What is it about eating raw fish? The country is filled with sushi-finados 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:


We'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, and perhaps how to make it, go read how to make Nigiri Sushi.

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 Google Images "Maki Sushi".

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.