Amp up your knowledge with this ultimate sushi guide! You’ll learn about the origin, types of sushi, important ingredients, and etiquette of eating sushi. We also included all the sushi recipes you’ll need to enjoy a true feast at home.
Alongside ramen, sushi is often taken as synonymous with Japanese cuisine outside of Japan. In fact, sushi is so common these days that you can easily pick up a take-away package at your local grocery store.
Its popularity around the world is evident. But besides what you may already know about sushi, there is so much more to explore. Let’s take a closer look today!
Table of Contents
What is Sushi?
Mention sushi, a lot of people immediately think of raw fish. However, The term sushi (寿司, 鮨) actually refers to rice seasoned with sweetened vinegar, and often topped or filled with a variety of ingredients such as seafood (both raw and cooked) and vegetables. It is also not to be confused with rice balls (onigiri) which also feature rice and sometimes seaweed.
There are so many styles and presentations of sushi, but it’s important to know that the one most essential ingredient is the “sushi rice”, also referred to as sumeshi (酢飯).
Origin of Sushi
This may come as a big surprise, but sushi is said to have originated in Southeast Asia from a dish known as Narezushi, salted fish wrapped in fermented rice. As a method of preservation, the rice prevents the fish from spoiling and can last up to several years. This so-called early sushi was then spread into China and later Japan.
To enhance the taste and to prolong the preservation, the Japanese started adding vinegar into the preparation of Narezushi, and eventually, the fermentation process was no longer needed. It continued on further development, and in Osaka, they began preparing sushi by pressing into shape with bamboo molds.
It was not until the early Edo period (1603–1868) that fresh fish was served over vinegared rice and seaweed, which defines the modern-sushi of today. This particular style of sushi is known as nigirizushi (にぎり寿司), and is still popular today.
Like all kinds of popular food in Japan, sushi comes in a wide range of varieties that have continued to evolve. There is traditional-style sushi in which pristine slices of fresh raw fish and seafood are atop vinegared warm rice. There is also sushi that is specific to the region.
Then you have the present-day sushi which may be rooted in the Japanese tradition but have gone through some creative makeover or individual rendition by modern chefs. Outside of Japan, you’ll even find trendy western sushi that incorporates new presentations and ingredients like avocado that become popular all over the world.
Types of Sushi
It might be impossible to cover every type of sushi, but here are the popular ones you’ll encounter:
Notes: In Japanese, when a prefix is attached, sushi is spelled with zu instead of su. For example, when we use the word ‘sushi’ with other words like Maki, the ‘su‘ sound for sushi becomes ‘zu‘. Makizushi (sushi roll). We’ll use both types of spelling here.
Sushi Type 1: Makizushi or Maki Sushi (Sushi Rolls)
Makizushi (巻き寿司) is the most well-known type of sushi. Maki means ‘roll’, therefore makizushi refers to rolled sushi. The sushi rice is wrapped in nori seaweed and rolled into one large log (cylinder), and then cut into six or eight serving-size pieces. They come in four basic forms:
Hosomaki (細巻き) are thin rolls (1″ in diameter), with nori on the outside of the sushi rice, and generally contain 1 single ingredient. The beauty of hosomaki highlights the featured ingredient and allow you to enjoy the fresh, clean taste of the sushi. They should be consumed in a single bite.
You can make hosomaki with many different ingredients, but here are some of the popular ones in Japan:
- Tekka maki (鉄火巻き) – Tuna rolls
- Kappa maki (かっぱ巻き) – Cucumber rolls
- Natto Maki (納豆巻き) – Fermented soybeans rolls
- Kanpyo Maki (かんぴょう巻き) – Dried gourd rolls
- Oshinko Maki (お新香巻き) – Pickled daikon roll
- Umekyu (梅キュウ) – Pickled plum & cucumber roll
- Negihama Maki (ネギハマ巻き) – Yellowtail rolls
♥ Get the recipes:
Chumaki (中巻き) are medium rolls (1-1.5″ in diameter), containing 2-3 ingredients.
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Futomaki (太巻き) are thick, large rolls (2 inches in diameter), with nori on the outside of sushi rice, and contains two or more fillings. They are often vegetarian, and popular fillings include a mix of pickled radish, bamboo shoots, kampyo gourd strips, marinated shiitake mushrooms, cucumber, and blanched spinach. For non-vegetarian fillings, you can find shredded omelet, tuna, tobiko fish roe being included.
During the evening of the Setsubun festival, it is traditional in the Kansai region to eat uncut futomaki in its cylindrical form, where it is called Ehō-maki (恵方巻). It is made with seven fillings, representing the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. You can choose your favorite ingredients, and roll them up tight to lock in the elements of good health, happiness, and prosperity. It is also very important not to cut the eho-maki sushi roll for this same reason.
♥ Get the recipe: Futomaki
4) Uramaki – “Inside-Out” Rolls
Much western-style sushi is considered uramaki (裏巻き) or inside-out rolls. Invented in the US, the popularity of this sushi has now spread across the world, and you can even find them in kaiten-style (conveyor belt) sushi restaurants in Japan. They are called inside-out sushi because the rice is on the outside of the roll while the nori is in the middle of the filling.
A lot of sushi restaurants create their own version with unique names and combinations. Some of the most popular inside-out rolls are California Roll, Dragon Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll, Rainbow Roll, Spider Roll, and Caterpillar Roll.
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Sushi Type 2: Temaki (Cone-Shaped Hand Roll Sushi)
Temaki sushi (手巻き寿司), also known as hand rolls, is made by wrapping a crisp sheet of nori seaweed around sushi rice and one or more fillings. You don’t need any special tools to make temaki sushi, and it’s the easiest sushi to prepare for a party. You just need to prepare a platter of sushi rice, nori (seaweed sheet), and fillings such as sashimi-grade fish, vegetables, tempura, or other creative ingredients. At the table, each person makes their hand-rolled sushi based on their favorite mix of ingredients.
♥ Get the recipe: Temaki Sushi (Hand Roll Sushi)
Sushi Type 3: Temarizushi or Temari Sushi (Ball-Shaped Sushi)
Temari Sushi (手まり寿司) are the prettiest and daintiest sushi you can easily make at home! Named after Temari balls, a traditional Japanese embroidered ball, Temari sushi is made with a mix of colorful toppings and sushi rice that are formed into ball shapes. These sushi balls are often served during happy occasions like Hinamatsuri (Girl’s Day) in Japan.
Unlike sushi rolls, you don’t need any practice or expert skill to make Temari Sushi. To form the sushi into a nice round shape, you’ll only need plastic wraps. You don’t even have to worry about getting your hands sticky.
♥ Get the recipe: Temari Sushi
Sushi Type 4: Inarizushi or Inari Sushi (Sushi Wrapped in Fried Tofu Pouch)
Made with sushi rice that is stuffed inside seasoned deep-fried tofu pockets called Inari Age, Inari Sushi (稲荷寿司) is one of the fastest and easiest sushi to make at home. The tofu pouches have been seasoned in a sweet and savory dashi-based broth, and complement deliciously with the vinegared rice.
Inari sushi are also vegan and vegetarian friendly and makes a great snack any time of the day. It is also a great item to pack for your bento lunch box!
♥ Get the recipe: Inari Sushi
Sushi Type 5: Oshizushi (Pressed Sushi)
Oshizushi (押し寿司) are made from layers of cured fish and sushi rice that are placed in a special box called Oshibako (押し箱), and then compressed together by weight, making them into a tightly pack sushi stack. They have the perfect rectangular shape!
One of the most popular Oshizushi is Mackerel Pressed Sushi or Saba Oshizushi (鯖の押し寿司). It consists of vinegar cured mackerel, shiso leaves, and sushi rice.
To make pressed sushi at home, you will need an Oshibako (押し箱), a wooden box or mold, for shaping. Alternatively, you can also make them with your own makeshift box like a rectangular container or bento box lined with plastic wrap so you can pull out the sushi later.
♥ Get the recipe: Mackerel Pressed Sushi
Sushi Type 6: Nigirizuhi or Nigiri Sushi
Nigirizushi (握り寿司), or Nigiri for short, is the most venerable in the sushi world. Sushi rice is formed into bite-size pillow shapes and then topped with fresh raw fish like tuna or salmon sashimi.
Popular nigiri includes maguro (tuna), toro (the belly of tuna), hamachi (yellowtail), and ebi (shrimp). Sometimes you can also find cooked items such as unagi (grilled eel) or yakitamago (layered omelet) that top the sushi rice.
Although it is the most common type of sushi served at restaurants, nigirizushi requires practice and experience. In the pursuit of making stellar pieces of nigirizushi, sushi chefs put in many years to perfect the rice and knife skills to get the fish into an impeccable slice. It’s not the type of sushi that Japanese home cooks commonly make.
But, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy nigirizuhi at home. Even when the presentation may not live up to the professional standard, your homemade Nigiri Sushi still tastes super delicious and make such a treat! I’ve made Nigiri Sushi at home countless times, and trust me, you’ll only get better with time.
You can find my recommendation on where to get sashimi-grade fish for your sushi below.
Nigiri sushi is considered finger food. You can pick it up with your chopsticks, but your fingers are just fine. When dipping the sushi, partially tilt the fish end so the soy sauce won’t get onto the rice.
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Sushi Type 7: Chirashizushi or Chirashi Sushi
Chirashizushi (ちらし寿司) literally means scattered sushi. Instead of the typically formed sushi, you get a colorful mix of ingredients scattered over the sushi rice that is served in a Hangiri or a large serving platter. If you wish to save the trouble of shaping sushi, this homey, free-style sushi is for you!
Chirashi is often vegetarian and if it is not, it usually contains cooked ingredients like cooked unagi rather than raw fish. Depending on the region, Chirashi Sushi is also called Gomoku Sushi (五目寿司), Gomoku Chirashi (五目ちらし), or Barazushi (ばら寿司).
When you order “Chirashi Sushi” at Japanese restaurants, you’ll get a lacquer box of assorted sashimi nicely plated over the sushi rice. At home, you can make Chirashi Sushi however you like with your preferred ingredients. Thinly sliced omelet, shiitake mushrooms, sugar snap peas, avocado, shrimp, and cucumber are just some of the classic ingredients commonly used in making homestyle Chirashi.
To serve, place the serving platter and a few large serving spoons in the center, everyone can scoop a portion into their own bowls to enjoy.
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Sushi Type 8: Sushi Cake
Sushi Cake (寿司ケーキ) is a modern twist on regular sushi rolls. It’s basically Chirashi Sushi in cake form! To make the ‘cake’, use a mold either a round or square container to shape the sushi rice and toppings. You can also adorn it with additional garnishes to resemble a decorated cake.
It’s perfect for occasions such as birthday parties or Doll Festival (Hinamatsuri). When ready to eat, slice the sushi cake like how you’d slice a regular cake.
♥ Get the recipe: Chirashi Sushi Cake
Sushi Type 9: Cup Sushi
Cup Sushi (カップ寿司) is another inventive take on Chirashi Sushi where the sushi is served in cups or fancy glasses. This allows you to serve the sushi into the individual portion, instead of serving the sushi on a large shared platter. This type of sushi is popular for parties, especially where there is a larger crowd. You can be creative with your ingredients, but common toppings include salmon roe, edamame, shredded omelet, and shredded nori. The colorful and elegant presentation is all you’re after for Cup Sushi.
Sushi Type 10: Chakinzushi
This type of sushi is called chakinzushi (茶巾寿司), where sushi rice is wrapped with a thin layer of the egg crepe.
♥ Get the recipe: Chakin Sushi
Sushi Type 11: Gunkan Sushi
Also called Gunkan Maki (軍艦巻き), Gunkan Sushi (軍艦寿司) is another form of nigirizushi. Gunkan literally means ‘mothership’ or ‘battleship’. The sushi gets its name as the presentation resembles a boat where the rice wrapped in a thin band of nori and topped with various ingredients.
The typical toppings include tobiko (flying fish roe), ikura (salmon roe), sea urchin, and uni. Sometimes you can find vegetable toppings such as pickled ginger, sweet corn, carrots, and cucumbers.
♥ Get the recipe: You can find the instruction in this post (Step 6)
Ingredients for Making Sushi
Here are the most basic ingredients you’ll need to make sushi:
1. Sushi Rice (Sumeshi)
The vinegared Sushi Rice called Sumeshi (酢飯) is the most important aspect of any form of sushi. It’s really easy to make and you’ll need quality Japanese short-grain rice, rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. I also like to flavor the rice with kombu sea kelp for additional depth of flavor.
2. Nori Seaweed
There are many types of nori (海苔). For sushi, you’ll need roasted sheets of nori seaweed. Frankly speaking, outside of Japan, it can be challenging to find quality nori. They tend to lack fragrance and get extremely chewy and gummy when wilted. Our recommendation is to find the most expensive nori available at your local Asian grocery stores or online.
3. Sushi Ingredients (Gu)
Refers to the primary component in a piece of sushi, particularly Nigiri or Temaki (hand roll). Here are some of the popular ones:
- Maguro (Tuna) – It implies different species and cuts of tuna. The common tuna for sashimi/sushi includes Honmaguro (bluefin tuna), Minamimaguro (southern bluefin tuna), Kihadamaguro (yellowfin tuna), Mebachimaguro (big-eyed tuna), and Binchoumanguro (albacore tuna).
- Toro – The fattiest part of a fish, often from bluefin tuna; it is usually the most expensive and sought-after piece.
- Katsuo (Skipjack tuna) – The most widely available and sustainable type of tuna.
- Hamachi (Yellowtail fish)
- Saba (Mackerel) – Usually sliced with some skin on one side and served as sashimi.
- Shake (Salmon) – Pronounced as “sha-keh.”
- Unagi (Freshwater eel) – Unagi is usually grilled and drizzled with a sweet sauce rather than eaten raw.
- Tako (Octopus)
- Ika (Squid)
- Ebi (Shrimp)
- Kani (Crab) – Real crab, not surimi which is made from fish meat to imitate crab.
- Hotate (Scallop)
- Uni (Sea urchin)
- Tamago (Sweet egg omelet)
- Tobiko (Flying fish roe) – The tiny, bright orange roes are often used as the main topping for sushi, or as a garnish to enhance sushi roll, or as an outer coating for sushi.
- Ikura (Salmon roe) – Another favorite topping for sushi rolls, chirashi sushi, and sushi cake.
4. Sushi Accompaniments
- Soy Sauce – You can use sashimi soy sauce or regular Japanese soy sauce.
- Wasabi (Japanese horseradish) – Real Japanese wasabi is expensive and hard to find. Very often, the green paste that is served at your local sushi chains or restaurants is not real wasabi. You can buy real wasabi from online shops such as Real Wasabi or The Wasabi Store. For affordable options, we personally enjoy the powder form from here and the wasabi paste from here.
- Gari (Pickled Ginger) – Also called the sushi ginger, gari is often served and eaten while you eat sushi and it’s an essential part of a sushi meal. The lightly sweet, spicy, and refreshing tang of the ginger helps cleanse the palate between pieces of sushi, allowing you to enjoy different kinds of fish and rolls. You can find store-bought pickled ginger or make my homemade recipe.
- Edamame – These lightly boiled or steamed soybeans are served as a snack before your sushi is served.
- Agari (Green Tea) – Green tea is the most common drink to go with sushi.
- Sake – Pronounced as “sah-keh,” not “sah-key”, sake is fermented rice wine served either warm or cold.
Etiquette: How to Eat Sushi
There is a certain etiquette that you should follow when you eat sushi in Japan or dine at high-end restaurants everywhere in the world.
Here’s a quick rundown:
- First, clean your hands with the wet towel placed next to you before you eat. Believe it or not? The so-called proper way to eat maki and nigiri sushi is with the fingers, and the chopsticks are for sashimi. But this is not a strict rule. You can choose to use whatever you are comfortable with.
- Go easy with the soy sauce, and pour only a little into the bowl (you can add more later). You’re supposed to savor the fresh taste of the fish and rice, not overpowering the sushi with the soy sauce. Look at your Nigiri Sushi carefully before you dip it in the soy sauce. Some Nigiri Sushi may have sauce already brushed on top (typically when you order Omakase-style sushi).
- Dip only the fish part of the sushi into the soy sauce. This flavors it more directly. Avoid dipping the rice as it will cause the sushi to fall apart.
- Do not mix your wasabi and soy sauce together. In many traditional sushi restaurants, the wasabi is already added inside the sushi, and mixing wasabi with soy sauce will ruin both of these flavors.
- Try your best to eat the whole thing in one bite.
Read more on Japanese Dining Etiquette here.
Other Sushi Inspirations
Where to Buy Sushi Grade Fish (Sashimi)
If you live near a Japanese grocery store, we recommend checking out their sashimi selections.
If you are in San Francisco, you can place an order from TrueFish for local delivery or pickup. Nami goes to the Suruki Supermarket in San Mateo for sashimi (you can ask for a Temaki-style cut (long, stick shape sashimi) when you make hand rolls at home).
Our Recommendations for Buying Sashimi Online
When we have a sudden craving for sashimi we usually buy from our local Japanese supermarkets. If you don't have a reliable shop to purchase quality sashimi nearby, we would recommend buying from Catalina Offshore online.
They've been in business for over forty years and all the sashimi products we've tried from them are outstanding. Use J1COOK20 for 10% discount. Disclosure: We earn a small percentage commission from your purchase of products linked to Catalina Offshore.