Beginner’s Guide to Sushi

ByMark Guthrie
Feb 10, 2016

Beginner’s Guide to Sushi

SushiThink of Japan, and you think of sushi. It’s a simple as that, isn’t it? Or is it? Because there is a whole world of sushi that you quite probably don’t know about.

For a start, did you know that it originally came from near present day Vietnam? Or that it was intended to be fast food that can be snacked upon with the fingers? Or how about the fact that the California roll actually comes from Vancouver? For more equally devastating bombshells, as well as practical advice on the fishy delicacy, read on for our Beginner’s Guide to Sushi!

History of Sushi

As previously mentioned, sushi originated somewhere along the Mekong Delta, although that initial dish bears little resemblance to what many would consider sushi today. Originally a form of preservation, fish was salted and stored with fermented rice that was discarded to leave the preserved fish. This is reflected in the fact that the word ‘sushi’ comes from an antiquated word meaning ‘sour tasting’.

Sushi came to Japan via China in this fermented form – known today as ‘narezushi’ (馴れ寿司) – sometime around the eighth century and quickly became an important source of protein, particularly in the winter months. By the Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573) a form of sushi known as ‘namanare'(生成) had grown in popularity, as the still partially raw fish was eaten along with the rice before it had fully fermented, giving it a sour, savoury ‘umami‘ taste.

In the second century of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) a new kind of fermentation was being experimented in the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo) using rice vinegar, a technique still in use today. In that same city  in 1824 a man named Hanaya Yohei created a version of’ sushi that for the first time used raw fish with vinegared rice. This style of sushi preparation was for designed for fast making and faster eating (haya-zushi, 早寿司) and has now become popular all around the world.

Varieties of Sushi

There are many various kinds of sushi to choose from.


nigiriNigirizushi is probably what most people think of when it comes to sushi. Formed by an oblong of vinegared rice molded between the palms of the sushi chef’s hands, the topping, or ‘neta’, is placed on top, often with a small amount of ‘wasabi’ between the two components. For some toppings which have a loose consistancy or are finely chopped and thus likely to fall off, a perimeter of nori seaweed is placed around the outer side to hold it all in place. This is called ‘gunkanmaki’ (軍艦巻) literally translated to ‘warship roll’. Another way in which nori is used is when a thin strip is used to hold certain neta in place, such as squid or eel. Servings of nigirizushi commonly come as two pieces on a small plate.


makiAnother internationally well known form of sushi is ‘makizushi’ (巻き寿司), or sushi roll. This is a roll of rice with a filling formed by the use of a bamboo mat, and then held in place with an outer layer of nori (it is from this form of sushi which the California Roll comes, though the difference here is that the seaweed is usually on the inside). There are various kinds of makizushi such as the thick ‘futomaki’ (太巻) which consists of a number of fillings, or the thin roll of ‘hosomaki’ (細巻) which just has one. ‘Temaki’ (手巻) is a conical shaped roll with an open end that is difficult to eat with chopsticks, hence its name ‘hand roll’.


ChirashizushiChirashizushi (ちらし寿司) is perhaps the easiest sushi to prepare, being as it is a bowl of sushi rice topped with a variety of raw fish and vegetables or garnishes. There is no set menu for chirashizushi, and toppings can be specified by the customer, dictated by local custom or even by the chef’s preferences. It is popularly eaten during the Girls’ Day celebrations of Hina Matsuri.


OshizushiIf you happen to be in the Kansai area and see beautifully presented, blocked sushi, you have probably found ‘oshizushi’ (押し寿司). This form of sushi only uses cured or cooked fish – never raw – and is created by using a wooden mold into which the topping and then rice is placed before being firmly pressed to create aestheticly pleasing squares. One particularly elegant serving is ‘sasazushi’ which is presented in bamboo leaves.


193px-FunazushiIf you have an adventurous side to you, you may want to try the aforementioned fermented narezushi. This dish is prepared by placing skinned, gutted, salted fish in a wooden barrel and squeezing out the water over a period of six months. Fans of Scandinavian dishes surströmning and hákarl may want to give it a try.


Popular Sushi Toppings

There are of course a wide range of sushi toppings. Below are a list of the ones you are most likely to come across in your local sushi restaurant.

For a fuller idea of what sushi toppings you can get, check out this list on Wikipedia.

Kaiten Sushi vs. Sushi Bar; The Pros and Cons

There are two main types of restaurant at which you can get good sushi in Japan: the kaiten conveyer belt restaurants, or the sushi bar. For sushi newbies there are both pros and cons for either type of establishment.

Sushi bar pros: At the sushi bar you will be served by an ‘itamae’ (板前), a professional sushi chef who will hand-make everything to your specific order. Also, if he has time, your chef will be able to talk you through everything that you are eating and even make suggestions of what to try.

Sushi bar cons: This being Japan, unless you are relatively confident in your Japanese ability, you may have difficulty in speaking to your itamae. Also, if you bite into something you don’t like (I’m looking at you, natto!) it’s not so easy to subtly spit it out into a napkin.

Kaiten sushi pros: Most of these are chain restaurants, and being low priced – often at 100 JPY per dish – are family favourites and are thus very relaxed. The dishes spin past you on a conveyer belt and you can see what you are getting before grabbing it.

Kaiten sushi cons: It can be difficult, particularly in quieter times, to shake the suspicion that the piece of raw tuna that just went past your table hasn’t been doing the rounds for the previous hour. Also, while it is very convenient to grab whatever comes your way, in this fashion there is a good chance that you won’t learn what you’re eating, and you won’t know your aji from your ebi!

Sushi Etiquette Do’s and Dont’s

  • Do use your fingers. Most forms of sushi are meant as finger food, so it’s okay to pick it up if you don’t feel confident with chopsticks. Just make sure you have used your oshibori towel to clean your hands first!
  • Don’t use too much soy sauce. The sauce is just meant to be for flavouring, not a soaking.
  • Do dip just the topping in the soy sauce. If you dip the rice it will fall apart. This can be done by carefully turning the sushi piece upside down.
  • Don’t take two bites. The chef has created the perfect balance between fish rice and wasabi. You don’t want to disrupt that harmony.
  • Do place the sushi in your mouth so that the neta faces down. This maximises the flavour.
  • Don’t mix wasabi with the soy sauce. If your palette requires it place the wasabi directly on the topping.
  • Do use the back ends of your chopsticks if you are taking from a shared plate. (This goes of any food in Japan.)

If you are still unsure of how to eat your sushi, check out this English language guide at the best way of doing it.


If you are in Tokyo, why not try out some of these great sushi restaurants.

By Mark Guthrie

Image: "sushi" by kana hata (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified
Image: "sushi" by Jeremy Keith (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified
Image: "Makizushi (Sushi)" by Noemi Yukiko (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified
Image: "6/365: Chirashizushi #365project" by Kris Awesome (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified
Image: "Kakinohazushi (saba, sake)" by Ad Blankestijn (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified
Image: "鮒寿司" by Yasuo Kida (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified

About the author

Mark Guthrie editor

Novelist, copywriter and graduate from the most prestigious university in Sunderland, Mark whiles away his precious time on this Earth by writing about popular culture, travel, food and pretty much anything else that is likely to win him the Pulitzer he desperately craves. Find some more of his musings at and on instagram @markguthriewrites