Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sushi

by Sara Rodrigo

This Friday 18th June is World Sushi Day and to celebrate, we’ve written an in-depth article all about it on the Drinks&Co Blog. We’ll look at exactly what sushi is, discover its origins, and explore the many different types, so you can learn more about their different characteristics and how to make them.

What is Sushi?

What is it? Sushi is a style of Japanese food that combines fish, either raw or cooked, vegetables and rice seasoned with vinegar. Pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce are often served as a garnish. However, the sushi we know today is a world away from its true origins.

The Origins of Sushi

The origins of sushi can be traced back millennia to the rice fields of Asia, specifically China. This may come as a shock, as most people assume that it was first created in Japan. However, this is not the case. Although Japan is undoubtedly the world leader for sushi, and responsible for introducing the dish around the world, its origins can be traced back to a Chinese dish called narezushi. This dish consisted of fermented rice and salted fish.

Making Sushi

Narezushi was a very practical dish. The oldest known origin of this dish dates back to the 2nd century BC, so it predates refrigerators by almost 2,000 years. The rice was fermented to preserve it, and the fish was also heavily salted to prevent the growth of bacteria and micro-organisms, which kept it fresh for longer, even when stored without any refrigeration. Interestingly, the rice was often discarded when the fish was eaten. It was only used to wrap and preserve the fish. The dish spread from China to Japan in the 8th century. The first reference to sushi appears in the Yoro Code, written in 718. In the centuries that followed, the dish slowly changed.

The Evolution of Sushi

This style of sushi was common in Japan until the end of the Edo period, when it evolved into Edomae zushi, a style of sushi more similar to what we know today. This sushi, which was invented by Hanaya Yohei, was larger and used fresh fish. It was prepared quickly and was intended to be eaten with the hands. He discovered that instead of just throwing the rice, it could be mixed with a little vinegar and a small portion of fish on top, making a delicious snack. This is how nigiri was born, and the history of sushi as we know it. Soon after, this dish would begin to spread around the world.

Types of Sushi

Contemporary sushi uses vinegared rice topped with fish, meat and vegetables, mixing traditional and sometimes not-so-traditional ingredients. Let’s take a look at the wide variety of sushi styles out there.

1. Maki

Makizushi, also known as maki, is probably the most recognisable sushi that you see in Japanese restaurants and supermarkets in the UK. Maki in Japanese means roll, which refers to their shape and how they’re made. This type of sushi is rolled, traditionally using a sheet of nori seaweed, with a layer of rice, vegetables and fish in the centre. A special bamboo mat is used to roll it up and it’s cut into six or eight pieces. There’s a wide variety of maki sushi rolls that can be ordered, varying in size and style. If the roll’s very thin it’s called hosomaki, if it’s thick it’s called futomaki, and if it’s filled with cucumber it’s called kappmaki.

maki sushi

2. Uramaki

Another type of maki is uramaki, known as “inside-out sushi“. Literally, “Ura” means “opposite side”. It’s not your typical rolled sushi, as the rice is on the outside, with the nori sheet wrapping the filling. Interestingly, uramaki originated in Los Angeles and it’s no wonder that this maki is the most popular type of sushi in the United States. Even if you are fairly new to the world of Japanese food, you must have heard of the famous California rolls. Find out more about their origin and how to make authentic California Rolls here. However, in Japan, the popularity of uramaki is still overshadowed by its more traditional peers.

Uramaki sushi

3. Temaki

Moving on to another variant of maki, temakizushi or temaki is hand-rolled sushi. “Te” means “by hand”. Temaki are nori seaweed cones filled with rice and other ingredients. They’re like a Japanese version of Mexican burritos. Temaki are easy to prepare at home, just roll a sheet of nori into a cone shape and then fill it with rice, vegetables and fish. Temaki is eaten with your hands because they’re too big to pick up with chopsticks.

Temaki sushi

4. Nigiri

Nigiri is not only different from the previous ones in its presentation, but it’s also characterised by the fact that it doesn’t use nori seaweed. Nigiri is a style of sushi that is made by hand moulding a ball of vinegared rice and covering it; most of the time with a slice of raw fish, usually salmon or tuna. Occasionally, this type of sushi is made with a cut of meat instead of seafood.

The fish can also be cooked for a different, more intense flavour, and other ingredients such as tamago (egg), vegetables, prawns, etc. can also be added. The chef can include wasabi in the middle, or sprinkle spices in between. As the nigiri ingredients aren’t rolled tightly, it’s typical to eat them with your hands, and dip them in soy sauce if you like.


5. Gunkan

There’s also gunkan maki, called “armoured sushi” because of its shape. It’s made by wrapping nori seaweed around a ball of vinegared rice, creating a kind of bowl that can be filled with ingredients such as oysters, ikura (salmon eggs), tobiko (flying fish eggs) or uni (sea urchin eggs). However, there’s no limit to the ingredients used in gunkan maki. It may not look like typical makizushi, but it’s still wrapped in seaweed.


6. Inari

If we delve into the less well-known types of sushi, we find inarizushi or inari, another popular sushi in Japanese food culture. It’s a kind of fried tofu spring roll (“inari” in Japanese) with flavoured rice. Vegetables can also be added. Inarizushi is quite sweet, although it’s not considered a dessert in Japan. It’s a popular side dish and a great addition to a bento box.


7. Oshi

Japan is a country of diverse regional cuisines. One type of sushi that comes from Osaka is oshizushi or oshi, which means “box sushi” or “pressed sushi”. This is actually one of the oldest forms of sushi, a successor to narezushi, which grew out of the method of preserving fish by packing it tightly in fermented rice boxes. It’s basically made from layers of rice and fish or vegetables pressed into a mould called oshibako, to give them that square or rectangular shape.


8. Chirasi

Chirashizushi or chirasi translates as “scattered sushi” and refers to its preparation. It consists of a bowl of sushi with a scattered base of vinegared rice and raw fish, which varies according to the chef’s choice but the most popular are salmon and tuna. It’s often garnished with other toppings such as grated egg, nori and salmon eggs to give it an appetising and colourful finishing touch. This dish is easy to prepare and is very popular as party food, as it can be made into a large dish and shared. In Japan, the seasonings vary depending on the region where it’s served. It’s usually eaten on Hinamatsuri, celebrated in Japan on 3 March.


We hope you liked this first article about sushi and that you found it useful. Now go to your local Japanese restaurant and dig in! Or have a go at making it at home this World Sushi Day!

Translated by Chelsea Cummings from Sara Rodrigo’s original Spanish article: Conoce la historia del sushi y todas sus variedades.

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