Sushi 101 – A Beginner’s Guide to Japan’s Most Famous Food

Does interpreting a sushi menu seem like a daunting task to you? Well, then it’s time to get over your sushiahphobia (fear of sushi). Sushi is no longer reserved just for happy Japanese tummies. You can find it in almost any city from New York, NY to Austin, TX and of course here in Las Vegas. Even Grand Junction, CO (population of 58,000) has a handful of sushi restaurants. It is an especially popular meal choice for those dining out with friends. Chances are you’ll be invited to eat sushi sooner or later, so it’s best to be prepared and educate yourself now!

If you have never had sushi before, it can be a scary thing. Looking at the menu can be like trying to decipher a foreign document. Don’t let your fear of the unfamiliar prevent you from trying something potentially mind-blowing. After reading this guide, you will be ready to walk into any sushi restaurant ready to order with poise and confidence.

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The Most Common Types of Sushi on the Menu

Hand Roll- This type of roll is made by wrapping sushi rice and ingredients into a cone shape. It is perfect for eating with your hands (hence the name) and is more for individual enjoyment rather than sharing.

Maki Roll– Typically, a maki roll (sometimes shortened to just ‘maki’) is made by rolling sushi rice and a variety of fish and vegetables in nori (seaweed). It is shaped into a circular tube which is then cut into bite-sized disks. Most sushi restaurants will have a list of specialty rolls; these are maki rolls with different combinations of ingredients. Maki rolls are great for sharing!

Nigiri– These are the original and most simple sushi options. Most nigiri are oval balls of sushi rice topped with fresh, masterfully sliced pieces of fish. One order normally comes with two pieces of sushi. If you are a little wary of the raw fish thing, you might want to start with the tamago (egg) or ebi (shrimp) nigiri.

Sashimi– Sashimi are slices of raw fish enjoyed with a side of soy sauce for dipping. It is not really ‘sushi’ per se, but it is commonly eaten at sushi restaurants because it’s basically nigiri without the rice.

Tekka Maki– These are mini maki rolls. They are smaller, so normally have one ingredient in the middle. Common tekka maki rolls are maguro (tuna), cucumber, and takuan (yellow pickled vegetable). A cucumber tekka maki might be a good one for a sushi-newbie to start with.

The Most Common Options on Sushi Menu

Ama Ebi – Sweet shrimp (raw). Sometimes it will be served with the fried shrimp head which is a crispy delicacy. (Like a big shrimp chip!)

Ebi– Cooked shrimp.

Hamachi– Yellowtail.

Ika– Squid. If you like squid in other dishes like pasta, you might like this one. Be aware that it will be chewy in comparison to the other fish options.

Inari– Fried tofu wrapper filled with sushi rice. The outside wrapper is a little sweet and is served cold. There are many creative ways to fill inari sushi, but it is most commonly filled with pure sushi rice.

Maguro– Tuna.

Sake– Salmon. (Not to be confused with ‘sake,’ the Japanese alcoholic beverage.) This is one of the best nigiri to start with when trying raw fish for the first time. It has a smooth, almost creamy texture.

Tako– Octopus. This is can also be a bit chewy, similarly to the ika (squid).

Tamago– Egg. The egg you find on top of sushi is normally sweetened with sugar and cooked in a special square pan called a tamagoyaki pan.

Tobiko– Fish Eggs. These fish eggs don’t have much taste and are enjoyed mostly for the  unique texture. They ‘pop’ in your mouth! You will find tobiko as a decorative ingredient on many other types of maki sushi rolls including the ever popular California roll (imitation crab meat paired with cucumber).

Unagi– Eel. Eating eel may sound exotic, but the texture of unagi most closely resembles that of a tender meat making it another great beginner’s option. It is also considered a good source of protein and energy.

Other Sushi Restaurant FYIs

Ginger– There will often times be pickled ginger on the side of your plate at a sushi restaurant. It has a strong taste meant to cleanse the palette between or after your meal.

Sushi Rice– Sushi is made with a specially prepared rice (white rice mixed with vinegar and sugar). Despite the vinegar, it has a subtle flavor that is not overpowering to the palette.

Unagi Sauce– You will find ‘unagi sauce’ as an ingredient in many maki rolls.  The flavor can be thought of as a thicker, sweeter version of teriyaki sauce. It compliments sushi very well.

Wasabi– The green paste on your plate is NOT avocado! It’s wasabi (Japanese mustard) and it’s spicy. Mix a little piece of it in your soy sauce for dipping.

Master of the Sushi Menu

So now that you’ve read this beginner’s guide to the sushi menu, call your friends and go try some sushi! You now have the knowledge to order like a pro. Start with more familiar options like the tamago nigiri, then venture out further with the sake (salmon). Remember what you read here and you’ll be eating sushi like a Japanese boss in no time. Ganbatte (good luck)!

Contributed by Dera Masunaga