As Japanese restaurants crop up in the US, and even smaller cities begin serving Japanese food in dedicated restaurants, you might wonder how and what to order at these delicious restaurants with their multi-page menus. Instead of playing it safe with a steak, you want to explore and try new things. Perhaps udon or sushi or soba noodles or sashimi, but you want to know what the heck you order before you order it.
Many Japanese restaurants in the US use a menu with photos, so you can see what the dish looks like. However, this does not provide you with an ingredients list. You need to learn how to tell one piece of sushi from another and what the ingredients of the various dishes are.
Many people think of sushi and sashimi as a meal, but in Japan, they serve as an appetizer. While in the US, most people order a platter to keep to themselves. It serves as a type of dim sum which you should share with the whole dinner table.
In the US, they serve individual portions such as two or four pieces of sushi, but overseas, you receive a platter large enough for each individual at your table to eat at least a couple of pieces of sushi or sashimi.
This means that sushi and sashimi really are not duking it out at your table in a headline bout of sushi vs. sashimi. You might order both. You might only order one. Both taste delicious. They are an acquired taste although tasty. This is true because some people have a problem with the idea of eating raw fish.
Raw fish is the main ingredient in sushi and sashimi. The rest of the sushi dish consists of sticky rice and vegetables. You can eat each piece by picking it up with your fingers or your chopsticks. Sashimi has no rice.
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What is sushi?
Sushi consists of sushi rice, vegetables, and raw fish. You balance carbs with protein. Sushi rice refers to Japonica rice. The sushi chef soaks it in rice wine vinegar before steaming or boiling it to create its stickiness. Paired with any ingredient in a thumb-sized serving, this sticky rice becomes sushi.
Wait. Is it not just fish?
When you pair the sticky rice with any ingredient, it becomes sushi. The options include any item you could conceivably eat raw:
You can also use cooked ingredients to make sushi, such as:
- fried shrimp,
- scrambled eggs.
Two types of sushi exist; maki and nigiri. When you see maki served at a buffet, you see it after it has been sliced into bite-sized pieces as a cut roll or norimake. Maki begins as a lengthy sushi roll though, typically, about four inches in length.
The outer layer of the roll consists of a sheet of pressed seaweed. The green or nearly black outside casement of a piece of sushi consists of seaweed. Worry not, it tastes great.
You can order sushi maki in some restaurants that come in a complete roll or hand roll referred to as temaki. You can also order many sushi ingredients as a boat wrap or funamori. It will not already be cut into bites. You will pick this up with your chopsticks and bite off a piece.
Eating with your fingers in Japan is considered ill manners. Many US Japanese restaurants look the other way because they know Americans do not know how to properly eat with chopsticks.
Sushi chefs make maki one of two ways; a wrapped roll or uramaki, which means inside-out. The most common of these dishes include a California roll and a vegetable roll.
You can order nigiri sushi, too, but it will always be bite-sized. Well, if you have a huge mouth. Each piece of nigiri sushi actually requires two bites to eat. These servings are about the length of the average-sized person’s thumb. A mound of sushi rice topped with fish – either cooked or raw – makes a piece of nigiri.
Sushi chefs sometimes “glue” together with the two ingredients with a bit of wasabi. If you cannot handle hot food, ask the chef whether they use wasabi, a condiment made from horseradish that appears green from food coloring. The Japanese just like a colorful plate, so if you ever wondered, they add green food coloring to regular horseradish, which is typically white or grayish-white.
What is sashimi?
Sashimi consists of raw fish sliced thin. You might see this sliced fish served with daikon radish underneath or by itself, but it never uses vinegared rice or any other ingredient.
Chefs make sashimi from saltwater fish, thus reducing the risk of parasite contamination. Sashimi comes crafted from tuna, salmon, and yellowtail. Typically, those who order this dish pair it with soy sauce, wasabi, or tamari sauce. You follow each piece with a bit of pickled ginger to cleanse your palate.
Deciding which to Order
Unless you know you love sushi and sashimi, start with a sampler of hors d’oeuvres. You might split it with one or two other people. This lets you taste each type of sushi and sashimi without needing to polish off a bunch of it if it turns out to not be your thing.
The first time you try it, stick with safe items for your entrée. Most Japanese restaurants serve steak. That provides a pretty safe choice for most Americans. Also, order miso soup and a side of rice. Even if you detest the appetizer, you will go away full and sated.
If you know you like sushi…
Try either as the full meal. You can order a 20-piece platter of sushi or sashimi, which sounds like a lot, but think about the fact that a serving of meat or fish is four ounces. That’s about the amount that the chef cuts into the pieces. The rest of its ingredients round out what on an American plate would be separate servings of rice and vegetables. If you want a fish-only appetizer or entrée, choose sashimi.
Some fish you can only order as sashimi because it does not perform well piled and performs iffy when rolled. For example, monkfish liver, in Japanese ankimo. For other fish, the sushi chef will inquire how you want it when you order.
These include maguro, hamachi, hirame. You might also order aji, also called Spanish mackerel or engawa, halibut fin muscle, as sushi. For a sashimi order, choose anago, a salt-water eel, or seared albacore tuna.
While you might walk into the restaurant set on a particular order, a good sushi chef will apprise you of poor ideas. They might simply raise an eyebrow and ask “sushi?” or “sashimi”? They will let you know when you order something that will clash or taste terrible. For example, avocado does not go with everything. In fact, it goes well with very little. Traditional sushi chefs may refuse to make the Americanized dish, the California roll.
You might let the sushi chef determine what your order should be. When you do this, you place an omakase order. The chef may serve you the house specialty or you might get an off-the-menu treat if they acquire a special fish.
Where to Buy Sushi and Sashimi
You eat these yummy seafood treats by visiting a Japanese restaurant. You won’t find many sushi chains, but you can find local restaurants by using Bing or Google. You can also take a class online or at a local Japanese restaurant to learn to make sushi and sashimi at home.
Part of this art is learning how to safely handle raw seafood. This requires buying raw fresh fish from a fish market or right off of the fishing boat for the best results. You will need what chefs refer to as sashimi grade fish.
You can pick up the vinegar and rice for making the vinegar rice at most grocery stores, as well as the wasabi, soy sauce, and other dipping sauce options.