Everyone says that if you want to eat sushi for the first time, you must go with an expert friend! But what happens if you don’t have one? If your friends are as clueless as you? Or if you just want to go alone? Well, you have to study! We don’t mean the tedious and stressful kind but just a quick read to know what to expect. “A Beginner’s Guide to Sushi”, if you would.
Don’t worry, though! That does not mean in any way that ordering sushi is super complicated. However, if you’re not Japanese or did not grow up with people eating sushi around you all the time, it can be a little too much the first time—there are a lot of options! From traditional pieces to new fusion American inventions, the sushi menu feels like it never ends! And the more you read out your choices, the more confused you get.
We have been there, we’ve done that, and we want to help you! We’re going to give you the ultimate guide to sushi. We’ll talk about the basics of sushi terminology, dips, the spicy green thing on your plate, the dilemma of holding chopsticks, and finally, the best rolls to order on your first visit! Buckle up; here we go!
The Ultimate Guide to Sushi: What Is Sushi?
Some people treat sushi like it is some kind of alien food. Like “What are these weird rolls people eat with two wooden rods?”. Number one: this can disrespect people who have had this food for millennia! Number two: It is expected not to know everything about every single kind of food that ever existed! Each one of us lives in a tiny part of the world, and our experiences can be limited. The important thing is to have the openness to experience new things, try fresh food, and get immersed in other cultures.
Sushi is a massive part of Japanese culture and cuisine. Japanese cuisine is vast, diverse, and very favourable, and it is definitely much more than sushi! However, for some divine reason, sushi is the dish that took the world by storm. So, what does the word “sushi” mean? Sushi means balls or rolls of seasoned rice. What you add on top or inside that rice is optional. It can range from meat to vegetables to fish to a mix of all of them, but the main ingredient is always rice.
The Main Types of Sushi
The way the rice is arranged with the other ingredients is what makes the different types of sushi. There are four main types of sushi, and there are many more that have been added over the years. In your guide to sushi, you need to know the main terminology before choosing your rolls.
In Japanese, Maki means “roll”. So, all sushi pieces that are rolled with seaweed with fillings on the inside are considered Maki. To make Maki, you get a sheet of seaweed (nori), add vinegared rice on top, and then add your fillings. After that, the Maki is rolled tightly into a tube and sliced into bite-sized pieces.
When sliced, you can easily see all the components of your Maki: the seaweed wrapper (nori) on the outer area, the sticky rice under it, and finally, the fillings right in the middle. Maki sushi is sliced thinly and into small sizes so that you can quickly eat it in one bite!
These three popular types of Maki sushi:
Uramaki is also called “inside-out roll” because instead of the traditional way of making Maki by rolling seaweed on the outside and rice on the inside, Uramaki does the opposite. Uramaki has rice rolled as the outer layer, seaweed (nori), and then the filling. That way, when sliced, you can see the rice on the outside, with the nori almost invisible to the eye.
Hosomaki means “thin roll” in Japanese. It refers to Maki sushi, which has only one filling on the inside. Hosomaki contains a thin layer of seaweed (nori), rice, and only one choice of filling. The Maki is rolled into a tube and cut into thin slices.
Futomaki means “fat roll” in Japanese. This Maki is called Futomaki because it can contain anywhere from three to ten different ingredients! The seaweed and the rice are obviously the main ones with many fillings on the inside. The slices are considerably thicker than Uramaki or Hosomaki.
Nigiri sushi is one of the most loved sushi types in Japan. Unlike the rolls that are primarily enjoyed in the West, Nigiri is much simpler. Nigir consists of a mound of vinegared rice with one piece of cooked or uncooked fish on top. The types of fish can differ from tuna to shrimp to crab and many more.
Even though Nigiri is straightforward, with only two ingredients, it is one of the most delicious sushi types. The direct component of the sushi makes all the flavours of the rice and the fish on top much more noticeable. Despite popular belief, Nigiri isn’t always uncooked. You can choose whether your fish is cooked or raw.
Here are some types of Nigiri sushi:
- Maguro Nigiri: Consists of a mound of rice topped with a thin slice of tuna.
- Sake Nigiri: Consists of a mound of rice topped with a slice of salmon.
- Ebi Nigiri: Consists of a mound of rice topped with butterflied shrimp.
Sashimi is technically not sushi. Why? We agreed that the main ingredient of sushi is rice, and Sashimi has no rice. However, Sashimi is usually served alongside sushi, and you can find it in sushi restaurants as well.
If not rice, then what? Sashimi only consists of thin slices of fish, usually served raw. The cuts are often served on a bed of daikon radish with only a side of soy sauce. No other sides are served with Sashimi because it is meant to be eaten alone so you can taste the raw, unfiltered flavour of fish.
Sashimi can come in many different types, such as:
- Sake Sashimi: A thin, uncooked slice of salmon.
- Ebi Sashimi: A cooked piece of butterflied shrimp.
- Unagi Sashimi: A grilled piece of freshwater eel.
- Tako Sashimi: A piece of raw or poached octopus.
Temaki sushi is the easiest one to recognise! It looks nothing like any of the other sushi we talked about, even though it has the same components. Temaki sushi is made of seaweed and stuffed with rice, fish, and vegetables. However, Temaki is not tightly rolled like Maki. Instead, to make Temaki, you roll the seaweed into a cone and then stuff it with rice and other ingredients.
Temaki is usually a bit larger than other sushi, such as Maki or even Nigiri. The deconstructed sushi is meant to be eaten by hand rather than with chopsticks.
Everything That Comes Along with Your Sushi
Now, let’s imagine you sat down in a restaurant and used the above guide to order your sushi. A couple of things will come along with the sushi order that is meant to be used to help you eat the sushi. Here are the things you can expect to be served and how to use them:
That sounds very expected, we know! With your plate of assorted sushi, you will also be served an empty rectangular plate. This plate is meant to be used to pick your sushi piece and put it on the plate before you eat. Simple, easy, and no surprises.
Sushi is traditionally eaten with chopsticks. Chopsticks are two thin wooden rods that you hold between your fingers and use to pick up your sushi and eat it. Holding and using chopsticks can be a bit tricky, so here is a quick guide:
- Hold one chopstick between your fingers like a pencil.
- Rest one end of the other chopstick on your ring finger while the other rests on the base of your thumb.
- Use your finger to move only the first chopstick up and down while the other one remains stable on your ring finger and thumb base.
Traditionally, the only sauce you will be served along with your sushi is soy sauce. The sauce will probably come in a bottle with a small deep dish where you can pour as much sauce as you need. If a dish is not provided, then you can add the sauce to your empty plate from before.
Some sushi restaurants might also serve Teriyaki sauce with your sushi. While soy sauce is a little salty, Teriyaki is sweet and thicker in texture. Teriyaki will probably be served in a small deep dish for you to dip your sushi in.
This green paste on your plate is called Wasabi. Wasabi is a spicy paste made from grated Japanese horseradish. Even though it is very spicy, the heat of Wasabi only stays on your tongue for a couple of seconds before it disappears.
Pickled ginger is served with sushi to act as a palette cleanser. You eat one slice of ginger between each sushi roll to cleanse your mouth of the taste. That way, when you eat your next sushi, flavours will not get mixed, and you will be able to enjoy each one separately.
What to Order as a Beginner?
With our comprehensive guide to sushi, we can argue that now you’re ready to make your own educated choices! From choosing the type of roll you like to selecting your fish and veggies, ordering sushi should be a piece of cake. However, we all want to go in with some recommendations the first time around. So here are some of our favourite sushi rolls that we think you will enjoy!
California Roll is a Uramaki roll. It is made of rice, seaweed, crab (or imitation crab), cucumber, and avocado. It is a perfect sushi for beginners and people who are not yet sure about the whole raw thing. Even for ones who are a little nervous about seaweed, the nori is hidden, so you won’t even see it!
Philadelphia Roll is a Maki roll. It contains seaweed (on the outside this time), rice, raw salmon, avocado, and cream cheese. A Philly Roll is the perfect start to dip your toes into raw fish. Raw salmon tastes fatty and very close to cooked fish. With the cream cheese and the avocado, the taste is just perfect!
Nigiri Shrimp Tempura
If you want to try something a little more simple, then shrimp tempura is a great start for Nigiri sushi. “Tempura” means fried in Japanese, so if you’re not up for raw fish yet, this one will save you. The Nigiri Shrimp Tempura consists of fried butterflied shrimp on top of a mound of vinegared rice. Simple and delicious!
Spicy Tuna Roll
A Spicy Tuna Roll is a very popular choice between beginners and veterans alike! The roll is Uramaki, which means it contains rice on the outside and seaweed on the inside. Other ingredients are raw tuna, spicy mayo, avocado, and maybe Sriracha.
What Side Dishes Go Best with Sushi?
One of the best things about different Asian cuisines is that they all excel when it comes to side dishes! When eating sushi, some people prefer to have their entire meal consist of only different types of sushi and maybe a drink. However, if you’re like us and love side dishes, then here are some recommendations that go perfectly with sushi.
Edamame is a very popular Japanese side dish. Edamame is soybeans in the pod. They’re boiled and seasoned with salt and pepper and are such a great crunchy addition to your meal.
Many people love to start their meals with soup, no matter what they eat as a main dish. If that’s you, then go for a classic Japanese soup like Miso soup. Miso soup is made with dashi stock, miso paste, tofu, and spring onions.
Everyone loves dumplings! Gyoza are Japanese dumplings that look like a half-moon. They’re usually filled with minced pork. However, if you’re having them with sushi, we recommend ordering vegetable ones to complement the taste of fish.
That’s it! Once you know your Makis from your Nigiris, ordering sushi becomes a breeze! Don’t make excuses like “I wouldn’t know what to order…” again when someone asks you if you have tried sushi before. Just head to your nearest Japanese restaurant and dive right in! We promise you that the moment you try sushi, you will never look back!