How Much Do You REALLY Know About Sushi?

(Calvin Lee/Flickr)

When someone says “sushi”, what do you think of? If you’re American, chances are it's something like the California roll – avocado, crab, cucumbers, rice and nori seaweed – or the spider roll, with its crunchy tempura filling. But while these are very popular in the U.S., you’d be hard-pressed to find them on menus in Japan. Some traditionalists would deny that they are sushi at all.

Sushi is far more than raw fish over rice slathered with soy sauce; misconceptions abound. The fish you are served may not be just-caught fresh or even raw, the rice is not your ordinary table rice - a high-end shop’s is a secret blend – and even the soy sauce, at a serious sushi-ten, is a closely guarded recipe.

Early History

The first sushi, in Japan or in Southeast Asia – scholarly views differ – was fermented, salted, and stored for months before being eaten. Far from being a way to eat fresh fish, this sushi was all about preserving fish to eat it later. The first sushi makers would skin and gut the fish, stuff it with salt, and store it in a barrel filled with more salt. Then the salted fish was mixed with cooked rice and preserved through fermentation. The fermented rice was thrown away after the preservation process was complete, but sometime during the Muromachi period (1392-1573), one enterprising chef found that adding vinegar to the rice at this stage made the flavor so good that the sushi-rice combination was kept from then on. During the Edo period (1615-1868), Hanaya Yohei developed nigiri, or “finger” sushi, which became internationally popular.

But sushi is far more than nigiri, and plenty of sushi innovations took place in Japan before the rise of American concoctions like the spider roll, spam musubi, or the dreaded corndog roll.

Below are some of the most common forms of sushi. Many are difficult if not impossible to find in the U.S. Luckily for Bay Area sushi fans, the Asia Society will be offering some of these selections at our April 24 dinner, “Sushi for the Senses” – check out the menu and sign up here.

Types of Sushi

Chirashizushi: A bowl of sushi rice (some combination of vinegar, salt, sugar, and rice) topped with different slices of raw fish, vegetables, and garnish

Futomaki: A fatter version of the makizushi with at least two different fillings wrapped with rice and nori

Gunkanmaki: An oval-shaped mound of sushi rice filled with loose or fine-chopped ingredients such as roe and wrapped in nori

Hosomaki: Thin rolls with nori wrapping around rice and (typically) a single ingredient

Inarizushi: A pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice and sometimes also with green beans, carrots, or gobo

Makizushi: Nori wrapped around rice with fish, vegetables, or egg that is sliced into smaller rolls

Narezushi: The traditional form of fermented sushi with salted and fermented fish (takes six months to prepare)

Nigirizushi: A mound of sushi rice topped with raw fish or egg

Oshizushi: Pressed-block sushi with toppings

Temaki: A large, cone-shaped roll with nori on the outside and rice and other ingredients on the inside

Temarizushi: Ball-shaped sushi with fish in the middle

Uramaki: An inside-out roll with rice on the outer layer and nori and other fillings in the middle

Western-style: Variations using unconventional ingredients such as cream cheese, barbecued ingredients, or ingredients not readily used or available in Japan (yes, including corn dogs).

We hope you'll join us for our April 24 "Sushi for the Senses" Off the Menu program at KUSAKABE in downtown San Francisco.