Sushi isn't as simple as you think. This Japanese favorite is far more than raw fish and rice, and some of your favorite rolls aren’t even Japanese in origin. We’ve decided to put together a crash course on sushi. Get your chopsticks ready.

What Is Sushi?

Rows of classic sushi rolls, showing rice, fish, and iconic circular sushi shapes
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Any dish made with vinegared rice and formed into bite-sized pieces can be considered sushi. But, still, there are many different types within those parameters:

Makizushi are the sushi rolls you're no doubt familiar with. But makizushi can be further divided by presentation:

  • Hosomaki: Thin rolls with nori (seaweed) on the outside, and rice and filling on the inside
  • Chumaki: Medium rolls with nori on the outside, and rice and filling on the inside
  • Futomaki: Thick rolls with nori on the outside, and rice and and filling on the inside
  • Uramaki: “Inside out” rolls with rice on the outside, and nori wrapped around the filling
  • Temaki: Hand-rolled and usually resembling a cone; made of nori with rice and toppings inside

When you see a slice of salmon on top of a long piece of rice, that’s nigirizushi, or "hand-pressed sushi." Chirashizushi refers to sushi that hasn’t been pressed into a roll, with the ingredients typically served in a bowl. Inarizushi features rice pressed inside a pouch of tofu that’s then deep-fried. It’s often served with dipping sauce. To really break free from the typical roll, try oshizushi — basically sushi squares in which rice is divided by a layer of nori and then toppings are on top.

Its Origins Aren’t Japanese

Photo of sushi and chopsticks on a bowl of soy sauce
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While sushi has long been associated with Japan, it’s actually from Southeast Asia, dating back to the fourth century B.C. While origin stories aren’t consistent, original sushi was apparently composed of freshly gutted and salted fish wrapped in cooked rice. It wasn't until the seventh century that sushi made its way to Japan.

Sushi vs. Sashimi

Plate of simple, traditional sashimi slices, showing fish and green garnish on white plate
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It’s easy to assume that any bite-sized piece of raw fish is considered sushi. But sashimi is a whole other category even though many sushi restaurants offer it as well. Sashimi is simply pieces of meat served without rice, but with a garnish such as daikon (shredded white radish). It’s served with a dipping sauce and isn’t always plated as a raw dish. For example, octopus can be served raw but is usually boiled so that it’s less chewy.

Newcomers to the Sushi Scene

Rows of traditional sushi rolls served with dipping sauce and wasabi
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Like we mentioned in the introduction, there are a lot of rolls in the West that you can order that aren’t native to Japan. Common options such as California rolls, tempura rolls, dragon rolls, and other unique twists such as Philadelphia rolls are inventions created to appeal to a demographic accustomed to other flavors.

Order Like a Pro

Up close view of sushi chef's hands placing fish on rice, preparing sushi rolls
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Take your time and order only a few pieces. Part of the joy of sushi is getting to try many different fish and preparations. And don’t be afraid to ask your server to make recommendations based on the types of fish you prefer and how well you tolerate spice.

Sushi Etiquette

Group of people sitting around a sushi plate, using chopsticks to take sushi rolls
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Just like anything else, there are polite rules for eating sushi — and some of them are going to depend on the restaurant you visit. As a general rule, you should use chopsticks to eat your sushi unless you opted for a temaki roll, which would be unwieldy with chopsticks. Except for temaki or some of the less commonly seen (in the West) types of sushi, this is a one-bite-and-done type of dish. Trying to daintily nibble on sushi will leave you covered in rice and toppings.

Some restaurants provide wasabi (or horseradish meant to mimic wasabi) and pickled ginger with your sushi and stock every table with soy sauce. However, in more elevated restaurants, those accoutrements are less common. If you encounter this, it means that the sushi chef has already “seasoned” your dish to perfection and asking for additional items would be an insult.

Don’t Fear the Sushi Bar

Iconic conveyor belt sushi restaurant, showing different types of sushi rolls on colored plates
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Making sushi is an art form, so don’t shy away from a prime seat to watch sushi chefs work their magic. Just remember, a sushi chef will only take your sushi orders; servers will provide drinks and appetizers. Bonus: Get a unique experience with a kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt) restaurant. These budget-friendly spots offer a wide menu, aren’t fussy, and make for a fun dining experience.