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Sushi Guide for Beginners

I love to explore new cuisines and offer guidance to fellow explorers.

A variety of sushi and sashimi.

A variety of sushi and sashimi.

I Dream of Sushi

I have come a long way with food. Up until I was seventeen, it was hard for me to stomach something as tame as lettuce. Now that I’m older and my palate has developed (thank goodness), I’ve been delving deeper into the world of sushi. I can still remember my first roll--a California roll that came from the exotic realm of Publix. Not to say that Publix sushi is bad, but it’s certainly not traditional. That was over a few years ago, and thanks to some adventurous loved ones, I’ve been encouraged to branch out.

My own personal moment of sushi triumph came when I ate uni sushi—the edible part of sea urchin (gonads) wrapped in nori. While I didn’t love it (not crazy about the creamy texture and briny taste), I also didn’t hate it.

While I know that sushi is an extensive topic, my goal here is to provide a point of reference for the complete sushi novice but also a place for those diners who think they know all there is to know about sushi. You’d be surprised—there are hundreds of sushi combinations out there, complicated techniques and ingredients that come from the unlikeliest of places and are often not available at your neighborhood sushi joint.

The Heart of Sushi

I want to get to the heart of sushi, to share this fascinating world where most sushi chefs train for years, where most chefs cannot even pick up a knife until they can cook perfect sushi rice. That attention to detail and dedication is partly why I find sushi intriguing—there exists a wonderful combination of passion and insanity that can only lead to an unforgettable meal.

Sushi Meshi/Shari rice

Sushi Meshi/Shari rice

What Exactly Is Sushi?

Where sushi was once considered an exotic food, you can now find it in almost every city across the U.S. But before getting into history, first things first: What exactly is sushi?

You may be shocked to know that sushi does not mean “raw fish” but actually “vinegar rice.” Both casual sushi fans and lovers alike are often confused on this point—consider yourself officially in the know. This vinegar rice, also known as sushi meshi or shari, is an integral part of the dish—some would say the most important part. The rice is made by gently mixing the freshly cooked rice with a dressing made of vinegar, sugar, and salt. While the rice is being tossed it is also fanned to help cool the rice quickly.

There exists vegetarian sushi and sushi made with cooked (blanched, boiled, marinated, sautéed, broiled, grilled, etc.) and raw fish (another shocker—not all the fish is raw). While there are many, many different types of sushi in existence, here are some of the top players:

  • Maki Sushi/hosomaki: Thin rolls.
  • Futomaki: Thick rolls.
  • Nigiri Sushi: Thin to thick slices of fish and other items on pads or fingers of rice.
  • Oshi Sushi: Molded rice with fish and other toppings, served in a wood box and usually cut into bite-size squares or rectangles.
  • Chirashi Sushi: Fish and other toppings served atop sushi rice, usually in a bowl.

What Is the Difference Between Sushi and Sashimi?

If you have ever been to a Japanese restaurant, then you have probably noticed that there is usually the option of sushi or sashimi.

Sashimi is sliced raw fish that is sometimes served with a bowl of plain, steamed rice (not sushi rice) on the side. As sashimi is served completely raw, it should be extremely fresh and of top-notch quality. Some Japanese restaurants go so far as to keep their fish alive in the water until the moment comes to prepare it for sashimi. Slicing and plating sashimi is an art form in itself, and sashimi chefs are trained to handle each variety for an optimal tasting and visual experience. In a Japanese meal, sashimi is usually the first course.

Nori sheets

Nori sheets

The Importance of Seaweed

For the preparation of sushi rolls, it is essential to have a lot of nori, which are paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed. The color of nori can range from dark green to deep purple or even black, and they have a sweet, subtle taste. They can also be used to wrap rice balls or finely chopped to serve as a seasoning or garnish.

You can purchase nori toasted (it will be labeled yakinori, or simply say toasted on the packaging) or plain. Less common is nori that has been brushed with soy sauce (ajijsuke-nori). One of the many benefits of nori is that it’s rich in vitamins, calcium, protein, and iron.

  • Soy Sauce: This is a fixture in much of Asian cooking and is made by fermenting boiled soybeans and roasted wheat or barley. Most people in the U.S. are only familiar with one main type of soy sauce or its “light” version.

    However, there are a number of varieties produced in China and Japan, ranging from light to dark in color and from thin to thick in texture. In those countries, light soy sauce is normally thinner and saltier, whereas dark soy sauce is thicker and not as salty but richer in flavor. There is also the Chinese black soy sauce, which is dark, thick and syrupy due to the addition of molasses.
  • Wasabi: Often compared to horseradish, wasabi (or Wasabi japonica) comes from the root of an Asian plant that is quite difficult to grow. The condiment is green-colored with a sharp and fiery flavor. It is hard to find fresh wasabi unless you have a specialty produce store nearby. Otherwise, it is available in both paste and powder form.

    If you are a big fan of wasabi, you may be disappointed to know that most restaurants serve a “faux wasabi” which is actually a hot horseradish, Chinese mustard, cornstarch, and green food coloring concoction, often mixed with soy sauce by diners. If your taste buds can handle it, and you want a more authentic Japanese sushi experience, try to find a place that serves the real stuff or buy your own.
  • Ginger: Known for its gnarled and bumpy root, most of the world’s ginger comes from Jamaica. Fresh ginger is peppery and a bit sweet with a powerful aroma. Also known as gari, it is often slivered and pickled in sweet vinegar. It is served with both sushi and sashimi and acts as a palate-cleanser; you should not top your sushi and sashimi with ginger, but rather, eat it between different varieties of fish. You will often see the gari formed in the shape of a flower by sushi chefs.
  • Daikon: This is a large, white radish that has a sweet, fresh flavor and is served either as a garnish or condiment with sushi and sashimi. Normally it is shredded, but it can also be boiled/fried/sautéed.

Note: Real wasabi is not the cheapest condiment (one root can cost around $10), but if stored well, it can last several months. While I have not tasted real wasabi myself, it has been described on as a “warm explosion that quickly fades to a slightly sweet, lingering finish.” Quite different from the burning, nose-clearing wasabi I’m used to ...

The Meaning of Sushi

As you can see, sushi is by no means an easy dish to master, nor is it easy to understand. The more I try to understand it, the more it seems to parallel life—it’s meant to be understood in phases and not all at once. Perhaps you are in the California roll phase, or the uni phase, or maybe even the magical and possibly lethal fugu phase; either way, sushi begs to be discovered, savored and studied.

If you have never had sushi, go out and try something, anything, right now. If you like it, keep experimenting until you get to the “aha” stage, the stage where you dream of sushi, where you read about sushi and even, yes, write about sushi.

Here’s to reaching sushi nirvana!

Uni sushi, part of my journey to sushi nirvana.

Uni sushi, part of my journey to sushi nirvana.