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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 which can only lead to an unforgettable meal.

Sushi Meshi/Shari Rice

Sushi Meshi/Shari Rice

What Exactly Is Sushi?

Where once sushi was considered an exotic food, you can now find it in almost every city across the U.S. But before getting into the 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.

Well-Known and Popular Types of Sushi

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 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.

Popular Sushi Condiments

  • 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 the 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 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 the nibble.com 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.


x24 on May 02, 2012:

Thanks for clearing up the difference between sushi and sashimi!!! I heard about this film the other day: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/7846263/jiro_dreams_...

Dana De Greff (author) from Miami on April 23, 2012:

Tia- good luck on your search for real wasabi! In a big city it should be much easier to find, or perhaps if you make an impromptu trip to Japan?? Thanks for great feedback!

Tia on April 22, 2012:

Excellent article! I've been eating sushi for probably 25 years and always "assumed" that the word sushi meant raw fish. Also didn't know we rarely (or never) get real wasabi - i am on a mission to find the real deal now. I agree, sushi is much more than just something to eat - it's artful & daring (fugu) - truly the meaning of adventure. Look forward to learning more!

Dana De Greff (author) from Miami on April 22, 2012:

Vespawolf- thanks for reading and I'm glad to have helped with your sashimi doubts! I am also not an expert either but I'm working on it... Could take a lifetime=)

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on April 20, 2012:

I also love all things sushi, but I had no idea that sashimi is slices of raw fish. Sometimes I make my own, although I'm by no means a sushi expert. I really enjoyed this informative hub. Thank you!

Dana De Greff (author) from Miami on April 20, 2012:

Thanks, jenubouka! I'ts amazing what you will eat when it looks gorgeous isn't it? Thanks for reading and commenting!

jenubouka on April 20, 2012:

Awesome info Dana! I love sushi, I think I have eaten things I would of never dreamed of eating thanks to sushi. I love how you can stuff your face and an hour later not feel full.

Dana De Greff (author) from Miami on April 19, 2012:

Jj- wow what a great compliment! And you are right about the preparation of raw fish- there is usually a curing process with salt or vinegar-but more on that later! You'll just have to wait for the next hub!

Jj on April 19, 2012:

Great article!!! Honestly the most insightful description I have read about sushi, you seem to know a lot, but yet I have so many questions, and i'm hoping to read all of your series of sushi hubs... The most you know about sushi the more intriguing the experience is, and I'm very curious of how they treat the fish in terms of curing it to serve? You explained that the sashimi is served as raw as it can be, but isn't there a type of procedure of curing the fish before serving? 

Again great hub, and really hoping to read your whole series of sushi stories.

Dana De Greff (author) from Miami on April 19, 2012:

Mamita- I am glad to educate others while educating myself=)

And I agree- "Jiro Dream of Sushi is a beautiful film on life and sushi. Thanks for reading!

mamita on April 19, 2012:

Wow! Am I getting an education. I have been eating sushi for several years now and I never thought very much about the components. I also found that as I got 'used to' sushi my tastes have advanced into more adventurous territory. I love it! And to all sushi lovers I recommend the film "Jiro Dreams of Sushi". It's fascinating. Thanks for great article!

Dana De Greff (author) from Miami on April 19, 2012:

Janis- thank you!!!i hope your daughter and boyfriend enjoy!!!

Dana De Greff (author) from Miami on April 19, 2012:

Claudia-I couldn't have said it better

Myself! Sushi is wonderful and it for make me happy when it's made with heart and soul. Thanks for such an enthusiastic response and for reading!

Claudia Tello from Mexico on April 19, 2012:

I love sushi, I love sashimi, I love seaweed, I love fish and every other kind of seafood, and I love the way Japanese present their food in such a delicate, detailed, elegant and beautiful way. Isn´t that a wonderful way to appreciate food and make it much more pleasurable? At least it makes me feel much more grateful and happy every time I eat beautiful things like sushi and the likes.

Janis shenkman on April 19, 2012:

The best sushi article ever.pictures are wonderful.Will pass this on to my daughter and her boyfriend who love sushi.Thanks

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