The Ultimate Guide to Sushi

Why do you need an ultimate guide to sushi? Because chances are, you think you know sushi but you really don’t. If you think raw fish when you hear sushi, you don’t know sushi like you think you do! Generally speaking, the raw fish thing is the first thing people think of when they think of sushi. Did you know that the word sushi actually means vinegar and rice? That’s just one of the things you’re going to discover reading this guide – here is the low down on everything you thought you knew about sushi!

Photo by  Fadya Azhary  on  Unsplash

What is Sushi

There’s a reason why you think raw fish when you think sushi. Fish made in the sashimi (raw meat) style is often served with sushi, but what makes it sushi is the rice. As long as the rice is pickled in vinegar, it is considered sushi and it can be served with lots of things, not just sashimi.

Out of all Japanese style foods, sushi is by far the most well known among people around the world but it is also super popular in Japan. Although nowadays people eat sushi for lunch, for appetizers, for dinner, whenever, it is traditionally a dish that’s only served on holidays or to celebrate a special event.

How sushi is served is part of the process. Sushi is not just edible, it’s decorative. When you prepare sushi, it’s supposed to be presented in a way that makes it look pretty. And since you dip it in soy sauce, it should be rolled in a nice packed ball of rice for easy dipping.


History of Sushi

Once upon a time, you had to be rich to taste sushi. It’s an ancient food that some say goes all the way back to the 300s B.C. In order to make fish last, dried fish would be salted, pressed in rice, and then preserved so that it could ferment for like a year and a half, sometimes for several years. As the rice fermented, it mixed with the salt to prevent the fish from rotting, creating a sort of pickled rice.

Sushi was done this way for centuries and remained a delicacy for the wealthy since it took so long to make (and boy did it stink). But then a gruesome civil war in the 1300s made sushi much more accessible to everyone. Post-war famine plus the spread of Buddhism throughout Japan helped the process to improve and speed up. Since Buddhists don’t eat meat, fish became a main staple of the Japanese diet.

By the late 1400s, sushi became a full meal. Instead of tossing the decomposed fish and eating only the rice, the fish was only aged for about a month and began to be eaten along with the rice—and it still tasted good! This new style of eating sushi with the fish was called “nare-zushi.”

It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that vinegar became the standard method for pickling the rice instead of fermenting it with raw fish. Today, what most people consider sushi is actually sashimi served with sushi. Instead of being fermented or decomposed, the fish in sushi is supposed to be super-duper fresh.

Wakasa karei o seisu - Utagawa, Hiroshige  photo credit: Library of Congress

Wakasa karei o seisu- Utagawa, Hiroshige

photo credit: Library of Congress

Photo by  Cody Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Cody Chan on Unsplash

What is Sashimi

Sashimi is thinly sliced meat, not necessarily fish, though fish is the most common meat used. Real authentic sashimi comes straight from the water, is cleaned, and then iced immediately so that there is no decomposition. Tuna and salmon are two of the most common sashimi fish types because saltwater fish tend to have fewer parasites and rot-causing bacteria than freshwater fish. Still, you will find sashimi made of all kinds of seafood varieties including:

  • Octopus

  • Scallops

  • Sea Urchin

  • Squid

  • Yellowtail

Believe it or not, you can even find sashimi made of horse meat—in Japan, not in the U.S.! Sometimes it is made with beef or chicken but since the meat is unseasoned it is normally served as fish. You’ll find sushi served with sashimi but it is also served as a standalone dish on a bed of radishes that you dip in wasabi or soy sauce.


Sushi vs. Sashimi

Like sushi, sashimi is supposed to be served in a decorative arrangement; like an edible work of art. It is not rolled like sushi. Besides soy sauce, ginger, or wasabi, most of the time it is served with green leaf shiso only.

The way that it is sliced is also part of the presentation. Typically you’ll see sashimi sliced into thin, evenly sized rectangles. The goal is to try to get the meat slices as thin as possible. They can be different thicknesses, but none thicker than one 16th of an inch.

On the other hand sushi is not sushi if there is no rice. Unlike sashimi, sushi is served in all kinds of different ways and with all kinds of different ingredients. Basically, anything can be classified as sushi if it is bite-sized and made using vinegared rice. Often it is made with raw fish in the roll, but the roll can also be made of egg or veggies.


Things Sushi is Wrapped In

The most common way you’ll find sushi wrapped is in traditional nori, which is the Japanese word for seaweed. What you eat feels like some kind of paper but it is actually seaweed that has been shredded and then molded into flat sheets to make nori wraps. Since vinegared rice is sticky, the wrap was added centuries after sushi first came on the scene to keep it from sticking to your fingers.

Modern sushi comes wrapped in things like soy paper, perilla leaves (shiso), bamboo leaf, eggs, and more. New on the scene is the uramaki or inside-out sushi roll. Just like the name says, instead of being wrapped in nori, the rice is the wrap outside and the nori is on the inside.

Photo by  Youjeen Cho  on  Unsplash

Photo by Youjeen Cho on Unsplash


Another modern take on sushi wraps is sushi that is wrapped in a tofu pocket and deep fried. When you order sushi in Japan, you have to say how thick you want it. Sushi made in a thick roll is called futomaki. Sushi made using a thin roll is called hosomaki.

Unless you specifically come from the area around Kyoto or Osaka, you’ve probably never heard of a mushizushi, but this wrap is made in a bamboo bowl, not with nori. There is a similar sounding sushi that uses bamboo leaf as a wrap called a masuzushi. There’s also a type of sushi wrapped in an inedible persimmon leaf called kakinohazushi, but you usually won’t find it on a menu.


Sushi Types

The first sushi rolls made over a millennium ago typically were wrapped around a freshwater carp caught from a lake. From that day on, sushi has been evolving and changing until today there are dozens of sushi types out there. Despite that, you can basically break all sushi types down into two categories: they are either going to be a “maki” sushi or a “nigiri” sushi.

Photo by  Elli O.  on  Unsplash

Photo by Elli O. on Unsplash

Maki Sushi

Most people outside of Japan who have ever tried sushi have most likely tried maki sushi. It’s what you think of when you think of sushi; little black disks with rice and fish on the inside. Whenever you see the word “maki” in a sushi type, it’s the kind that’s wrapped in nori, filled with rice, veggies, and fish, and then sliced into bite-sized chunks.

Not all maki sushi comes with fish. One really popular non-meat version is the maki sushi roll filled with cucumber in place of fish called a kappamaki. Sometimes maki is used interchangeably with “norimaki” which literally translated means “inside-out” sushi roll. In other words, the rice is on the outside; the nori is on the inside.

You won’t find norimaki served in Japan but it has become very popular outside of Japan. Temaki is a version of sushi where the nori is shaped into a cone and stuffed with rice, fish, and vegetables instead of sliced into bite-sized pieces. Careful not to confuse it with tekkamaki sushi – maki sushi rolls made with tuna.

Typically only non-Japanese and specifically western countries offer a new version of sushi that lets the itamae (sushi chef) dazzle crowds with his or her artistic skills. This is called shikai maki where you watch the chef delicately layer and roll your sushi – kind of like a Tepan chef at Benihana.


Nigiri Sushi

Most popular in Japan is the nigiri (translated as “two fingers”) version of sushi. It’s kind of like a s’more without the top graham cracker. It’s called two fingers because it’s supposed to be small enough to fit between two fingers. You might not even recognize nigiri as sushi.

At the bottom the rice is pressed and shaped into a rectangle, a small glob of wasabi paste is dotted in the middle, and then topped off with a nice thin slice of sashimi. Sometimes a small slice of nori is used to glue the top and bottom together instead of wasabi.

Sashimi isn’t the only thing you might find on top of a piece of nigiri sushi. You’ll find nigiri made with egg, or topped with eel, tuna, or shrimp. If you were go to an authentic Japanese restaurant, you will likely see at least a dozen different “toppings” for your sushi including scallops, mackerel, urchin, crab, clam, shad, and more.

Photo by  Giovanna Gomes  on  Unsplash

Other Sushi Types

Photo by  Jongsun Lee  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jongsun Lee on Unsplash

There are other less common versions of sushi. For one, inari sushi is deep fried. Rice, veggies, and fish are stuffed into pouches made out of tofu and then deep fried. A traditional but less common version of nigiri style sushi is called chirashi which means “scattered” in Japanese.

It doesn’t come wrapped in nori or deep fried in a pouch. Instead it is served either in a traditional wooden (typically bamboo) box or a bowl topped with sashimi—very artsy! Gunkan sushi is another type of nigiri served in cups instead of bowls and filled with sushi, seaweed, and topped with roe or slices of sea urchin.

Finally, we figured we’d mention oshizushi. This ancient style of sushi is never served in restaurants and is extremely expensive to buy if you can’t make it yourself. It predates nigiri going all the way back to the 900s. Don’t worry, it’s not fermented for years anymore but it does stink to high heavens like sushi of old.

You probably wouldn’t even recognize it as sushi. It’s a whole fish smothered in sauce and sliced and served onto a layer of sushi. If you find oshizushi anywhere, it will be served to you in a wooden box instead of a bowl or plate.


Is Sushi Healthy

With so much raw fish being tossed around in sushi bars, inevitably you have to wonder just how safe sushi is. Frankly rice that’s been fermenting with fish for a year or more doesn’t sound like the healthiest thing in the world.

Even though it’s not served that way anymore (usually), sushi does often contain raw fish which can be dangerous to your health. The truth is, there is good and bad things about sushi…healthy may not be the right word for it.


First the elephant in the room—the raw meat thing

Eating raw meat, especially fish can make you sick. Fish contains bacteria in it and parasites like salmonella. You could end up hospitalized or worse from food poisoning from eating raw meat. So that’s risky. Pregnant women should not eat sushi or any raw meats. Freezing fish can kill off parasites but it is still not recommended for pregnant women even when frozen.

On top of that, when you go to a restaurant that serves sushi, or buy it at a store, it will often say that it is “sushi grade” implying that it is safer. You should know that no agency has actually certified that grade – sushi is not regulated by the FDA. Just because the label says that it’s high quality “sushi grade” raw meat does not mean that it actually is.

Lastly, pollution has increased the heavy metal content in fish to dangerous levels. Some fish are riskier than others, containing high levels of mercury for example. Tuna is one of the most popular sushi types served in the U.S. and it contains a lot of mercury. Crab, trout, sea urchin, eel, and salmon tend to have lower levels of mercury than other fish.

Ebisu no namazuya

photo credit: Library of Congress


Photo by from Pexels

Fish is good for you.

Despite all of the risks if you are served bad fish, fish is generally very good for you. And most restaurants serve frozen fish to eliminate a lot of the potential for parasites to infect you. Since sushi is usually served with fish, it is considered healthy.

From fish alone, you get brain power from the omega-3 fat in it, it has Vitamin D in it, and it has been shown to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and contributes to your vision and memory. The nori that sushi is wrapped in also contains healthy things like iron, calcium, protein, and several vitamins.

On the downside, sushi rolls do not contain enough of either fish or seaweed to make a real difference in your health. You won’t get your daily dose of any of those good things from sushi and it’s not good at all at filling you up if you’re hungry.


There’s a lot of salt and sugar in it.

Finally, all of the good things contained in sushi are countered by the high salt and sugar content. As we discussed at the beginning, sushi is actually white rice pickled in vinegar. White rice contains fiber and minerals that disappear when cooked. Plus, white rice is high in carbs that turn into fat and sugar which is bad for diabetics and dieters.

Add in the salt used in the sauces used to pickle the rice and veggies, not to mention the salt from the soy sauce and you can see why sushi is not necessarily healthy. It’s just a tasty little snack that people all over the world enjoy.