Whether you like it with raw fish, cooked fish, or no fish at all, there’s simply no wrong way to eat sushi.
No longer considered foreign, “strange,” or dangerous, sushi has
permeated American culinary culture. As popular as the all-American burger or pizza pie, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in 2023 who has not tried
sushi at least once.
And these days, culinary artists across the nation are taking creative license with their sushi creations, with sushi burgers, donuts, burritos, and bowls becoming one of the most Instagram-worthy food groups on social media.
Whether you pair it with sake, a mocktail, a glass of wine, or green tea, sushi offers a unique and flavorful eating experience unlike anything else on earth. Popular among the most health-conscious and eco-concerned, vegans and carnivores, sushi and casual American dining go together like white on rice.
What is Sushi?
Before we talk about what sushi is, let’s start by explaining what it’s not. Not to be confused with sashimi, which is raw fish, sushi refers to the vinegared rice used to make the dish. Contrary to some popular belief, not all sushi is made with raw fish.
Nigiri sushi is fresh, delicate pieces of sashimi pressed on top of vinegared rice. Nigiri sushi was originally called edo-mae, meaning in front of Edo (the original name for the city of Tokyo) because the fresh fish came directly from the fish market at Tokyo Bay. But sushi can be made with cooked fish or no fish at all. It’s the rice that makes the dish known as sushi.
Intended to be bite-sized finger food, sushi can be made with sashimi (raw fish,) cooked fish (ie: eel, steamed shrimp,) tempura (fried fish or vegetables,) imitation crab (commonly used in California rolls,) egg, tofu, or vegetables pressed on top of sushi rice or wrapped into a roll. Sushi rolls are generally wrapped with seaweed (nori), soy paper, or many other ingredients like more fish, cucumber, and lettuce.
Sushi is made with short-grained rice seasoned with salt, sugar, and vinegar. This combination is what gives the rice its sticky consistency and helps hold its shape.
How to Order Sushi in Japan
Ordering and eating sushi in America is not like in Japan. Whereas Americans tend to order specialty rolls filled with items like cream cheese, none of which are available in Japan, and dip sashimi rice into copious amounts of soy sauce, ginger, and wasabi, these things are a major faux pas in Japan.
If you’re heading to Japan, be sure to learn about the traditional ways to order and eat sushi.
California rolls are not really a thing in Japan. You may find them in some places, but it’s not the norm. If you don’t eat raw fish, order a kappa maki (cucumber).
If you don’t know what to order, use these two useful Japanese words: Osusume (means: recommendation) and Omakase (chef’s choice).
There are levels of omakase: nami (standard), jō (premium) and toku-jō (extra premium). OrderToku-jō for more high-end ingredients like toro (fatty tuna), ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin).
Omakase sets usually include 7-10 pieces. If you sit at the bar, they will usually come out one by one.
When ordering a lá carte, start with white fleshed fish, then medium (tuna), then richer, ending with ikura and uni.
Uni (sea urchin) is a popular dish in Japan.
Sushi Etiquette in Japan
Eat the fish in the order the chef recommends or when placed on your plate.
Sushi is meant to be eaten usually within a minute or less to preserve its perfect temperature.
Sushi is meant to be eaten usually within a minute or less to preserve its perfect temperature.
Eat nigiri with your fingers. Chopsticks are only used when eating sashimi.
The chef has already added wasabi to nigiri. It’s normally not necessary to add more. If you do, just dab it sparingly on top of the fish. Don’t mix wasabi into your soy sauce.
Dip nigiri fish-side down into the soy sauce.
Many restaurants will give you a wet rolled towel to wipe our hands before our meal. After using, roll the towel backup and place it back near your plate and then use that to clean your fingers throughout the meal. Napkins are not generally given unless requested.
Sushi Etiquette in the U.S.
Sushi, particularly nigiri, is a finger food, meant to be eaten in one bite.
Chopsticks are optional.
Though it’s common practice in most American restaurants to serve sushi with pieces of pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce, sushi chefs take great pride in preparing original and unique sushi and will generally have already applied a special sauce of flavoring.
It is NOT proper sushi etiquette to dip the rice in the soy sauce mixture. It is acceptable to dip just the fish into soy sauce. But think of it as adding salt to a dish before tasting it. Like any other chef, sushi chefs take time and pride in creating sushi dishes to be eaten as it.
Sashimi, which is just slices of delicately prepared raw fish, is intended to be eaten with chopsticks, not fingers.
The History of Sushi
As with many ancient foods, the history of sushi is surrounded by myths, legends and folklore. In one ancient Japanese wives tale, an elderly woman began hiding her pots of rice in osprey nests, fearing that thieves would steal them.
Over time, she collected her pots and found the rice had begun to ferment. She also discovered that fish scraps from the osprey's meal had mixed into the rice. Not only was the mixture tasty, but the rice served as a way of preserving the fish, thus starting a new way of extending the shelf life of seafood.
While this might be a fun story, the true origins of sushi are somewhat more mysterious. While Japan is certainly the sushi capital of the world – and responsible for introducing the dish to travelers – sushi traces its origins back to 2,000 BC Asia, when the Chinese first introduced a dish called narezushi, a combination of fermented rice and salted fish.
Predating modern refrigeration by nearly 2,000 years, the fermentation and salting processing, sometimes known as pickling, was a very practical dish for its time. The rice was fermented to preserve it, and the fish salted heavily to prevent the growth of bacteria and microorganisms. This kept the dish fresh without any kind of refrigeration. Interestingly, in sushi’s early days, the rice was discarded and not eaten. It was simply a vehicle used to wrap and preserve the fish.
Sushi was introduced to Japan in the ninth century, first becoming popular with buddhists who abstained from eating meat. The Japanese, who turned to fish as a dietary staple, are credited with preparing sushi as a complete dish, eating the fermented rice together with the preserved fish.
This combination of rice and fish was known as nare-zushi, or aged sushi. Funa-zushi, the earliest known form of nare-zushi, originated more than 1,000 years ago near Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater lake. Golden carp, known as funa, was caught from the lake, packed in salted rice, and compacted under weights to speed up the fermentation. This process, which took at least six months to complete, was only available to the wealthy upper class in Japan from the 9th to 14th centuries.
At the turn of the 15th century, Japan found itself in the midst of a civil war. During this time, cooks found that adding more weight to the rice and fish reduced the fermentation time to about one month. They also discovered that the pickled fish didn’t need to reach full decomposition. This new sushi preparation was called mama-nare zushi, or raw nare-zushi.
When Japanese military dictator, Tokugawa Ieyasu, moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo in 1606, the city quickly turned into a hub of Japanese nightlife. By the 19th century, Edo had become one of the world’s largest cities in terms of land size and population. In Edo, sushi makers used a fermentation process developed in the mid-1700s, placing a layer of cooked rice seasoned with rice vinegar alongside a layer of fish. The layers were compressed in a small wooden box for two hours, then sliced into serving pieces. This new method greatly reduced the preparation time.
In the 1820s, a man named Hanaya Yohei, often considered the creator of modern nigiri sushi, opened the first sushi stall in the Ryogoku district of Edo. Because of its location along the banks of the Sumida River, Ryogoku translates to the place between two countries. Yohei chose his location wisely, setting up his stall near one of the few bridges that crossed the Sumida.
Taking advantage of a more modern and faster fermentation process, adding rice vinegar and salt to freshly cooked rice and letting it sit for a few minutes Yohei served the sushi in a hand-pressed fashion, topping a small ball of rice with a thin slice of raw fish, fresh from the bay. Because the fish was so fresh, there was no need to ferment or preserve it. Sushi could be made in a matter of minutes, rather than in hours or days. Yohei’s “fast food” sushi proved quite popular; with a constant crowd of people coming and going across the Sumida River for nigiri, the new standard in sushi dishes.
By September of 1923, hundreds of sushi carts (yatai) could be found around Edo, now known as Tokyo. When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo, land prices decreased significantly. This tragedy offered an opportunity for sushi vendors to buy rooms and move their carts indoors. Soon, restaurants catering to the sushi trade, called sushi-ya, popped up throughout Japan’s capital city. And by the 1950s, sushi was almost exclusively served indoors.
In the 1970s, thanks to advances in refrigeration, the ability to ship fresh fish over long distances, and a thriving postwar economy, the demand for premium sushi in Japan exploded. Sushi bars opened throughout the country, and a growing network of suppliers and distributors allowed sushi to expand worldwide.
Sushi in Western Culture
50 years ago, mainstream America had never heard of the dish. In fact, if westerners ate Japanese food at all, it was more likely to be sukiyaki, teriyaki, or tempura.
In the 1950s many Americans were somewhat resistant to Japanese food and culture, in part because they had lived through World War II and still perceived Japan as “the enemy.”
But with the war in the rear-view-mirror and trade with Japan restored,
public opinion shifted, and younger Americans felt little to no ill-will
to the tensions of the past.
Like most culinary trends, sushi began to surface on the streets on the two coasts, but, the more culinary daring Californians and New Yorkers were in the minority, as sushi seemed to be far too sophisticated and unusual for most American palates.
Los Angeles was the first city in America to successfully embrace sushi. In 1966, a man named Noritoshi Kanai and his Jewish business partner, Harry Wolff, opened Kawafuku Restaurant in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo. Kawafuku was the first to offer traditional nigiri sushi to American patrons.
The sushi bar was successful with Japanese businessmen, who then introduced it to their American colleagues. In 1970, the first sushi bar outside of Little Tokyo, Osho, opened in Hollywood and catered to celebrities. This gave sushi the final push it needed to reach American success. Soon after, several sushi bars opened in both New York and Chicago, helping the dish spread throughout the U.S.
“Makizushi” roll --- the Now-Ubiquitous California Roll
To help Americans get used to the idea of eating sushi, many restaurants began experimenting with the now-ubiquitous California Roll, which is an inside-out “makizushi” roll with cucumber, imitation crab meat, avocado, cucumber, and white rice.
This flavor combination was instantly appealing to diners – and because the crab meat was cooked in the roll, diners didn’t have to be squeamish about eating raw fish. As Americans began to get used to the concept, restaurants began to branch out, serving traditional sashimi and nigiri dishes. And just like that, sushi became a national phenomenon.
During the latter part of the 20th century, sushi had quickly become one of the most popular international dishes in the United States, with the number of restaurants serving this Japanese-born finger food growing rapidly, especially since the new millennium began.
The number of sushi restaurants is estimated to be well over 20,000
as of 2023, however, the popular dish is served at more and more non-asian-style restaurants, including every type of establishment from Italian to Mexican, and available in grocery stores and convenience chains across the nation. In fact,
it’s difficult to imagine that sushi isn’t available in some form in every city and town in the US in 2023.
Sushi Terminology to Know in the U.S.
The five main types of sushi:
Maki: Rice and filling wrapped in seaweed, aka the rolls you’re likely most familiar with. There are different types of maki based on how many ingredients are in the roll or the roll’s size, like hosomaki (one-ingredient maki) and futomaki (thick maki). Popular fillings include raw fish, cooked shellfish, avocado, cucumber and roe (fish eggs). Traditionally, it’s eaten by hand, but most Americans eat it with chopsticks. Either method is acceptable at a restaurant.
Nigiri: Small mounds of rice topped with a dab of wasabi and various ingredients (usually raw fish). “Nigiri” translates to “grip,” which reflects how the rice mounds are measured and shaped by hand. It’s the most traditional style and is served in twos. It’s typically eaten in one bite with chopsticks. If you want to dip it in soy sauce first, avoid dunking the rice and dip the fish side instead.
Sashimi: Thin-sliced raw fish. Sashimi technically isn’t sushi at all, since it isn’t made with seasoned rice, but it’s nearly always on the menu at sushi restaurants. The fish is sushi-grade, meaning it’s high-quality enough to be eaten raw. Each piece of sashimi should be eaten in one bite with chopsticks.
Temaki: Rice and filling wrapped in seaweed, but in a cone-shaped roll. Also called hand rolls, temaki don’t require chopsticks to be consumed.
Uramaki: Just like maki, but with rice on the outside of the seaweed instead of inside. This style is typical in America because the seaweed is somewhat hidden under the rice. It’s often garnished with sesame seeds or roe for crunch.
Agari: Green tea. This hot beverage is prime for pairing with sushi because it cleanses the palate.
Anago: Saltwater eel (typically boiled or fried)
Ebi: Cooked shrimp
Gari: Pickled ginger.
Hamachi: Raw yellowtail
Kani: Cooked crab
Maguro: Raw tuna
Nori: Dried seaweed sheets used to roll or hold sushi fillings.
Shoyu: Soy sauce.
Tip: Never fill your soy sauce dish to the brim, as it’s insulting to the chef. Pour just a little into the dish and use it sparingly.
Surimi: Imitation crab
Tamago: Fried egg. It’s slightly sweet and often saved for the end of the meal.
Tempura: Battered, deep-fried seafood, meat or veggies.
Tobiko: Flying fish roe.
Toro: Raw bluefin tuna belly
Unagi: Barbecue freshwater eel (cooked)
Uni: Raw sea urchin
Wasabi: Japanese horseradish paste.
Sushi has blended into the American culinary mainstream, as this travel-friendly, healthy menu option continues to undergo creative interpretations. With photo-friendly dishes like sushi burritos, tacos, burgers, and donuts; seamless vegan menu adaptations; and Mexican sushi steadily on the rise, this category promises to be one of the hottest cold dishes for fast-casual dining in 2023.
If the perfect “fast food” existed, sushi would be it. Healthy, convenient, and adaptable, Japan’s gift to the American palette is beyond comparison.