Thursday, March 06, 2008

How to Order and Eat Sushi

[I found this great sushi post at Since our group is having a sushi meetup this Sunday, I thought the timing was perfect. I learned alot. Hey, I always put the ginger on my roll..who knew?]

"What is it about eating raw fish? The country is filled with sushi-aficionados who spout off terms like gari and anago, but you probably have no clue what that stuff is. All you can think about is that Simpsons episode where Homer almost dies from eating raw blowfish (which was, by the way, fugu). But if you don’t jump on the sushi trend soon, you’ll probably die from embarrassment as quickly as from fugu.

Calm down, calm down. Even though many consider “sushi” to be synonymous with “icky raw fish,” the danger level is low (fugu excepted) and its variations can please even the finickiest eater. Contrary to popular belief, sushi does not mean raw seafood; instead, it refers to the vinegared rice that can (but need not) be paired with raw seafood. So even vegetarians and those hell-bent on having their meals cooked can be satisfied by sushi. Some sushi contains only rice and veggies.

So prepare yourself to frolic in all that is sushi. But two words of warning: bring cash. One order of sushi ranges from $3-7 (and that’s at the cheapo places), and a meal usually consists of anything from three to five orders. You math majors out there know that this calculates to… well, more than McDonald’s. And it could become an addictive (and expensive) habit; restaurants typically have a number of repeat customers who will eat sushi two or more times a week. But don’t be deterred by the prices - sushi is a delicacy that warrants its cost. So, that said, here we go:

1. CHOOSE A TYPE OF SUSHIWe’re not going to bother delving into the history of sushi. Just know that it’s considered to be a Japanese dish. Instead, let’s jump right in and decide what to eat. Most sushi restaurants will give you two options: to eat at a bar or at a table. If you’re at the bar, check out the selections in the refrigerated display case. If you’re at a table, the waiter will bring an a la carte menu, a sushi checklist of sorts. This is where it can start to get complicated… there are many types of sushi. Fortunately, sushi can be categorized into two types: nigiri and maki.

Nigiri sushi

Ordered and served in pairs, nigiri sushi puts everything in full sight for you: any kind of fish on rice with a touch of wasabi (we’ll explain in step 3) between the two. Here are the fundamentals:

The raw fish on top of the rice is called sashimi and can be ordered without the rice on the bottom as an appetizer. This is NOT the kind of sushi wrapped in seaweed; nigiri sushi is just fish on rice.
For your first sushi experience, order the tuna (maguro) or the salmon (sake; not the rice wine) - these are the least “fishy” fish and also the most popular among Americans.
The salmon is deeply frozen and then slightly smoked or cured to kill any parasites, which can be present in freshwater seafood.
Other common sashimi are the oily mackerel (saba), which is salted and marinated before being served, and hamachi, another type of tuna with a distinctive bright yellow tone (yellowtail).
Sometimes you can replace the sashimi with fish eggs instead. Salmon eggs are the most common, wrapped in a bit of seaweed to hold them on top of the traditional rice base. More popular in Japan is the roe (little eggs) harvested from the inside of sea urchins (uni), which also doubles as the animal’s gonads. In the U.S., uni is expensive but still a delicacy.
Surprisingly, much of nigiri sushi is not even raw. Shrimp (ebi) and crab (kani) are both cooked before they are laid to rest on the rice bed. At some point, try eel (unagi), which is grilled and then marinated in a sweet sauce for several days. Finally, a test of the chef is the tamago, an omelet of stacked paper-thin egg slices strapped onto the rice with a band of seaweed.
To see some great pictures of nigiri sushi, go to Sushi 101.

Maki sushi

Also called roll sushi, maki sushi is probably the first image of sushi that pops into your mind. Maki combines toppings and rice wrapped in sheets of seaweed (nori) and served as six (or eight) slices. So when you see those cute little pieces of fish surrounded in rice and wrapped in seaweed, you’re looking at maki. Typically, maki sushi has less raw fish and allows for more creativity. Here are some typical rolls:

Tekka: tuna (the name refers to gambling parlors where patrons snacked on the roll)
Kappa: cucumber (the name refers to a mythological goblin fond of the vegetable)
California: famous combination of avocado, crab, and cucumber
Avocado: figure this one out on your own
Boston: scallion, crab, and salmon
New York: apple, avocado, and salmon
Philadelphia: smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber
Texas: beef and cucumber
As you probably could have guessed, these are not the names that the ancient Japenese maki-makers chose for these dishes. But as we said, maki allows for tons of creativity. There’s one other “brand” of maki: temaki (or a “handroll”). Temaki is a large single cone-shaped roll (similar to an ice cream cone) and usually contains larger items, like pieces of vegetables and smoked salmon. To see some pictures of maki sushi, check out Sushi 101.

One last note about health: sushi can be easily classified as a health food, being low in fat and calories while high protein. Nori (the seaweed, remember?) is extremely high in vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, Niacin, and C. But no matter how healthy sushi can be, you still must remember that you’re eating raw fish. Sushi should NEVER smell bad, so use your common sense and take a sniff before downing it.


After you sit down at the bar/table/floor, the waiter will probably bring you an oshibori (hot towel for wiping your hands and face) before asking what you would like to drink. Your first impulse might be to go for a Coke or a Bud Lite, but you’ve come this far, so why not try to be authentic? We recommend one of these three options:

Sake (Japanese Rice Wine): Made from fermented rice, sake is served warm and is drunk before eating, not during or after. Some would say that the drink is obligatory, while others would say it is redundant because (like the sushi) it is made from rice. Drinking sake during the meal is certainly akin to ordering bread with a sandwich. But it’s tradition, so cope. Remember that the waiter will continue to fill an empty cup, so flip it over when you’re done. And yes, it is acceptable to have sake with sashimi (which doesn’t have rice).
Green Tea: Green tea is served throughout the meal. It removes aftertastes and freshens the mouth for the next serving. Don’t be miffed by the color; the flavor is actually quite mild.
Beer: Sapporo, Kirin, or Asahi, please. You’ll have to try them on your own.


So you’re sitting at the table, and the waiter gives you your order along with some green paste, some thinly-sliced pink stuff, and a bottle of dark mysterious liquid. What is all this stuff?

Soy Sauce: The bottle of dark mysterious liquid, soy sauce, is essential to eating sushi. However, the sushi should not be soaked in soy sauce. The rice will fall apart, and the soy is meant to complement, not overwhelm, the flavor of the sushi. With your sushi will be a small dish where you can pour the soy sauce and use it for dipping. Pour as much as you think you will need, keeping in mind you can always add more. It is poor form to fill the dish like a wading pool.
Wasabi (Japanese Horseradish): The green paste. Grown only in Japan, finely-grated wasabi is pungent and guaranteed to clear your sinuses. Because fresh wasabi is very expensive, cheaper powder and paste alternatives are often used. Many people mix some wasabi into their soy sauce, but this is only proper with sashimi and maki sushi. Even though wasabi is given for nigiri sushi, it is not supposed to be used. This really only holds true at the bar; feel free to use wasabi to suit your own tastes out of the chef’s view. The most important thing to know about wasabi is that it is VERY HOT and VERY SPICY. Only use a tiny, tiny dab.
Gari (Pickled Ginger Root): The thinly-sliced pink stuff. Used to freshen the mouth between bites of sushi, pickled ginger root comes in numerous small and incredibly thin slices. It is eaten with chopsticks (hashi) and essential for cleansing your palate between eating different types of sushi.
The standard protocol in America is to start a meal with miso soup, a clear broth with floating kelp and tofu. From there, your tastebuds will enjoy some assorted sashimi (the fish pieces without the rice). But first, place some wasabi in the soy dish. Be moderate; you are paying for the taste of the fish or topping, not the taste of the wasabi. Then it’s time to move on to the sushi. While there is no specific order for eating the various kinds of sushi, the maki should be eaten first, since the crispness of the seaweed does not last long after touching the damp rice. Before the nigiri sushi is eaten, the soy dish should be changed. Unlike maki sushi and sashimi (which require chopsticks), nigiri sushi should be eaten with the hands. Grip the sushi from the top, then flip it so that the rice is on top. Dip only the topping into the soy sauce, and always place the sushi in the mouth so that the topping meets the tongue first. Most of all, remember that you’re not eating hot dogs at the ballgame; sushi is far more expensive, and should be savored as a delicacy.

Lots of people like to eat of each other’s plates when experiencing death by sushi. When you pick something up from a friend’s dish, make sure to turn the chopsticks around and use the backend, not the end you ate from.

A note on chopsticks: even if you are uncoordinated, you should try to use them. A fork and knife will seldom be found at a sushi bar, and even if they are, using them is akin to saying that the meat is tough. Do you want to insult the chef? Go with your hands if you have to. Some restaurants may have you finish the meal with a bowl of miso soup, rather than serving it at the beginning of your dining experience.


Now things seem really out of order. Obviously you need a place to eat sushi before you can eat sushi. But if you’ve mastered everything above, this should be the easy part.

Sushi Bar/Restaurant: The sushi bar is the Japanese equivalent of the English pub, and the best way to experience the food is along with the atmosphere that traditionally accompanies it. Sushi is currently very trendy (we know because we just saw Pauly Shore in a sushi bar, and isn’t he the epitome of cool?), so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a local establishment. To find a restaurant in your neighborhood, use this search guide.Given the choice, we recommend that you sit on a stool at a sushi bar. From that vantage point, you can watch the sushi chef (itamae-san) prepare a selection chosen from the refrigerated display in front of him. Furthermore, from the bar, a newbie sushi addict can ask the chef for advice and recommendations. Even for experienced eaters, common practice is to ask the chef for recommendations. This demonstrates respect for the chef, and he will thusly give you the best pieces. At the bar, it is best to place many small orders continuously rather than one large order at the beginning. This will ensure continued interaction with the chef. And it is never bad to throw in a few Japanese phrases:

Konichiwa (koh NEECH ee wah)

Dozo (DOH zoh)

Domo (DOH moh)

Domo arigato (ah ri GAH toh)
“How are you?”


“Thank you.”

“Thank you very much.”

The only thing you should ever order from the chef is sushi and sashimi. For everything else (your beverage, the check, etc.), ask the waiter. And try to leave around a 20% tip, as it gets divided among everyone.

If you are eating at a table instead of a bar, you will generally order all your sushi at once. So we recommend that you order a combination plate rather than ordering individual sushi. That way, you’ll get an interesting sample of all kinds of sushi.

Supermarket: These days, sushi can be found at supermarkets and convenience stores. A portion of maki sushi serves as a good meal for many on their lunch breaks. If you’ve tried sushi and you like it, then go for it. But if it’s your first time, do not eat supermarket sushi - it’s not as fresh as restaurant sushi, so you might not like it as much.
At home: This could be a good option if you get hooked but aren’t willing to shell out the cash for a restaurant meal every evening. There are a few basic tools that you need to make sushi, mainly a bamboo mat (makisu) and an extremely sharp knife. Most importantly, you must obtain quality ingredients from Japanese grocers and trustworthy fish stores. Information on making your own sushi could fill an entire SYW, but for a start, check out Sushi 101.
Go to Japan: Eating sushi is already an expensive habit; throw in an 18-hour plane ride and you’re really a sushi aficionado. In Japan, eating blowfish (fugu) sashimi is the ultimate dining experience - and a culinary variation of Russian roulette. The fish contains a toxin 1250 times deadlier than cyanide, and if ingested, it will probably kill you. But fugu consumption is a status symbol, so many people try it just to say that they have. Fugu is one of the most expensive foods in Japan; you can pay up to $400 for one meal, which must by law be prepared by specially trained and licensed chefs.
So now you’re all set. Not only are can you begin enjoying a classic sushi meal, but you can make fun of the heathens that are still sushi-impaired. Please, wield your power with mercy.”

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