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Sushi 101: How to Order, Eat, and Make It

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Making sushi at home is fun and easy

Making sushi at home is fun and easy

Just for Fun

Are you a sushi master, or a newbie, or somewhere in between? Let's begin with a quiz to find out how much you know about sushi.

Can You Pass Sushi 101?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Where did sushi originate?
    • China
    • Hawaii
    • Japan
    • California
  2. What does sushi mean?
    • raw seafood
    • rice and vinegar
    • small bites
  3. What is nori?
    • Raw fish
    • Spicy condiment
    • Alcoholic beverage
    • Seaweed
  4. What's the green paste served with your sushi?
    • Avocado
    • Wasabi
    • Edamame
  5. Sushi always contains raw fish
    • True
    • False
  6. What is added to sushi rice to flavor it?
    • Sriracha
    • Wasabi
    • Vinegar
    • Soy sauce
  7. What is the difference between sushi and sashimi?
    • One is spicy
    • One is fermented
    • One is vegetarian
    • One doesn't have rice
  8. Which ingredient is NOT in a California roll?
    • Cucumber
    • Crab
    • Avocado
    • Sweet potato

Answer Key

  1. China
  2. rice and vinegar
  3. Seaweed
  4. Wasabi
  5. False
  6. Vinegar
  7. One doesn't have rice
  8. Sweet potato

How Did You Do?

If you aced the test, you may skip ahead to the next article, but if you had a few wrong answers, here's a glossary of terms to get you started.

Sushi Glossary

  • Maki: Roll (a round piece of sushi)
  • Hosomaki: A thin roll of rice with just one or two other ingredients.
  • Futomaki: The opposite of hosomaki, this is a “fat roll” containing more ingredients and it is, of course, thicker.
  • Itamae: Loosely translated “front of the board,” the master chef who is the central figure positioned in front of the chopping board. He is part chef, part artist, and part entertainer (and a bit of accountant too).
  • Nigiri: Sticky rice is hand-shaped into an oval and served with a slice of seafood on top. The topping might be raw and thinly sliced, grilled, marinated, or even flambéed.
  • Nori: Dark green sheets of seaweed that have been dried or toasted.
  • Sashimi: This is raw fish, thinly sliced, served without rice.
  • Temaki: Think of an ice cream cone; sheets of nori are shaped into a cone and filled with ingredients.
  • Uramaki: This is an inside-out roll with the nori in the middle and sticky rice on the outside. It’s often garnished with sesame seeds and/or fish roe.
  • Wasabi: This green-hued condiment is often called “Japanese horseradish” but actually comes from a stem that grows along mountain river valleys in Japan.

Now that you have the terminology in place, let's begin our lesson with a brief history of sushi, then the components, how to eat sushi, and finally some simple and safe recipes.

Guess What? It Didn't Begin in Japan

Sushi, once a meal known only in Japan is now mainstream—available in large delis as a take-out lunch or part of an extravagant meal at a fine restaurant. This former peasant meal has been elevated to an art form.

You might be surprised to learn that 1,300 years ago, sushi was nothing more than a method of food preservation. The mountain people of Southeast Asia preserved fish by packing it in rice. Bacteria would convert the carbohydrates in the rice to lactic acid which in turn would pickle the fish and keep it from spoiling. The process of making this nare-zushi could take from several months to a year. And when the fish was eaten, the rice was thrown away.

When nare-zushi was introduced to Japan, the frugal and efficient people of Edo sought a quicker and less wasteful method of preparation. Namanare-zushi, the progenitor of today’s hako sushi (box sushi) was crafted by laying sliced fish atop a bed of rice in a small wooden box. This was then weighted down with a stone, compressed, and then sold in small thin slices.

Ultimately the process was streamlined even more. Rather than allow the fish to ferment naturally, vinegar was added to the rice. The taste was tart and pleasing—and the rice was no longer thrown away.

Learning the Art of Sushi Making Takes Years of Training

In Japan to become an Itamae (front of the board) requires rigorous training and a lengthy apprenticeship. After five years of working alongside a master chef, the first task the graduate is given is to prepare the sushi rice. That’s right—before selecting the choicest seafood or even wielding the knife, the first step is the rice, and its importance to the final dish is not to be taken lightly. The consistency of the rice and the seasoning are crucial to the overall success of the sushi presentation.

What Are the Basic Components of Sushi?

1. Rice: There is only one type of rice suitable for sushi—Japanese (japonica) sushi rice. What sets it apart from all the rest is the length, appearance, and feel of the grains. When first harvested, the grains are brown, but they are sent through a polishing machine to create dazzlingly white, smooth, shiny grains.

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2. Nori: This edible seaweed is made from a particular species of red algae. It’s not simply dredged from the ocean; there are nori farms with nets suspended on the surface of the water. The time from “seeding” to the actual harvest is about 45 days. The algae are then mechanically shredded and dried in a process very much like paper-making. Nori is a rich source of vitamins A and C, riboflavin, iron, and zinc. One caveat—people with a shellfish allergy should avoid eating it.

3. Seafood: Almost anything that swims in the sea is edible, but not all can (or should) be consumed raw. Here is a list of the most common offerings at a sushi bar:

  • Tuna: This is probably the Number 1 pick. There are several varieties, so if you see these names, know that they are a type of tuna—bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye, skipjack, bonito, and albacore. Note that albacore has higher levels of mercury; if this is of concern to you, opt for another variety of tuna.
  • Salmon: This is another popular and quite common choice for sushi, but it could harbor parasites. Don't try this one (at home) without first freezing it for 24 hours.
  • Clams, Scallops, Abalone: I haven't been brave enough to try these shellfish raw, but I've heard that they are quite tasty.
  • Halibut or Flounder: These flatfish are mild and delicate. At a sushi bar, they might be disguised under the Japanese name hirame.
  • Squid: Don't worry. I know you're thinking about what they look like raw. Squid are usually flash-cooked before serving.
  • Mackerel: Called saba or aji in Japanese this fish is always treated with vinegar before serving. But, like albacore, it has higher levels of mercury,
  • Seabass and Snapper: These are commonly labeled as tai and suzuki and, like mackerel, are treated with vinegar before serving.

Do You Want to Make Your Own Sushi?

You don't need 5 years of training under a sushi master to make your own sushi at home. However, there are a few precautions to consider:

  • Don't let it sit out for hours. Make it then eat it immediately.
  • If you use raw fish, freeze it first. Most restaurants flash-freeze their fish for at least 15 hours to kill any parasites. If you’re making sushi at home, though, you've got three options, as recommended by the FDA: You can freeze your fish at -4° F for a week, freeze it until solid at -31° F and then store it at the same ambient temperature for 15 hours, or freeze it at -31° F until solid and store for a day at -4° F. Actually there is a 4th option—you can cook the fish to 145°F and then proceed with making your sushi rolls.

Want more information? Here is an excellent fact sheet from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.

You'll Need These Items

  • Rice cooker: This isn't mandatory, but it could be life-changing. If you cook rice at least once a week (and I do), you should invest in a rice cooker. You'll be glad you did.
  • Fine wire mesh colander: This will help you wash and rinse the rice without dropping it down the drain. (I'm clumsy.)
  • Large bowl: The bowl for mixing your rice should be wide so that the rice can be spread out and cooled quickly.
  • Rice paddle: If you watched the video on how to make sushi rice, you saw Taichi using a wide spatula-like spoon to distribute the vinegar mixture over the rice. Trust me, nothing else will work quite as well.
  • Bamboo mat: If you buy nothing else, please promise me that you will get a bamboo mat. You really can't roll sushi without it (and it will make you look so impressive).
  • Sharp knife: After making those beautiful rolls, you don't want to risk tearing them with a less-than-sharp knife. You'll use it every day.

I care about all of you and want you to eat safely and sensibly. I cannot guarantee that, even if you heed my warnings, you will have a positive experience with raw seafood in your home. For that reason, the recipes that I present are made either with seafood that has been cooked, or are vegetarian/vegan.

California roll

California roll

California Roll

There are mixed theories on how and when the California roll came to be. Some food historians say that it was a slow, evolutionary process that began in Los Angeles. But Japanese-born chef Hidekazu Tojo claims that he was the genius who created the inside-out sushi roll in his Vancouver, B.C., restaurant in the late 1970s.

No matter which story you believe, the concept of the California roll opened the door to countless other innovative spins on sushi in America.

Peanut tofu sushi

Peanut tofu sushi

Peanut Tofu Sushi

This peanut tofu sushi is a little sweet (maple syrup), a little spicy (radish, garlic, and Chinese 5-spice), a little salty (soy sauce and peanut butter), and totally satisfying. Tempeh or eggplant strips would work in place of the tofu.

Spicy watermelon sushi

Spicy watermelon sushi

Spicy Watermelon Sushi

This temaki will freak out your vegan friends—it looks exactly like raw tuna, but it's diced watermelon. It's sweet and spicy, creamy and crunchy. Do serve this spicy watermelon sushi right away (the watermelon is watery).

Spicy jackfruit sushi

Spicy jackfruit sushi

Jackfruit is one of the most amazing ingredients for the vegetarian/vegan cook. It has little flavor of its own, so greedily soaks up whatever flavors you add. And the texture is phenomenal—just like cooked pork. This jackfruit sushi is packed with nutrients, savory, spicy, and even has a bit of crunch with the help of a "secret ingredient."

Smoked salmon sushi

Smoked salmon sushi

This smoked salmon roll is perfectly seafood-safe (the salmon is smoked). It's low carb, Paleo, Whole30, and Keto-friendly.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Linda Lum

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