive and is found in those exotic upscale Japanese restaurants. So one may wonder if sushi is special in Japan too. No, actually. Sushi is not some “eat only on special days” kind of food. Don’t believe any article that leads with “in Japan; sushi is eaten as a celebration.”
Yes, they do eat sushi for family events like birthdays and holidays. Usually ordering sushi delivery like we’d order a pizza in the U.S.
But if you look at the massive amount of people waiting in line to be seated at the average conveyor belt sushi restaurant on the weekend, you know it’s eaten more commonly.
Heck, even weekday dinner times can be pretty darn busy.
It’s crazy. Japanese people will wait over an hour for their sushi. It’s like being stuck in line for the hot new ride at Universal Studios.
In fact, pro tip, if you’re in Japan and craving some sushi — don’t try to go on the weekend. If you do, go at weird hours outside of normal lunch or dinner times.
Here’s a video showing off just how busy conveyor belt sushi restaurants can be.
Can sushi make you sick?
Modern sushi is extremely safe. There are steps taken to ensure you won’t get sick.
From fish being frozen before served to the rice mixed with vinegar, sushi is a very safe food when eaten at reputable sushi shops.
Although generally safe, that’s not to say there aren’t some concerns.
According to recent studies, there have been about 18 million infections worldwide from eating raw fish. (en.wikipedia.org)
Is all sushi raw?
Nope. While most of it is, there are some toppings that are cooked first such as shrimp, octopus, crab, and egg.
Occasionally you’ll see grilled fish used as well, but that’s more of a shop trying to add variety than a staple of every sushi shop.
What is sushi wrapped in?
When sushi does have something wrapping it, it is wrapped in a seaweed called nori.
Much of nigirizushi is just rice, wasabi, and the topping. Sometimes you’ll find a strip of nori wrapped around the sushi. It looks like the nori is holding the topping on the sushi.
Other times you’ll see a wide strip of nori wrapped all the way around the sushi, with the topping piled on top (this is called gunkanmaki).
What is sushi rice?
Sushi rice is called sushi-meshi in Japanese. It’s vinegared rice that adds zest to the sushi but plays an important role.
The vinegar also helps make sushi safe to eat by dropping the PH of the rice — preventing dangerous microbes from growing.
What is sushi-grade fish?
It means exactly what you think it means. It’s a very high-quality fish that can be eaten raw.
Though, keep in mind most of the fish used in Japanese sushi shops has been frozen to ensure it’s safe to eat raw.
Supermarkets in Japan have a wide variety of sushi-grade fish — whole sections with blocks of tuna and salmon for example.
Can sushi be frozen?
Yes… but I wouldn’t recommend it. While the seafood topping of the sushi would freeze and then thaw fine, the rice and seaweed part would not.
It’ll become soft, sticky, and much less enjoyable.
It’s not unsafe though as long as you’re not letting it sit for long before freezing — standard kitchen rules apply.
Though I have seen freeze-dried sushi in plastic wrap for sale in supermarkets in the frozen foods aisle.
Can you eat sushi while pregnant?
In Japan, it is usually recommended not to eat sushi while pregnant (they tend to avoid all raw foods while pregnant).
Though this is often because they want to avoid parasites that could make their way into raw fish. Most sushi shops serve frozen fish.
Is Sushi keto?
Traditional sushi is Japanese rice, some sort of topping like fish, seaweed, and wasabi. Rice just isn’t keto-friendly.
I have seen sites talking about sushi using cauliflower rice… but I’m not really sure we can call that sushi.
Stick with sashimi if you want a keto-friendly sushi-like food.
While many believe sushi to be healthy, and in many ways is it — particularly compared to many other foods we eat, that’s not what all nutritionists believe.
“More than 70 percent of ordinary Americans we surveyed described it as healthy, but less than a third of nutritional experts did.” (nytimes.com)