A Sushi Guide for Beginners

So you’re finally going to try sushi! Terrific! For you, the beginner, I can provide a simple guide that will allow you to order your dinner with a sense of confidence that you will neither embarrass yourself in front of your date nor end up with a table full of unidentifiable pieces of fish in varying states of preparation. After all, when ordering sushi in a restaurant, no one ever asks you “and how would you like that cooked?”

One of the most common misconceptions about sushi is that the term automatically means “raw fish.” Actually, the word sushi translates to food that is served with vinegared rice. True, most sushi dishes incorporate the use of raw fish (and when you’re ready to try them, most are delicious), but there are a whole host of options for the novice to order while they’re girding themselves up for the big show.

First, let’s start with the types of dishes offered by the sushi chef. Typically, there are three, and it is helpful to know the difference before ordering.

Sushi, or Nigiri Sushi, refers to a piece of seafood, vegetable, or egg that is laid over a small bed of sticky vinegared rice and held together with a small band of seaweed. Orders of sushi usually come two pieces per order. While the most common types of sushi will be raw fish (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and more), there are several cooked and vegetarian options, such as boiled shrimp, avocado, egg, or cooked crab stick. See the glossary at the end of this article for cooked and vegetarian options, and the Japanese words to identify them by.

Sashimi is basically sushi without the rice. The pieces of raw fish and seafood will come arranged on your plate or wooden board with no rice or seaweed, and typically come three pieces per order. Sashimi tends to be more popular with the sushi purists than the novice diners. You can order things like avocado and egg as sashimi, but generally sashimi is ordered for the sake of the seafood choices alone.

Maki refers to what is called a “roll.” Pieces of raw fish or seafood, cooked meats or shell fish, vegetables, tempura, fish roe (fish eggs) and the like are placed on a thin rectangular bed of rice, which is itself placed on a thin rectangular strip of seaweed and rolled tightly (like a cigar). Most rolls are then cut into six pieces.

There are several types of maki. Aside from the traditional maki, there are thin rolls, futo maki (large rolls, typically cut into four pieces), and inside-out rolls, in which the rice is on the outside of the seaweed.

So, when the sushi comes, what do you do?

Generally, when ordering with two or more people, the party will discuss together what to get and will give the complete order to the sushi chef or waitress. The sushi will then be presented on a communal plate, wooden platter, or for large parties, in what is called a “sushi boat” and placed in the middle of the table. The sushi will typically be arranged in decorative arrangements, and there will be at least one lump of pickled ginger and one lump of wasabi (hot, green, Japanese horseradish) somewhere on the platter. The ginger is to be eaten between pieces of sushi to cleanse the palate between bites (like the cheese and crackers at a wine tasting). The wasabi is for spicing up your sushi, if you so choose, and can be placed in small amounts either in your little dish of soy sauce, or directly onto the piece of sushi. (Warning: fresh wasabi can be extremely hot- try a portion about one half the size of a pea to see how you tolerate it before placing on your food).

Each person will be given a smaller plate and a little dish for pouring soy sauce into. Place some soy sauce in your little dish and then you’re ready to start with your sushi. Proper etiquette dictates that you will now place a few pieces of sushi, a bit of wasabi, and some ginger on your plate with your chopsticks, and work from there. In Japan, people generally use either their fingers or the other side of their chopsticks to take the individual pieces from the platter or boat, but here in the United States, using the business end of your chopsticks is the norm. Once you take a piece, however, it is very bad form to return it to the platter (not, frankly, that most raucous groups of sushi enthusiasts stick too strictly to the official ceremony, and an abandoned piece of sushi left on your plate will likely be snatched away from you before long). Dip each piece individually into the soy sauce with your chopsticks and pop it in your mouth. Be careful not to drown your piece in the soy sauce or it will be very salty and run the risk of falling apart on you before you get it to your mouth. Once you have finished with the pieces you have taken, you can return to the platter and take some more.

So, how do you know what to order? Well, what follows is a glossary that will help even the newest of the sushi newbies order without fear. I will give you the Japanese word, the English word, and a little cheater to let you know whether each item is generally served cooked or raw.

Ahi- ahi tuna- raw
Aji- horse mackerel- raw
Ama Ebi- sweet shrimp- raw
Anago- saltwater eel cooked
Ebi- jumbo shrimp- cooked
Hamachi- yellowtail- raw
Hirami- halibut, fluke- raw
Hokki-Gai- surf clam- raw
Hotategai- scallop- raw
Ika- squid- raw
Ikura- salmon roe (eggs)- raw
Kaibashira- scallop- raw
Kaki- oyster- raw
Kani- crab- cooked
Kunsei Sake- smoked salmon- cooked
Maguro- tuna- raw
Maka-Jiki- swordfish- raw (rare in U.S.)
Masago- smelt roe (eggs)- raw
Saba- mackerel- raw
Sake- salmon- raw or cooked
Suzuki- sea bass- raw
Tai- red snapper- raw
Tako- octopus- raw or cooked
Tamago- egg- cooked
Tobiko- flying fish roe (eggs)- raw
Toro- fatty tuna- raw
Unagi- freshwater eel- cooked
Uni- sea urchin roe (eggs)- raw

For the beginner, I recommend sticking to maki rolls and some simple sushi choices. You can really flesh out the platter with some safe and delicious items while the rest of your party is throwing on the raw and more exotic choices. That way, there’ll be plenty of exciting things to try if you’re feeling adventurous, but you’ll be able to retreat back to your safety zone if you go too far!

Most sushi restaurants create their own maki rolls, so it is impossible to impart here a definitive list, but there are a few choices that are fairly universal and safe for most nervous first timers. The California Roll or California Maki is a staple at any sushi establishment in the United States. It consists of crab meat (cooked), avocado, and cucumber. It is delicious, and is generally considered to be the “starter sushi” that most of us first cut our teeth on. Another common crowd pleaser with nothing too frightening hiding in it is the Philadelphia Roll. This tasty creation involves smoked salmon and cream cheese (surprising yummy in maki rolls), and cucumber. A simple avocado or avo-kappa roll (avocado and cucumber) is always a safe bet, or you could try one of the varying tempura maki creations. Just about every U.S. sushi restaurant has experimented with at least a couple of tempura rolls, and all will be thoroughly cooked. Most maki menus will tell you what is in their particular specialty rolls, so you may find more fun treats to try as well.

For sushi, try the Ebi (boiled shrimp) or Kanikama (crab stick). You can also get a simple avocado sushi, which is just a piece of avocado laid on the bed of rice where the seafood would generally be. Sake salmon is generally smoked. If you want to stick to the cooked things, but still want to try something new and a little exotic, I highly recommend the Unagi (cooked freshwater eel). It is marinated in a sweet, special sauce and grilled, and the results are absolutely fantastic.

So, you can do it! Sushi is really more of an event than a meal, and every piece should be savored, no matter how simple your order might be. Enjoy your friends and the communal aspect of the evening, and you’ll see what an experience a meal can be. And just remember, as an extra treat, you can chase your Sake (smoked salmon) with your Sake (sweet rice wine). Kanpai!

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