Sushi – The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

Mon 2012/11/12 1:32 JST

nigiri sushi

Sushi is one of Japan’s finest delicacies. This delightful Japanese food consists of cooked vinegared rice combined with raw seafood and other fresh ingredients. With hundreds of variations to choose from, sushi remains one of the most exceptional ways to please the palate and sooth the senses.

Personally, sushi is one of my absolute favorite dishes! The way sushi infuses flavor with overall presentation is just remarkable to me.

I remember my first experience with this Japanese food was at a local sushi bar in Miami, Florida. I ordered the salmon nigiri with a California roll. Simple I know. But I’ve never had a strong stomach, so the idea of ingesting a raw fish was far from my comfort zone.

sushi tokyo

The Itamae (chef) brought me the dish alongside a saucer with soy sauce and a small plate with wasabi and gari. My friend, (the good man that he is), told me that wasabi was a very sweet bean paste that you should eat before the sushi.

So upon his recommendation, I fell for the oldest trick in the gaijin sushi experience. I took a nice big helping of wasabi and ate it like it was mashed potatoes. Man I can still remember the sting from that night. Luckily I survived the ordeal with the help of ample amounts of water and a couple of gari.

After chewing out my friend who almost died of laughter, I was finally able to attempt the salmon nigiri. A dash of soy sauce, a pinch of wasabi, then all in one bite I ate my first piece of sushi. I remember thinking there was such a surprising amount of flavor in such a simple dish. I just didn’t understand it at the time, but I loved it!

Throughout this guide, I’ll discuss a little bit about the history of Sushi, moving on to tips for beginners, proper sushi etiquette, and finally ending with some methods of preparation at home.


sushi restaurant

Sushi has been a part of Japanese cuisine for thousands of years. Originating from China during the second century A.D. Sushi was first a method of preserving food. Perishables like fish were placed in rice and allowed to ferment, which allowed them to stay edible for months. The method had spread to Japan by the seventh century, where they took the idea one step further and preferred to eat the fish with the fermented rice.

In the early 1600s, a man by the name of Matsumoto Yoshiichi began seasoning the rice with rice wine vinegar. This allowed sushi to be eaten immediately, instead of waiting months for the rice to ferment. The next major change for the dish was conceived in the early 1800s by Hanaya Yohei, who is considered the father of modern Japanese sushi.

In his method, the fresh fish is placed on top of a bite-size portion of cooked vinegared rice. Today, this is known as nigiri sushi, (finger sushi), since it is eaten using your hands instead of chop sticks. During the Edo period, sushi was served from Yohei’s food stall in a “fast food” manner. Quickly becoming widely popular throughout Japan, the dish would later become modern Japanese sushi.

Sushi restaurants however wouldn’t pop up until after WWII, when outdoor sushi stalls were shut down in favor of more sanitary conditions. More formal restaurant settings were gradually introduced until it became the premium dining experience we know and love today.

First Timers


Do you consider yourself a sushi beginner? Are you planning on trying sushi for the first time in the near future? Have you already tried sushi but are not sure if you were doing it right?

If you’re going to try sushi for the first time, I’d suggest trying cooked seafood items instead of raw ones. Some people assume that all sushi is made with raw ingredients, but that’s simply not the case. The western inspired California rolls are made with cooked imitation crab meat, while unagi (eel) sushi is almost always served cooked in a sweet sauce. You could also try shrimp or vegetarian sushi, both of which are great ways to grab the essence of sushi without being too bold. Your first goal should be to become comfortable with this style of eating and flavor, and then move on to trying items that are a little more exotic.

sushi japan

If you are willing to be a little more daring and try out some raw seafood sushi your first time around, I’d suggest you start with your favorite cooked fish. If you already love grilled tuna, go ahead and try it raw. The flavor is surprisingly not that different, and the only big difference you’ll notice is its texture. A little softer and a lot less chewy, tuna is one of the sweeter raw fishes, and you’ll find it to be a familiar, yet entirely new experience.

This concept runs pretty much the same with the other raw seafood sushi. I’d also suggest that you try the nigiri version of the sushi you’d like to try, because it involves the bare minimum sushi ingredients and focuses a lot more on the flavor of the fish versus other sauces and vegetables. If you’re particularly put off by the idea of raw fish however, you could also try a roll, which places the ingredients on the inside of the cooked vinegared rice with a far smaller portion of raw fish. The additional rice serves as a great buffer for the flavor intensity of the raw seafood, and allows you the opportunity to practice using your chopsticks.

Remember that everyone has their own preferences when it comes to food, so don’t be afraid to not try something that doesn’t appeal to you. That being said, if you enjoyed your comfort sushi, you should gradually move into trying more exotic types. When you’re ready, there’s a particular dining experience that I think every sushi enthusiast should try. It’s called omakase, which basically boils down to the Itamae’s choice. The sushi chef will select what they believe is best for that day and serve you sushi until you’re full.

Some of the more prestigious sushi restaurants partake solely in this practice, limiting your choices to the will of your trusty Itamae.

Located in the heart of Tokyo, Japan, Sukiyabashi Jiro is exclusively omakase, with the dining experience costing you a whopping 30,000 Yen (370 USD) a plate. Many consider this restaurant to serve the very best sushi in the world, having won numerous awards throughout the years and even being covered in a feature film documentary entitled “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.

Omakase is considered by many to be the finest way to eat sushi, so I’d highly recommend it for those of you daring sushi eaters looking for an unforgettable experience.

How to Eat Sushi – The Proper Dining Experience

japanese sushi

From my own experience, sushi etiquette isn’t heavily focused on outside of Japan – at least, not throughout the westernized sushi bar and sushi buffet. That being said, there are certain “rules” that if followed, would make your dining experience more authentic and enjoyable.

When you first enter a sushi restaurant, you’ll be greeted by a host who will in turn ask if you’d like to be seated a table or the bar. If you’d prefer a quiet evening by yourself or with your party, definitely go with the table. The sushi bar is usually reserved for folks who’d prefer a little more interaction with the Itamae, as well as casual conversation with the other customers.

If you choose to sit at the sushi bar, only order sushi directly from the Itamae. Drinks, non-sushi appetizers, and desserts are ordered through the waiter. Never ask if the food is fresh, because it is insulting to the sushi restaurant to imply that it may not be. If you truly believe that the seafood isn’t fresh, then you shouldn’t be eating there in the first place. This is different from asking the Itamae what they recommend, as it allows the chef to offer the specials and rarities of that particular day.

I encourage you to engage in conversation with the Itamae, but only if they are able. Be respectful and friendly if they try to engage in conversation with you first, as it will build a positive relationship with the Itamae that will be beneficial for future visits.

I have one place that I regularly go to in my neighborhood where the Itamae is also the owner of the restaurant. Whenever I arrive he always has a seat and appetizer waiting for me by the bar, regardless of how busy the restaurant is that night.

When you take your seat the waiter will offer you a wet towel called o-shibori. In the summer the o-shibori is given to you cold, while during the winter it’s given to you hot. Use this towel to wash your hands thoroughly before your meal. Make sure you do not use the o-shibori to clean your face, neck or the table in front of you. Also make sure you actually use it too. After all, your hands can never be too clean. Once you’re finished, place the o-shibori back on the tray it was handed to you on, and then order your drinks and appetizers.

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask your waiter or the Itamae for items that may not be on the menu. Sometimes sushi restaurants do not list special or seasonal items on their permanent menu, but they’ll appreciate your interest and could offer you some additional meal options.

If and when you use your chopsticks, make sure you do not rub them together or use them to point to anything. As tempting as a samurai chopstick sword battle might be, leave it for the privacy of your own home, and not at a sushi restaurant. Place your chopsticks in front of your plate or on the designated plate/chopstick holder. Also, make sure that you’re not holding your chopsticks when you’re taking a sip of your drink, or when you’re eating your other dishes with another utensil. Nigiri is a finger food sushi, so you don’t have to use your chopsticks in this case. Sashimi on the other hand, is made only to be eaten with chopsticks. So I’d say when in doubt, just use your chopsticks. At worst, it’ll look like you’re eating pizza with a fork and a knife.

As a bonus tip, if you’re in Japan, never stick your chopsticks in your rice and leave them pointing up. This makes them look a lot like incense sticks which symbolize funerals and death to the Japanese. Not exactly the best thing to bring to mind when you’re eating.

Wasabi is a spicy Japanese horseradish, usually served with sushi as a paste. The Itamae will usually add the appropriate amount of wasabi directly within the sushi, however you can add more as you see fit. Also, do not mix wasabi with the soy sauce in the soy sauce dish. This is probably the most regular improper practice I’ve seen among westerners eating sushi. Add the wasabi directly to your sushi using your chopsticks.

Gari, or sliced ginger, is used as a palate cleanser that is consumed between eating different types of sushi. Do not eat it with your sushi or in large amounts. Gari also has some anti-microbial properties and it is believed to assist with the prevention of sickness if there is any contamination of the raw seafood.

If you’re sharing food with a Japanese member of your dinner party, do not offer them your sushi by picking it up with your chopsticks and putting it on their plate. This closely resembles a custom among the Japanese related to a traditional funeral. Instead, pass your entire plate to the recipient and allow them to help themselves. If you’re on the receiving end, do not pick up food from another individual’s plate with the end of the chopsticks you put in your mouth. Flip your chopsticks and use the opposite ends instead. This is considered proper hygiene in addition to proper etiquette.

If you’re eating nigiri sushi, dip the piece with the fish side facing down into your soy sauce. The rice will usually soak up too much of the stuff, and it can overpower the taste of the seafood. Most types of sushi are designed to be eaten in one bite. However, I have seen some modern sushi served in considerably larger portions, so don’t choke on your food trying to stick a huge piece in your mouth all at once. I’d say just use common sense over proper etiquette on this one. Also, take your time and chew your food slowly. Sushi is meant to be savored, not devoured.


How to Make Sushi

making sushi

Making your own sushi can be a very challenging yet rewarding experience. I don’t believe there’s any better way to truly appreciate the care and work that goes into this beautiful dish. I’ll briefly cover some basics behind sushi preparation, and I’ll leave the rest up to you.

Any ingredient that you plan on consuming raw should be labeled “sushi-grade”. These fish are cleaned more thoroughly than the regular stuff you see in the market place. That’s because butchers assume that the regular raw fish and meats they put out will be cooked before being eaten. Once you purchase your ingredients, make sure they are not mixed in with your other frozen meats. This could risk some serious cross contamination. Below are some pictures taken at the Tokyo and Tsukiji fish market.

tokyo fish market

tuna auction japan

blowfish japan

Tsukiji fish market

Remember to thoroughly clean everything that you use involved with making this dish before it ever comes in contact with any of the ingredients. I cannot stress how important this is. Dealing with foods you intend to consume raw is a very risky business, so take care!

You’ll also need to purchase some short-grain rice. As the name implies this grain is shorter than the traditional rice you eat every day. This is very important because the shorter grain creates that sticky texture involved with sushi rice.

Roughly two cups of rice makes one roll of sushi or eight to ten pieces of nigiri. Once you’ve determined your serving sizes, you’ll need to clean the rice. Pour the rice into a fine-mesh strainer. Next, place the strainer within a bowl large enough to fit it entirely. Then, gently run cold water through the rice and use your hands to toss and turn the rice within the strainer. You’ll notice that the water will instantly turn into a milky white color. Discard the water and repeat. Continue to do this until the water becomes completely clear. Drain the rice one last time and let it sit anywhere between 10 to 15 minutes.

Use a rice cooker to finish it up. The rice bag will usually indicate how much water you should add to the rice to cook. You should prepare the rice vinegar, salt and sugar while the rice is cooking. Proper measurements for this vary from person to person, so I’ll leave that entirely up to you. Also, make sure that you never stir the rice while it’s cooking. This could cause the more delicate grains to break and essentially become mush.

Once the rice is ready, transfer it into a bowl. Pour the prepared vinegar mixture in with the rice, and gently mix it together with a wooden paddle. There are many methods to do this, but I’d recommend that you push all the rice to one side of the bowl, and then using your paddle, rapidly but gently move the rice to the opposite end of the bowl. Repeat until you feel that the dressing has been evenly distributed within the rice. This shouldn’t take any more than 4 minutes.

Let the rice cool for another 5 minutes before using. Use a moist kitchen cloth to cover the rice and prevent it from drying out. We’ll me making nigiri sushi for this brief prep tutorial. Why? We’ll it’s the traditional Japanese sushi and the easiest to prepare in my opinion.

Moisten your hand with cold water. Take enough of the rice to slightly fill the palm of your hand when it’s closed. Form the rice into an oblong shape that’s roughly 5cm long by 3cm wide and about 2cm tall. Be careful not to compact the rice too much. Retaining some of the air within the rice gives the sushi its smoothness to the tongue, and is very important for the final product.

Once your rice shape is ready, you can go ahead and add a small portion of wasabi on it. If you rather your sushi not have a spicy flavor, then you can skip this part.

To start, I’d suggest going with a fish like salmon or tuna for your sushi. Remember to purchase sushi grade fish for this. I usually purchase it frozen for good measure, but you could also order it fresh depending on your area. Keep in mind though, that most if not all sushi fish consumed in the US, was at one point frozen. Place a small, medium thin cut of the fish gently on top of the rice. For the cuts, use a sushi knife or an equivalent fish knife, and slice it against the grain. Your final piece should be around 5cm long by 3cm wide and about 1cm tall.

And there’s your first piece of Japanese nigiri sushi!

Until next time, douzo meshiagare! どうぞめしあがれ!