A Gaijin’s Guide to Sushi

Do you know your norimaki from your nigirizushi? How many common types of neta can you name? Would you prefer to order okimari, okonomi, or omakase style? Brush up on your sushi knowledge before tokyo fish story!

Gaijin is an outsider, a non-Japanese.

Tokyo Fish Story 1_kevin berne

James Seol, Francis Jue, Nicole Javier, and Linden Tailor in tokyo fish story. Photo by Kevin Berne (kevinberne.com)


Tuna sashimi over rice

Sushi in its contemporary style (dating from the 19th century) is prepared rice combined with raw or cooked seafood, vegetables, and occasionally fruit. Raw fish served by itself is sashimi. Sushi is most often served with ginger (gari), wasabi and soy sauce. A favorite garnish is daikon, a Japanese radish.

Nori are black seaweed wrappers made of algae rolled out into thin, edible sheets.



Example of a temaki roll with tuna

There are six contemporary types of sushi in Japan, but two dominate upscale dining. One is norimaki (also makizushi; the s becomes z in combined words in Japanese), or rolled sushi, and temaki, a “hand roll.”


LV_20121130_LV_FOTOS_D_54355993078-992x558@LaVanguardia-WebThe other is nigirizushi (or “hand-pressed”), where a small mound of rice is topped with nori and seafood or vegetables.

Back Camera

Spider Roll: A popular Americanized norimaki roll. Photo by Rod Herrea

Western-style sushi includes two types: uramaki (an “inside-out roll”), which inverts a roll, placing the nori inside and the rice on the outside of the nori, surrounded by fish roe or toasted sesame seeds; and U.S. style makizushi (futomaki), which are a variety of rolls (California, Hawaiian, Rainbow, Seattle, etc.) mostly named after cities or states of origin.


A variety of norimaki rolls with neta

Neta are the elements on top of the rice in nigirizushi. Fish quality and freshness is of great importance in sushi, and so must be superior to fish to be cooked. Sushi chefs are trained to look for firmness, smell, color, and freedom from parasites. A neta tray holds neta elements, usually inside a neta case at the front of the sushi bar.

Common neta elements include: tuna (maguro, shiro-maguro), Japanese amberjack, yellowtail (hamachi), shad (kohada), snapper (kurodai), mackerel (saba) and salmon (sake). Toro, the fatty cut of the fish, is the most-valued sushi ingredient. Other neta elements include squid, clams, scallops, eels, octopus, sea urchin, shrimp, crab, prawns, and fish roe.

In North America and in the European Union, neta elements must be frozen below -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) and -60 Celsius (-76 Fahrenheit) degrees before use to destroy parasites. (Tuna is the one exception to this rule in the US.)


Photo by ChefHermes.com

Sushi rice (also sushi-meshi) is a preparation of white, short-grained rice mixed with rice vinegar and sugar or salt and cooled to room temperature to avoid stickiness.

Wasabi is a streambed plant with a stem that tastes like horseradish. It is best when grated fresh; its flavor and pungency fades after 15 minutes. Sushi chefs cover wasabi with elements placed on top of rice to seal its flavor.

tamago sushi3Tamagoyaki (also tamago) is an omelet-like covering made by rolling together layers of cooked egg. Tamago combines stirred eggs and rice vinegar, and occasionally sugar, soy sauce or sake.

Mirin is rice wine with low alcohol and sugar used by some chefs to make sushi rice.

Shoyu is soy sauce.


Wakame salad, made with “kusa” or seaweed.

Kusa literally translates as “grass,” and is slang for seaweed.

Ikura is wild salmon roe.

Noren are traditional Japanese fabric dividers, hung between rooms, on walls, in doorways or in windows.

Okimari-style sushi dining is ordering from a set menu at specific prices.

Okonomi-style sushi dining is ordering “as you like it,” by the individual item.

Omakase style sushi dining is ordering “as the chef likes,” letting the chef determine the best menu based on inventory for that day. Thought to be the best way to order at a high-end sushi-ya.

Tokyo Fish Story 2_kevin berne

James Seol as sushi apprentice Takashi. Photo by Kevin Berne kevinberne.com

Shokunin literally means both “artisan” and “master of a profession.” The Japanese apprentice is taught that it combines technical skills with creativity and a social consciousness toward their pursuits. One strives for a perfection never attained. The shokunin’s competition is him or herself.

“Itadakimasu!” is “bon appetit!”

By Jerry Patch
Reprinted with permission from South Coast Repertory

Reserve your seats for tokyo fish story now!

One thought on “A Gaijin’s Guide to Sushi

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