A Guide to Ordering Sushi

Sushi has gone mainstream. According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, there are over 20,000 restaurants serving sushi outside Japan, over 10,000 of them in North America. Sushi restaurants offering a sophisticated variety of sushi can even be found in the American heartland, once the exclusive domain of potatoes and steaks. Many versions of sushi have even been fully Americanized, flavored with familiar comfort ingredients such as jalapenos and avoiding raw fish entirely.

Even so, ordering sushi can be intimidating. To begin with, most of the words associated with sushi are Japanese. If you are new to ordering sushi and you don’t speak Japanese, you might not guess that “sake nigirizushi” will get you a perfectly safe piece of smoked salmon on rice, while “unagi nigirizushi” will get you a raw piece of sea eel. Fortunately, many sushi restaurants have English-language translations on their menus. Many even have pictures.

All types of sushi include vinegared sticky rice. Many types of sushi also include a strip of nori seaweed. Raw fish without the rice is called sashimi. If you are nervous about trying raw fish, stick to shrimp and salmon, which are likely to have been previously cooked or smoked. There are also many vegetarian versions of sushi.


This is the most basic type of sushi. It is simply a small oblong mound of vinegared rice with a topping, usually some type of fish, although the topping can also be anything from chopped quail eggs to caviar. The topping may be bound to the rice with a nori wrap. Because “maki” refers to any rolled sushi, the proper term for nigirizushi which is wrapped with a strip of nori is “gunkanmaki.”

Rounded, pressed balls of nigirizushi are called “temarizushi.” When it is squared and pressed, it is called “oshizushi.”


This refers to all kinds of sushi rolls. Large sushi rolls are called “futomaki,” while small sushi rolls are called “hosomaki.” You now know the Japanese words for “thick” and “thin.” All makizushi consist of a layer of rice rolled around a filling, with or without a nori wrapping. If the roll is made so that the layer of nori is on the inside, the “inside-out” roll is called “uramaki.” This version is rare in Japan. Rolls can also be wrapped in cucumber skin, or sometimes even crepes.

Makizushi is usually served by the roll, cut into up to 8 pieces. Sometimes the roll is served uncut.

Most makizushi have 3 or 4 fillings, while some hosomaki may have only one. If nori is not used, the outside of the roll may be coated with sesame seeds or tobiko (flying fish roe). The roll may also include wasabi, a spicy green Japanese horseradish. One popular kind of makizushi is the California roll, which is filled with avocado, carrot, and imitation crab.

A nori-wrapped roll which is left open to form a cone is called “temakizushi.” Temakizushi is built so that the fillings spill out of the wide end. It must be eaten quickly, while the nori is still crisp. Because temakizushi is awkward to handle with chopsticks, it is usually eaten with the fingers.


This is a pouch of fried tofu, filled with sushi rice and sometimes an extra filling. Sometimes a thin omelette is used instead of the tofu.


This is simply a bowl of sushi rice with toppings on top. If the toppings are mixed in with the rice, it is called “gomokuzushi.”

If you are still uncertain, don’t be afraid to ask the waitress or chef for advice. He or she will be happy to recommend something which is likely to be to your taste.

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