It’s hard to imagine the American culinary landscape without sushi. A staple in Japan for centuries, sushi was introduced to mainstream America in the 1950s and since then has found a voracious appetite in the West, with many American-menu favorites developed here as the dish adapted to regional tastes.
Sushi 101 for Beginners
At its core, sushi is cooked vinegar rice, sushi-meshi, combined with seafood, vegetables and tropical fruits. Rice is the foundation of sushi. Traditionally made with short-grain white rice (brown rice sushi is becoming more popular in the States), sushi-meshi is made with a seasoned mix of rice vinegar, salt and sugar (awase-zu). Chefs then either roll—maki—the rice with seaweed and seafood or form small mounds and drape with a seafood topping—nigri.
Here are the basics of sushi to make your next visit to the restaurant more enjoyable.
When it comes to sushi, there are three additions that usually accompany the plate: wasabi, soy sauce (shoyu) and pickled ginger (gari).
Wasabi does not necessarily need to be added to everything, especially nigiri, which is usually already seasoned. And unless you are dining on sashimi—thinly sliced fish without rice—it is not custom to mix wasabi and soy sauce.
Pickled ginger is primarily used as a palate cleanser between bites. It can also be used as a means to add soy sauce to the roll by simply brushing it with chopsticks.
How to Eat
When eating sushi, don’t be afraid to use your hands. Nigri is traditionally eaten with your fingers. If using soy sauce, dip fish-side down. If it is too difficult to invert the sushi, baste the soy sauce on the topping using the ginger.
Rolled sushi, makizushi, is also primarily a finger-food, though if it is a sauced roll, chopsticks are acceptable. Proper sushi etiquette would have diners using their fingers, so if the chef—itamae—is especially attentive and traditionally trained, use your hands.
Sashimi is always eaten with chopsticks.
If you are feeling brave and are up for just about any ingredient, let the chef, itamae, help you with your choice. Called omakase, this essentially allows chefs to choose what they think is particularly good that day and serve you until you are finished. If you have an aversion to a certain fish or style, it is best to avoid this dining option.