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Basic Sushi Etiquette Lesson No. 1 – The Basics

Is there a more high-profile foreign cuisine in the United States than sushi? Whether it’s a first date, a business meeting, or early-evening happy hour, sushi is so deeply incorporated into the American culture that you can find it in most every city in the country and in large-scale supermarkets.

Heck, you can even find sushi in gas stations (we highly advise not purchasing gas station sushi).

Since sushi was first documented more than 1,800 years ago, it has taken some dramatic steps from a way to preserve fish and rice to the omnipresent styles of modern times. And like most cuisine incorporated into the American world, there is a certain etiquette that accompanies.

Don’t worry, the vast majority of sushi chefs — known as “itamae” — will not be outwardly offended if you or your party do not follow these customs. In fact, many of these customs have fallen by the wayside in Japan, especially once sushi became a worldwide sensation.

Still, like dressing your hotdog with ketchup or putting ice in your beer, there are a few basic points that we should at least appreciate when in a sushi bar. These will make your experience more enjoyable and show your itamae a little love in the process.

The Basics-Styles

One of the main issues patrons have in sushi restaurants is the general lexicon between two languages. If you aren’t going out for sushi very often, you’ll likely forget what many of these terms mean, thus adding to the confusion. To begin with, the technical meaning of sushi refers to the actual sweetened, seasoned rice. That has changed over the years as sushi has become an all-encompassing term for the majority of items in a sushi restaurant.

Here’s a breakdown of the main types of sushi you’ll need to worry about, representing about 90 percent of the menu you’ll see:

Maki (aka “Roll”) – Seaweed-wrapped disks of rice with a number of ingredients in the center. They tend to be larger and very colorful. For most novice sushi patrons, especially those who are still hesitant of raw-fish, Maki is the most popular option. Maki rolls are filled with a variety of vegetables, meats, and a wide range of garnishes.

All styles of sushi are designed to be eaten in one bite, however, Maki rolls have slowly become very large over the years, making this a difficult rule to follow. These rolls are known as Futo-Maki. Don’t worry about taking a bite if it’s too big — and certainly don’t choke on a big roll just to appease the sushi police!

You may also see some other types of rolls, such as Hosomaki or Temaki. Hosomaki are mini rolls with only one ingredient. Temaki, commonly known as “Hand Rolls,” are pretty much the same as general Maki rolls. Hand rolls are quicker to make, use more seaweed, and look like little ice-cream cones.

Nigiri (Fish and rice) — When you look at a sushi menu, Nigiri represents the majority of the options. It’s pretty simple actually. Usually raw fish on a bed of rice. Nigiri should be cut into a bite-sized portions and served in pairs. Fish should be cold and damp and the rice should be fluffy and light. If you are not there yet with raw fish, try a shrimp or egg nigiri, but always ask your itamae if you are sitting at the bar, or your server if you are at a table.

Sashimi (Raw fish) — So technically, it’s not really sushi since it does not have rice. It’s the finely cut raw fish from the Nigiri all by itself. If you are on a low-carb diet, Sashimi is perfect for you! Sashimi is raw, so if you’re reticent about raw fish, it’s best to look a different direction.

The Basics-Fish

Depending on the restaurant, this list may include one to two dozen options. The highest percentage will involve raw fish — tuna, salmon, whitefish, etc. — followed by raw seafood — shrimp, eel, crab, etc. — and the last being a mashup of other items — fish eggs, cooked eggs, cooked fish, and seafood.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Itamaes and servers enjoy helping their guests. And it is better for everybody that you order something you enjoy rather than choke down something you are not ready for — or worse, leave it on your plate for the itamae to see!

Maguro (Tuna) — Maguro is the generic Japanese word for “tuna” and is the most widely-used fish by sushi restaurants. There are a number of different types of maguro, as well as different cuts used. This often causes confusion for novice sushi patrons. We’ll get into that below.

There are three main species of maguro you will find on a sushi menu:

Hon maguro (Bluefin) — This is the largest of the tuna species, sometimes surpassing 1,500 pounds. Due to its size, it is the most popular of all tuna sushi options throughout the world.

Mebachi maguro (Big-Eye) — While only a third of the size of Bluefin, Big-Eye tuna is still very popular, mostly due to its milder taste. It’s size still affords multiple grade cuts like Bluefin.

Kihada maguro (Yellowtail) — The smallest of the typical maguro options, Yellowtail has the mildest flavor and the most dense texture. It is mostly popular in the Western United States and is called “Ahi” in Hawaii.

Hamadai (Red Snapper) — There are not many “white” fish options on most sushi menus, but when there is, hamadai is easily the most popular. It is a delicate fish with a mild flavor.

Sake (Salmon) — Pronounced “sha-ke”, this is the most dense and highly textured option you will likely see at any sushi restaurant. It’s red-to-orange color stands out amongst all others and has a rich flavor. It is also often served with the skin, which adds more texture and a rich, oily taste.

The Basics-Cuts

Many sushi menus will label the options based on the cuts of fish used, nearly always from a bluefin. Similar to a cut of beef, the more fatty and marbled the area, the higher the flavor and higher the price.

Akami — This is a generic term for the meat taken from the top of the fish. It is red in color, very dense, and has the lowest amount of fatty tissue. It is often known as “normal” sushi.

Chutoro — Often labelled just “toro,” this is the most popular of the cuts. Taken from the bellow of this fish, it has a marbled, pink color and a buttery texture. It has a rich taste due to the high fat content, but still has a medium-density. It will be more expensive than akami.

Otoro — This is the most sought-after portion of the fish and comes from the fatty area near the head. It is pale pink in color and has a delicate, buttery texture. Given the rarity of this cut, it is often times twice as expensive and often times not available.

Fortunately, most sushi restaurants will have some of this translated on their menus. Unfortunately, there are rarely any descriptions. This first lesson will get you through the most basic lunch, dinner, or snack. Like anything, sushi is an acquired taste. But part of the fun is the practice!