Entrance to a sushi restaurantA boat sushi picture.

Introduction to Sushi

I've been very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to Japan many times and to have hosts that would both entertain and try to challenge what I would eat. Prior to these trips I had no idea of the variety and extent of Japanese foods and cuisines. Many of them I'd never heard of. There was okonomiyaki, toriyaki, shabu shabu, kaiseki, shojin, robatayaki, yakiniku, and more and more. And - there was sushi. Yes, I'd heard of sushi before my first trip to Japan, but at that time sushi restaurants weren't prevalent in America. I, like most other Americans, didn't eat raw fish. Just associating sushi with just "raw fish" shows the lack of exposure we had to this wonderful Japanese cuisine.

While in Japan at every meal I'd ask, "What is this?" The responses could be "tai" - What is tai? I think its snapper. Or, its hobo. What is that in English? I don't know. I'd then say, "OK, just give me the Japanese name. It might be "gobo" but I'm not sure. So, I began to learn the names of the various foods and began to keep a spread sheet of all the words. The data base behind this site's translation tools contain those words and many more.

Not only does Japan have an incredible variety of foods, they also have regional names for many of them. And, they have multiple "spellings" using Kanji, katakana, or hirigana. There may also be multiple kanji possibilities. I've tried to capture these variations so that any could be used and translated. If you are using the one of this site's translation tools you could enter kyō ryōri, kyo ryori, kyoryori, or 京料理 and a translation to English should yield 'Kyoto cuisine'.

In order to verify any fish, plant, or other living food I've always linked it to the scientific genus species. Although there is still the possibility of error or confusion, I've found this is the most accurate method of assuring that the name of the food in Japanese translates to the same item in English or any other language. There are translations into other languages in the data base.

Where do you go for sushi? to a sushi ya (寿司屋・すし屋). A sushi ya is any sushi bar or restaurant. In Japan sushi-yas may be a very small restaurant with just a wooden bar in front of the sushi chef or itamae. Seating may be for a dozen or less.

Sushi is made in the tsuke-ba. This word doesn't contain sushi, so why is the sushi kitchen called this? Tsuke is the word for pickle. Originally sushi was not fresh fish it was fish that had been preserved in fermented rice. The fish was cleaned, salted and placed in rice. As the rice fermented the lactic acid produced preserved the fish. This was the the first sushi and it was called narezushi. Sushi has a long history originating in China.

What is Sushi?

Say the word 'sushi' and most people think raw fish - either sliced as sashimi or on top of rice as nigiri sushi. Many would claim that its not about the fish, its about the rice. Between the topping and the rice is the, almost mythical, wasabi. Why do I say mythical? because most of us have never had wasabi.

Many of us probably wouldn't be as in love with sushi if not for the fish and seafood - of which there is an endless variety. In American sushi restaurants there are often picture cards showing a variety of items and their English and Japanese names. These cards may have twenty or thirty items. Yet the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo has over 400 different items from the sea. Add to this regional specialties, sport fishing, and items changing with the seasons and it becomes easy to see that there are over a thousand sea foods to choose from.

Good food goes best with good friends and drink. Beer, sake - both hot and cold, and ocha are available in any sushi ya. The choice is personal taste. Beer is served in glasses and almost always from bottles rather than tap. Sake and ocha are served in a variety of cup styles. Cups may be manufactured or hand-crafted unique pieces costing several hundred dollars. The hand-crafted pieces may also change from time to time reflecting the current season.

Types of Sushi

A plate vith various types of sashimi.
Mixed Sashimi Plate

Sushi can be divided into three main groups; nigiri, sashimi, and maki. Nigiri and sashimi are easy to understand: Nigiri sushi is the fish or other ingredient on top of the prepared rice and sashimi is sliced fish or other seafood. Often the fish is raw but some of the other seafoods such as octopus (tako) or others may be cooked or preserved. The third type of sushi is makizushi which are rolled sushi combining the topping, the filling and the prepared rice called shari.

In addition to these types of sushi there are many other dishes that can be found in sushi restaurants. Miso soup and tsukemono are also served.

There are regional sushi dishes such as oshizushi, a specialty of the Nara area.

In America one of the most popular styles of sushi is makizushi. Makizushi is the sushi rolls. Makizushi is usually held together with nori and may have ingredients on the inside, or on the outside. There is also a cone-shaped type called temaki.

Types of Sushi

Chirashi - ちらし寿司

This is a dish similar to donburi which is a bowl of plain rice with a topping. Chirashi uses sushi rice and is topped with a variety of ingredients that would be found in a sushi restaurant. These are often pieces of sashimi, ikura, nori or other toppings. Although this may sound like a simple dish it is often prepared for celebrations and may be quite beautiful.

Makizushi - 巻き寿司

Hosomaki - 細巻き

This is a thin rolled sushi usually with a single ingredient and nori on the outside. Hosomaki may also be called "teppo maki" because teppo (鉄砲) means gun, and the thin dark rolls resemble the barrel of a gun. After the hosomaki is rolled it is sliced into about six pieces. Familiar types of hosomaki include avocado roll, kappa maki, and tekka maki. 

Temaki - 手巻

A cone of nori wrapped around grilled salmon skin.
Salmon Skin Temaki (サーモンスキン巻き)

"Te" is the Japanese word for hand and this sushi is intended to be eaten by hand. It is a cone of nori filled with rice and other ingredients.

Temaki is one of the informal types of sushi. It can be quickly prepared and should be eaten immediately or the nori wrapper will loose its crispness and become tough.

Uramaki - 裏巻き

Uramaki are inside-out rolls. The shari is on the outside and the ingredients are inside. The familiar California roll is an example of this style. In addition to rice on the exterior they may be tobiko or other ingredients for decoration and flavor.

Norimaki - 海苔巻き

Any maki made with nori (seaweed). This would include hosomaki, temaki, and uramaki. Makizushi that doesn't have nori would be those with leaf or tofu skin to hold it together.

Futomaki - 太巻き

A large sushi roll with more than one ingredient inside and nori on the outside. Originally this was not very popular in Japan. It became popular in other countries and made its way back to Japan. Many American sushi restaurants have one or two dozen types of futomaki on their menu. Many are their own creation.

Gunkan Maki - 軍艦巻き

A sushi roll of nori wrapped into a cylinder and filled with salmon roe (ikura).
Ikura Gunkan Maki

The kanji characters for gunkan (軍艦) translate as warship or battle ship. So, this type of maki is also called battleship roll. It is made with a piece of nori about 1 1/2 inches by 4 to 5 inches that is rolled into a cylinder with the ends overlapping. A rice ball is pressed into the cylinder and then topped with the neta. The filling could be fish roe, uni, chopped fish, chopped wagyu, or whatever you would like.

Other Sushi and Maki - 巻き

Narezushi - (馴れ寿司・熟寿司き): Also known a hinezuzhi, this is the original style of sushi. It is sushi that is pickled. It is made by salting the fish and then pressing it together with rice. Lactic acid is produced during the fermentation, preserving the fish.

Shojin maki (精進巻き) is derived from the Buddhist tradition and is basically vegetarian sushi. However, when in Japan, don't assume that the Japanese concept of vegetarian is the same as yours.

Inarizushi (稲荷寿司) is a pouch of fried aburage tofu filled with rice and optionally vegetables, mushrooms, and sesame. These are often found in convenience stores, train stations, or at home. Inarizushi isn't usually served in sushi restaurants because it is a very informal dish.

Kaisen maki (海鮮巻き) is any seafood roll.

Ebifurai maki (海老フライ) is a tempura shrimp roll. The Japanese word 'ebi' means shrimp and 'furai' is how fry is pronounced. The word then means fried shrimp maki.

Sasamaki (笹巻き) or Chimaki: This is bamboo leaf wrapped rice. It is prepared by wrapping the rice in the bamboon leaf in a triangular shape and then cooking. It is said that the bamboo leaf acts as a preservative for the rice.

It is traditionally served on Boy's day representing growth and good health. There are two versions - a white and a yellow.

Kanpyomaki (かんぴょう・干瓢): Kanpyo are dried strings or shavings of gourd (Lagenaria siceraria var. hispida). It can be purchased at Japanese markets or online.

Meharizushi (めはり寿司): Tanaka leaf wrapped sushi. Tanaka is pickled mustard green leaf. The rice is first cooked and then wrapped into a ball. Ingredients such as stem of the mustard green, pickled plum, or bonito may be added. The ball of rice is then wrapped in the mustard green leaves.

The word 'mehari' means eye-popping, because you would need to open your mouth wide and close your eyes to fit this in.

Funazushi (鮒寿司): Sushi made with fermented crucian carp, called funa (Carassius carassius), from Lake Biwa near Shiga, Japan. Several varieties of carp are used. The most common is nigorobuna (ニゴロブナ) (Carassius auratus grandoculis). The fish is prepared by layering cleaned fish in salt and then storing for three months. It is then placed in a barrel with rice and aged for a year. The resulting product has a very stong odor. It is eaten in very small bites with beer or sake.

This is similar to narezushi, the original sushi. It has been made since the Heian era in Japan. Sushi as we know it, prepared with fresh fish, began about 200 years ago.

Yubamaki (湯葉巻き): Sushi rice (shari) wrapped in tofu skin.

Kaki no ha zushi ( 柿の葉寿司): Persimmon leaf wrapped sushi is a form of pressed sushi (oshizushi) and a specialty of the Nara region. Salmon and mackerel are formed as pressed sushi then wrapped with a persimmon leaf. The leaf contains tannin that helps to preserve the sushi.

Several pieces of oshizushi showing the square form and pressed saba.

Oshizushi ( 押し寿司箱) or Hakozushi ( 箱寿司): This is a specialty of the Kansai region of Japan. Oshizushi and hako zushi mean pressed or boxed sushi respectively. To make this the rice and topping a pressed into a wooden form that can be disassembled.

The box or form used to make this sushi is call an oshizushi hako. The sides and bottom are removable so that the sushi can be removed after being formed into a rectangular shape.