What Is Sushi?

Sushi is a Japanese dish featuring specially prepared rice and usually some type of fish or seafood, often raw, but sometimes cooked.

And though you might automatically associate the word sushi with raw fish, it’s actually the rice that is the most important ingredient. Indeed, the word “sushi” refers to the sour flavor of the vinegared rice. Regardless of the toppings or fillings, sushi always includes rice.

As a matter of fact, sushi rice is so important that sushi chefs in Japan undergo years of training just to learn how to cook the rice properly, before they ever begin to handle any fish or seafood.

Sushi Rice

Sushi rice is a medium-grained white rice prepared with vinegar and other seasonings such as salt and sugar. The usual variety of rice used for sushi is Japonica; in particular, the Koshihikari cultivar.

Japonica is a medium-grained rice with somewhat rounded grains, which makes it noticeably different from the skinnier, long-grained rice that we’re used to in the West, which is known as indica rice. Japonica rice is starchy, with higher levels of a starch called amylopectin than indica rice.

This extra starch causes it to cook up fairly sticky, which makes it easier to eat with chopsticks, and is ideal for molding it together to make sushi.

Types of Sushi


 The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

Keeping in mind that all sushi is made with rice, but there are really only two main types of sushi—nigiri and maki.

Nigiri sushi is comprised of an oval-shaped mound of rice with a slice of fish or seafood on top. The fish or seafood is usually raw, but sometimes it’s fermented and occasionally, such as with eel or shrimp, it’s cooked.

The word nigiri in Japanese translates approximately to “grip” in English. Thus the Japanese word nigiri-zushi translates roughly as “hand-pressed” sushi.

The point is that with nigiri sushi, the rice is molded by hand and the fish or other topping pressed by hand atop the rice. Sometimes the chef will include a bit of wasabi between the fish and rice. The stickiness of the rice, along with the moisture from the topping, helps to adhere the strip of raw fish to the mound of rice underneath.

Typical examples of raw fish on nigiri sushi include tunasalmon, and yellowtail. Fatty tuna, which comes from the belly section of bluefin tuna, is another popular topping. Garnishes include minced scallions or ginger.

Interestingly enough, despite how you’re probably accustomed to eating it, nigiri sushi is meant to be eaten by hand, not with chopsticks. And while dipping the sushi into soy sauce is acceptable, the correct way to do it is to turn it over so that the fish side goes into the soy sauce, not the rice side. Leaving grains of rice in your soy sauce is considered a major faux pas.


Maki sushi
 The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

Maki, on the other hand, is the type of sushi where the rice and fish are rolled in a sheet of seaweed called nori. There are several main types of maki.

Maki-zushi is shaped like a cylinder, consisting of a sheet of dried seaweed called nori rolled around a layer of rice and fillings, which can include ingredients such as raw fish, cooked shellfish, vegetables, and even cream cheese.

The rolled cylinder or tube is then sliced into individual bite-sized sections. Sometimes the roll is constructed inside out, which is known as ura-maki, or literally, inside-out roll. With ura-maki, the rice is on the outside and the seaweed and fillings are on the inside. Like nigiri, maki is also best eaten by hand.

Maki-zushi is further classified into thin rolls, or hoso-maki, and thick rolls, or futo-maki.

There’s even a variant on maki called gunkan-maki, which is also known as “battleship rolls” because they’re shaped a bit like battleships. They’re sort of a cross between nigiri and maki, in that there’s a base of rice molded by hand, and then a strip of nori goes around that, which forms a kind of receptacle to hold in toppings that won’t stay on by themselves, such as fish roe, finely chopped raw fish, or vegetables like sweet corn kernels in a mayonnaise dressing.

Uni Sushi

Uni sushi
 The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

In the category of gunkan-maki we have one of the most unusual forms of sushi, namely, uni sushi. Uni is the sex organs of sea urchins. It’s shaped a little bit like tongues, and it has a sweet flavor and slightly sticky consistency.

Because of the intense labor involved in harvesting the uni, this type of sushi can be quite expensive. But for those who love it, it’s worth every penny. The key to uni is that it should be firm and dry. If it seems moist, it’s probably not fresh.

Temaki Sushi

Temaki Sushi
 The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

Finally, we have temaki, or hand rolls, which, instead of wrapping the nori tightly around the rice and fillings, the nori is rolled loosely into a cone-like shape, with the fillings inside, sort of like a large ice-cream cone.