Sushi is popular around the world, but that doesn't mean everyone understands what this dish technically is. For starters, sushi does not not always mean raw fish. Rather, it's that raw fish - sashimi in Japanese - is the most popular ingredient in sushi.
The term sushi actually refers to foods that use a type of rice seasoned with vinegar and are garnished with raw fish or vegetable. The sushi rolls (maki) that you may be imagining are just one of many types of sushi. It's important to know this before you visit Japan, or you're bound to be confused when visiting a sushi restaurant.
If you're traveling to Japan or just want to learn more about the cuisine, the best thing to do is to read up on the different types of sushi and prepare your taste buds for some true Japanese delicacies.
The Different Types of Sushi
There are several types of sushi, making it an appealing food to people with a wide range of tastes. One form of sushi, nigiri-zushi, are hand-formed mounds of rice with a dab of wasabi topped with various ingredients. Popular nigiri-zushi include maguro (tuna), toro (belly of tuna), hamachi (yellowtail), and ebi (shrimp).
Maki-zushi is the Japanese name for sushi rolls. A sheet of nori (dried seaweed) is layered with sushi rice, and a row of fish and vegetables. The sheet is then tightly rolled with a makisu. After that the roll is sliced into pieces, plated, and served. Rolls such as these are called norimaki. Tekkamaki (tuna rolls) and kappamaki (cucumber rolls) are two common versions.Additionally, inari-zushi are deep-fried tofu pouches stuffed with sushi rice which are brown and oval-shaped, and chirashi-zushi are sushi served on a plate or bowl with different ingredients on top of rice.
While fish is very widely used in sushi, you'll also encounter likely uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe). Most of the fish used in sushi is served raw, but there are some exceptions. Sometimes you'll find seared fish on sashimi menus and unagi (eel) is always cooked before serving.
The key seasonings used in sushi are soy sauce and wasabi (Japanese horseradish). Soy sauce is used as a dipping sauce, and wasabi is put in nigiri-zushi and may also be mixed with soy sauce for dipping (expect upset looks if you do this in a high-end sushi restaurant). Also, pickled ginger (called gari) is commonly served with sushi to serve as a palate cleanser. Green tea (agari) is the best drink to pair with sushi.
How to Eat Sushi
If you have the pleasure of eating sushi in Japan or at a high-end sushi restaurant elsewhere in the world, there is a certain etiquette that you should follow. Both to fully enjoy the flavors of the fish, and to not insult your chef who worked so hard to prepare your meal.
Sashimi should be eaten with chopsticks, but other types of sushi can and should be eaten with your hands. When picking up a piece of nigiri, hold it with your hands and dip only the fish into your soy sauce. Try your best to eat the whole thing in one bite.
For a more detailed information, read our guide to eating sushi like a pro.
Where to Get Authentic Japanese Sushi
Sushi is probably Japan's most famous dish - but it can be expensive. At traditional omakase-style places, you can usually order a set of sushi with a fixed price, which comes in handy for group outings, or you can order your favorite sushi pieces as you eat your meal.
For reasonably priced sushi, there are places called kaiten-zushi, where the sushi plates circle around the eating area on a conveyor belt. These restaurants are to be found almost everywhere in Japan. When you go to such a restaurant, you wait until your desired sushi plate passes near you, and then pick up the plate from the moving belt. If your favorites aren't available, you can also order them from the kitchen. Prices for this inexpensive kind of sushi vary.
There is no lack of incredible sushi restaurants in Japan. Perhaps the most famous is Sukiyabashi Jiro - a small eatery in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. If you're lucky enough to eat here, you're in for the most authentic Japanese sushi in all of Japan.