Let’s take a closer look at the different types of sushi!
The common seven types of sushi that every Japanese person knows of include Nigiri zushi (Nigiri sushi), Makizushi (Makisushi), Chirashizushi (Chirashi sushi), Inarizushi (Inari sushi), Sushi rolls, Oshizushi and Others. If you add in the local forms of sushi, there are as many types as there are regions. The most famous of these is nigiri-sushi, and it is what most out-of-towners are referring to with the word “sushi”.
1. Nigiri zushi (Nigiri sushi)
This type of sushi consists of placing a fish fillet or another topping on top of special vinegar rice, then pressing it by hand. You may be interested to know that salmon roe and sea urchin gun-kan pieces that are wrapped in seaweed aren’t rolled by hand like this, so some people don’t consider them to be nigiri-sushi. But the vinegar rice in these pieces is rolled by hand so wouldn’t that mean it’s one type of nigiri-sushi?!
2. Makizushi (Maki sushi)
Makizushi is broadly categorized as Hoso-maki (thin rolls), Futo-maki (thick rolls), Saiku-maki (decorative rolls) and Temaki (hand rolls), which are actually a type of skinny rolls.
2-1 Hoso-maki (Thin rolls)
The basic size of one piece of nori (dried seaweed) is L 210 x W 190 mm. This basic size is called “Zenkei (全型)”. Zenkei is cut to a variety of other sizes depending on how it is used.
Rolls where one sheet of nori is grilled before use and then cut in half are called “Hoso-maki”. The core of these rolls may be cucumber, tuna, dried gourd, pickled daikon radish, natto (fermented soybeans), or something else, and the rolls are named for these fillings. Around 80 grams of sushi rice is used for one Hoso-maki roll.
One of the characteristics of Hoso-maki is that the way it is cut and served differs depending on the ingredients inside. For example, Kanpyo-maki is rolled so that the cross-section is round, cut into 4 pieces, and then presented on its side. Tekka-maki and Kappa-maki are rolled into square shapes, cut into 6 pieces, and then served to stand on the ends so that the red and green colors are visible. (It has been this way for many years, but the reason is not certain) Let me start by introducing the famous types of skinny rolls.
2-1-1 Kappa maki (Cucumber roll)
Cucumber is cut into long strips and a few of these strips, seasoned with white sesame seeds, are rolled into seaweed.
2-1-2 Tekka maki (Tuna roll)
Most people already know the center of this roll is tuna.
2-1-3 Kampyo Maki (Dried gourd roll)
A seaweed roll with sweet, boiled Kanpyo* in the center.
*Kampyo is the white flesh of the bottle gourd, which is cut into long strips, as if peeling it, then cut so it looks like strings, then laid out to dry, perhaps in the sunshine or hot air.
2-1-4 Torotaku maki (tuna and pickled radish roll)
Chopped pickled radish is combined with sukimi* to form the center of this seaweed roll. The pickled radish has a refreshing flavor and matches perfectly with the thick fat of the tuna.
*Sukimi refers to a thin slice of the fish from which the meat between the muscle and the fat remaining on the back of the skin is cut away.
2-1-5 Anakyu maki (cucumber and conger eel roll)
Finely sliced conger eel is combined with cucumber, then wrapped in seaweed.
The difference between unakyu roll (unakyu maki) and anakyu roll (anakyu maki)
The “una” in Unakyu is an abbreviation of “unagi” (Japanese eel) and “kyu” is an abbreviation of “Kyuri” (Japanese cucumber). In other words, a unakyu roll is a sushi roll made by wrapping Japanese eel, Japanese cucumber and sushi rice in nori (seaweed paper). Next, the “ana” in Anakyu is an abbreviation of “anago” (Japanese conger eel) and anakyu is a sushi roll in which Japanese conger eel, Japanese cucumber and sushi rice are rolled up in nori.
So what is the difference between eel and conger eel?
Biologically, they are both in the “unagi” or eel family. Basically, unagi lives in freshwater regions and conger eel live in the sea. However, in a Sushiology context, they are completely different types of toppings.
First of all, 99% of sushi restaurants that specifically serve Edo-style sushi, do not offer unagi sushi. Of course, unagi sushi exists in Japan, but it is more common in sushi shops in the Kansai region and as nigiri sushi at the conveyor belt sushi restaurants. In the Kanto region, unagi is eaten in the form of “unaju” (or unadon), which is unagi served over rice, at specialty restaurants called “Unagiya”. Incidentally, the basic eel sauce recipe used in unaju is made from sake, mirin, soy sauce and sugar. In Japan, it’s called “unagi-no-tare” (which means eel sauce) and is sold in grocery stores. As an aside, the secret eel sauce recipes used by unagi chefs bring out the natural sweetness of the sake and mirin, so using sugar is unnecessary.
On the other hand, anago sushi is a staple topping for Edo-style sushi and it is known as a topping that truly makes apparent the skill of the sushi chef. The sweet sushi sauce used for anago sushi is called Tsume (which is short for Nitsume; it’s not called ‘anago sauce’), made from the water that the anago was boiled in, sake, mirin, soy sauce and sugar. Besides anago, tsume is also used for hamaguri (clam), shako (squilla), awabi (abalone), etc. Eel sauce cannot be used as a substitute for tsume. Also, the flavor of the tsume is so important that it is often considered to be what a sushi restaurant is valued on, so the sauce recipe is always original at restaurants that display “Edo-style sushi” signs.
2-1-6 Himokyu maki (mantle and cucumber)
A seaweed roll with the mantle of the ark shell and cucumber in the center.
2-1-7 Negitoro maki (green onion and tuna)
Chopped green onion is combined with tuna sukimi to form the center of this seaweed roll.
＊There is a lot of flesh on the middle bone (spine) and the surrounding area for tuna and the like. This is called “nakaochi”. Scraping the meat from this area surrounding the spine is known as “negitoru”, which is where the word “negitoro” comes from. In other words, the name “negitoro” is not actually from the words onion (negi) and tuna belly (toro).
2-1-8 Shiko maki (Pickled radish roll)
Chopped pickled radish and a shiso leaf are seasoned with white sesame seed and wrapped in seaweed.
2-1-9 Natto maki (Fermented Soybeans roll)
Natto is a fermented food made from steaming soybeans and the natto bacteria. It is considered to be one of Japan’s superfoods and its medically proven effects include preventing myocardial infarction and cerebral infarction, controlling increased blood sugar levels, preventing osteoporosis, anti-aging effects, improved memory, etc.
Natto maki, made by wrapping natto and sushi rice in nori, has seemed to spread throughout the world simultaneously with the recognition of natto. It is one of the most popular menu items at the conveyor belt sushi restaurants in Japan. However, let’s avoid ordering natto maki at Edo-style sushi restaurants in Japan. If you do, someone might think that you don’t understand what real sushi is. When Edo-style sushi was first invented, there were no vegetable toppings. Now, the only vegetable toppings in Edo-style sushi are cucumber, shiitake and spring onions. Natto is not considered to be a type of Edo-style topping and so it isn’t stocked at such restaurants.
2-2 Futo-maki (thick rolls)
These sushi rolls are thicker. In the Kansai region, Futo-maki are made with 1 and a half sheets of nori seaweed while in the Kanto region only one sheet is used. Also in Kanto, the nori is toasted, but it’s not in Kansai. The reason for not toasting is that soft, raw nori that has only been dried is easy to roll vinegar rice in and doesn’t tear easily. The typical Futo-maki roll is the Goshu-goshoku (5 types, 5 colors) including shiitake mushrooms, kanpyo, egg omelet, minced fish, and spinach. In Kansai, there is more vinegar rice used so it is rolled very thickly, but in Kanto the ingredients and vinegar rice are balanced and the roll is thinner.
For Futo-maki one sheet of nori is used to roll 250 to 300 grams of sushi rice and ingredients. There is also a version called Chu-maki in which Futo-maki is made a bit smaller so it is easier to eat in the restaurant, and about three cuts are served with the main dish. However, the line between Chumaki and Futo-maki is not clear-cut.
2-3 Saiku-maki (decorative rolls)
The cross-section of the cut pieces is made to look like flowers, designs, or family crests. Priority is given to the visual aspects more than the taste.
2-4 Temaki (hand rolls)
This is a new, fun way to eat sushi, and it’s certainly the easiest way. One way is to roll it very thin, like Hoso-maki, and another is to roll it wider (flower bouquet temaki). Any toppings used for Hoso-maki or gunkanmaki (battleship rolls) can be used.
＊In battleship rolls and skinny rolls, the seaweed absorbs the moisture of the rice as time passes. Soft seaweed that has absorbed moisture doesn’t allow you to enjoy the essential flavor of the seaweed, so the rolls should be eaten as soon as they are made.
3. Sushi Rolls
The first sushi restaurant in the US was a full-fledged counter in a corner of Kawafuku, the first Japanese restaurant in LA’s Little Tokyo, which opened during the 1960s. The sushi boom came sometime after that and ever since sushi has been loved by the American people even more than by the Japanese and it has gradually become a part of everyday life in the US.
The first thing Japanese people think of when they think of sushi is Nigiri sushi, but most sushi eaten outside of Japan is sushi rolls. Considering that seaweed and directly seeing raw fish may be off-putting outside of Japan (resulting in removing seaweed before eating), sushi rolls and those rolled with rice on the outside, are popular. Calfornia rolls set off this trend, which blew up all throughout the US. Incidentally, Calfornia rolls were first invented at the sushi restaurant in the Tokyo Kaikan in Los Angeles Lil’ Tokyo in 1965, although there is another theory that they originated in Vancouver.
You can also find Spider rolls, Philadelphia rolls, Alaska rolls, Rainbow rolls and Mango rolls, each characteristic of where they originated. T-Mobile Park in Seattle even has an “Ichi-roll” named after the famous ballplayer Ichiro Suzuki. These unique sushi dishes are made with ingredients that are easy for the chefs to procure. Sushi has also evolved from the traditional form, with toppings like arugula, beef, carrots, chicken, chili peppers and even chocolate. Although sushi was originally enjoyed as a “health food”, but the fact is that nowadays those made with fried ingredients such as Dynamite rolls, are a far cry from health food.
Then, in the 1980s California rolls were reverse imported to Japan. It even appears as a staple on the conveyor belt sushi restaurant menus in Japan. Original sushi rolls have now been developed on every continent in the world with no end in sight.
Let’s take a look at some typical sushi rolls.
3-1 Philadelphia roll – Made of smoked salmon, avocado, asparagus and cream cheese.
3-2 Spider roll – A fried soft shell crab and cucumber roll flavored with spicy mayonnaise.
3-3 Spicy tuna roll – Tuna wrapped with spicy Sriracha sauce, etc.
3-4 California roll – Made from avocado, cucumber, kanikama (imitation crab meat), Tobiko (flying fish roe), white sesame, etc.
3-5 Alaska roll – Raw salmon, kanikama, avocado and cucumber in a roll with rice on the outside, wrapped in smoked salmon.
3-6 Rainbow roll – A roll with avocado, salmon, tuna, young yellowtail, etc., lined up to look like a colorful rainbow.
3-7 Dynamite roll – A hamachi (young yellowtail) and shrimp tempura roll with carrot, avocado and cucumber, flavored with spicy mayo.
3-8 Mango roll – Avocado, kanikama and shrimp tempura roll wrapped in sliced mango instead of seaweed. It is flavored with a creamy mango sauce.
3-9 Boston roll – Similar to California rolls, but instead of kanikama, boiled shrimp is used. There are also sushi rolls made with rice on the outside, wrapped around avocado, cucumber, etc. on the inside and sprinkled with toppings like tobiko.
3-10 Miss Pink – A pink sushi made by wrapping strawberries and sushi rice in a crepe.
3-11 Sushirrito – A restaurant named Sushirrito invented a combination of Mexican burritos. The ingredients are not limited to sushi toppings and a large amount of meat, vegetables, fried foods, salad, etc., wrapped like a burrito so it can be held in your hand to eat.
Sushi rolls also might be the best option for those who prefer to avoid raw fish. California Sushi Rolls, New York Sushi Rolls, Florida Sushi Rolls, Heaven Roll Sushi, Spicy Chicken Sushi Rolls, etc. are good examples of sushi that do not use raw fish at all. They are also perfect as an introduction to sushi for beginners.
Nigiri vs Sashimi: What’s the Difference?
There are still many people in the world who mistakenly believe that sashimi is a type of sushi, a result of misinformation. This is deplorable. The following is a correct explanation, so please read it and focus on the sushi rice.
Nigiri sushi is a cuisine in which raw seafood or fermented fish is placed on top of sushi rice. The raw fish used in Nigiri sushi known as Edomae sushi is also used in Chirashizushi, Oshizushi and Kakinohazushi. There is even sushi that doesn’t use fish, like Inarizushi and beef Nigiri sushi. The one commonality is that sushi rice is always present.
On the other hand, sashimi is a Japanese cuisine in which fresh, raw seafood eaten alone with seasonings such as soy sauce, vinegar miso, wasabi, or ginger. There is also chicken, beef and horse sashimi. Types of sashimi include “Sugata-zukuri” and “Ike-zukuri”, which are arranged in the original shape of the fish, and “Arai” which is chilled in icy water. Tataki, made of minced meat, is also a type of sashimi. Sashimi is served in a variety of restaurants including sushi restaurants, izakaya, set meal restaurants, restaurants serving Japanese cuisine, hot spring inns, etc., and is not exclusive to sushi restaurants. Sashimi is one of the national foods of Japan that you can even find in the supermarket.
As an aside, raw fish could possibly contain bacteria and parasites (Anisakis) that can cause food poisoning in humans. Therefore, according to guidelines of the Food and Drug Administration, germs are prevented from breeding through refrigeration and parasites are killed through freezing. Fish like raw tuna, which rarely contains parasites, and farmed salmon, are called things like “sushi-grade fish” or “sashimi grade” fish. However, these words are just terms used for marketing. The reason by analogy is that sushi-grade fish and sashimi-grade fish are not common in Japan.
Differences between sushi rolls and hand roll sushi
A hand roll is a type of sushi which is called “temaki sushi” in Japan. Hand roll sushi, which can be made at home, is made like crepes. Each person wraps their own ingredients in a piece of seaweed with vinegar rice and eats with their hands. The finished piece is shaped like a cone. Since it is wrapped by hand, no skill in using a makisu (bamboo mat for making sushi rolls) is required and even children can make their own. Things like soy sauce are used for seasoning. In Japan, people don’t eat while they walk, but it’s sometimes compared to hot dogs outside of Japan.
On the other hand, a sushi roll is a type of sushi that is also called “maki sushi” or “seaweed rolls” in Japan. Sushi rolls can also be made with your own preferred toppings and are wrapped with vinegar rice, but generally, a bamboo mat is used to roll into a round tube shape. The tube is cut into four to six bite-sized pieces then eaten with chopsticks or by hand. In Japan, sushi rolls are categorized into futomaki (thick rolls) and hosomaki (thin rolls), and of course the rolls with rice on the outside, popular overseas. Seasonings like soy sauce are used as necessary.
4. Chirashi-zushi (Chirashi-sushi)
Chirashi-zushi looks the same pretty much everywhere, but the details differ a lot depending on if you’re in Kanto, Kansai, or other regions. Of course, it’s never called by the region, like “Kanto Chirashi-zushi.” Chirashi-zushi has the same name everywhere in the country.
Let’s start by explaining Chirashi-zushi and Bara-chirashi in the Kanto region.
The Chirashi-zushi you find in Kanto has a vinegared white rice base with a variety of toppings (seafood, egg omelet, dried gourd shavings, shiitake mushroom, minced fish, pickled ginger, etc.), served in a container, often a square nesting box. “Chirashi” means “scatter” in Japanese and Chirashi-zushi is called this because the ingredients are scattered over the vinegared rice. This is also called “Fukiyose (this comes from the drifting waves) chirashi” or “Nama (raw) chirashi”. Large cuts of the ingredients are often used, creating a bold dish.
The toppings are seasoned with wasabi and shoyu. When made with regular rice instead of vinegared rice, it is called a seafood bowl. The dish it is served in can be square or round. However, a black dish is usually used to bring out the colors of the sushi. Ingredients are not layered in the container, but instead arranged three dimensionally. In rare cases, chopped Kanpyo or gari may be mixed with the vinegared rice.
It is made with raw toppings such as Maguro, Tai, Ika and Kurumaebi as well as sweet toppings such as Tamagoyakai, Kinshitamago, Shiitake mushroom, Kanpyo and Oboro. Naturally, various toppings and sushi rice are eaten together, but sometimes it is enjoyed with sake. First, enjoy raw toppings such as Maguro, Tai and Ika with sake as Tsumami. Sweet toppings are eaten with sushi rice to finish up the meal.
“Bara-chirashi” is white vinegar rice topped with ingredients that have prepared in the Edo-style by marinating in vinegar, boiling, or marinating in soy sauce, egg omelet, sweet and salty boiled shiitake mushrooms, dried gourd shavings, and minced fish, sliced up thinly. The ingredients are already seasoned and eaten as they are.
Also, at sushi restaurants, Nigiri sushi made from raw fish cannot be taken home due to the risk of food poisoning. Therefore, Bara-chirashi, which uses cooked and vinegar-marinated toppings, is used for takeout instead.
Kanto Chirashi-zushi (fukiyose-chirashi or bara-chirashi) was made from converting Nigiri sushi, so the vinegared rice is made in the same way, with just a little bit of sugar and eaten warm. If you wait too long, it gets cold and hardens. One of the charms of this dish is using the same vinegared rice as the sushi, for a refreshing flavor.
On the other hand, the Chirashi-zushi in Kansai is called “Bara-zushi” or “Gomoku-zushi.”
The main ingredients are vegetables, mixed in with the vinegar rice, then topped with boiled octopus and shrimp, and grilled conger eel, boiled and chopped green beans, omelet cut into thin strips, chopped seaweed, gari (ginger), or red pickled ginger. Gomoku-zushi is a Japanese dish made at home that can be eaten at Hinamatsuri and other festive events. Since the vinegared rice cools down slowly, the rice absorbs enough vinegar so that the taste does not change even as time passes. However, the characteristics differ depending on the region, as do the ingredients used and the appearance.
The most famous is Bara-zushi in Okayama. Because of the use of abundant ingredients, it was said to cost “One ryo of gold per box,” (one ryo is equivalent to about US $3500 in 2022 and one box had a capacity of about 1800 cc), and it is a traditional sushi that always appears at celebrations such as festivals, housewarming gifts, and for the hospitality of important guests. It is characterized by using plenty of fish and shellfish and vegetables caught and harvested during that season. Moreover, it is a luxurious dish that takes a lot of time and money because each individual ingredient requires preparations in advance.
It seems that most regional variations of chirashi-zushi have their roots in “bara-zushi.” Historically, bara-zushi is much older, and the Kanto version of chirashizushi is a rather new way of eating the dish. The raw toppings are also a post-war addition.
5. Inarizushi (Inari sushi)
Fried bean curd and vinegar rice (or vinegar rice mixed with boiled down carrots, shiitake, or similar ingredients). Inarizushi is made with only two ingredients, and it is that simplicity that allows the chef to devote their ingenuity to the dish, creating a unique flavor. It is said to have first appeared at the end of the Edo period, but the origin is uncertain.
The shape of Inarizushi differs from that resembling a straw bag in the Kanto and Eastern Japan, where rich sweet and salty flavoring is used, and the triangular shape of Western Japan.
Like its namesake, Temarizushi is small and shaped like traditional Japanese toy balls. It is a type of Sosakuzushi (sushi not restricted by Edo-style rules, allowing for creativity). Some say this type of sushi originated in Tokyo.
6-2 Masuzushi (trout sushi)
Masu-zushi is from Toyama. Vinegar rice is spread on a bamboo leave and vinegared masu salmon (Sakuramasu) is put on top.
6-3 Pacific Saury Bozushi
Whole saury is sliced down the back, then spread over vinegar rice, then pressed a bit to create a shape. The “Pacific Saury Sugata-zushi” is representative of the Kumano region.
6-4 Funazushi (crucian carp sushi)
Shiga is known for its delicious Funa-zushi, made from the crucian carp of Lake Biwa. This is one type of Nare-zushi (fermented sushi) that retains the original sushi form.
As you can see, there are various types of sushi throughout Japan, and some are not well-known outside of certain regions. If you have the opportunity to visit any of these regions, be sure to have a taste.
Dishes you may find at sushi restaurants that are, strictly speaking, not sushi
This is a rice bowl, generally served with warm rice (normal, steamed rice), with a variety of seafood sashimi on top. However, at sushi restaurants, vinegar rice is used instead of white steamed rice and it’s usually called a Seafood Bowl as well. So, it is difficult to distinguish between the two. Ingredients may include tuna, salmon roe, sea urchin, crab, squid, etc. However, toppings made in the Edo-style are not used.
Sashimi (raw fish)
This is not categorized as sushi. Seafood is cut thinly in the raw form, then eaten with soy sauce and wasabi. It’s also called “otsukuri.”
Next to the sashimi will be a garnish. The white part is daikon radish. The orange part is carrot. The green leaf is a shiso leaf. Others may include wakame seaweed, beni-tade (red polygonum), chrysanthemum, inflorescence of shiso, etc. There are various types of garnish including some that offset the odor of raw fish, some with antibacterial effects that prevent damage to the sashimi, and some types that help digestion. Garnishes that especially provide flavor are called “Yakumi.” For example, wasabi or ginger.
The lack of vinegar rice is not the only difference between sashimi and sushi. With sashimi, the crunchy texture is prioritized, so the fish is eaten as freshly as possible. This is completely different from Edo-style sushi, where the idea is to mature the topping and eat it when the umami element is at its peak. There is not only one kind of sushi.
Incidentally, sashimi has been eaten since long ago, but when fish is just displayed at the shop, it’s not clear what type of fish it is. So at that time, the meat was served pierce with the tail and head of the fish. That’s where the name “sashimi,” which means “pierced meat” came from.