Research: Sushi Terms

Thursday, February 23, 2017
I’m a full-blown sushi “fanatic”. I'm literally always in the mood for it, and will probably wander off for some as soon as I publish this entry. But even though I have a grand passion for sushi, its terminology can sometimes be a bit of a muddle. What better opportunity for some research? Hopefully, this can serve as a bit of a cheat sheet for all your sushi glossary needs. Grab your chopsticks and let’s dive in!

Sushi: Let’s start with the important one. We like to say “sushi” as a catch-all term for the style of cuisine we’re eating, but its precise definition is “cold, boiled rice moistened with rice vinegar”. Yep! Sushi is just rice! No fish required! That said, don’t let pedants drag you down with semantic hair-splitting. But if it’s just vinegared rice, then what the hell are most people thinking of when they picture sushi?

Sashimi: Sliced or prepared raw fish, without the sushi rice.

So what we think of as a piece of sushi is actually sushi and sashimi put together – generally with a dab of wasabi (Japanese horseradish) to glue them together. Ironically, this is the most common form of sushi you’ll see outside of Japan, and yet most people are unfamiliar with the term describing this combination: Nigiri-zushi. The other big category of sushi-eating is rolls vs. nigiri:

Maki: Sushi (and other ingredients) rolled up using a bamboo mat, and normally wrapped in nori (sheets of dried seaweed). The maki roll is then cut into several pieces and served. “Maki” is an extremely broad term, though. You can have futomaki (an enlarged maki), hosomaki (small, simple assemblies of maki, often with just one additional ingredient), temaki (hand rolls that are often served in a cone shape), and uramaki (medium-sized rolls with the nori on the inside).

Nigiri: A single piece of sliced fish with a molded ball of rice underneath. This is the shorthand term for “nigiri-zushi”, and is what most people picture when you say the word “sushi”. While there are some outstanding maki, there isn’t a lot of widely-accepted terminology. There’s some amount of agreement (spider rolls, California rolls, etc.), but restaurants can generally name their rolls whatever they wish. Nigiri is more standardized, and it’s where sushi can really shine, so let’s get into some specifics.

Pop Quiz: What will you get if you go to a sushi restaurant and ask for tuna? Sorry, I shouldn’t ask trick questions like that, because tuna is a world unto itself when it comes to sushi.

Otoro: Fatty tuna (from the belly, usually the most expensive type)
Ahi: Yellowfin tuna
Hamachi: Yellowtail tuna (not the same thing!)
Maguro: Big-eye tuna, not to be confused with…
Siro Maguro or Shiromaguro: White, albacore tuna – And just to confuse the issue even more, Kampai refers to a separate nigiri as “Albacore”, which is seared.

I could actually go on; in researching this post, I found honest-to-goodness flow charts attempting to categorize the various types of sushi tuna. The ones above should probably suffice for now, but if you’re interested in a deeper dive (no pun intended), poke around the internet.

There’s also the matter of roe, which is fish eggs. You can get various type of roe in sushi places, generally resting on a bed of sushi rice and wrapped in nori. As mentioned in the episode, salmon roe (Ikura) is my absolute favorite, but you can also usually find smelt roe (Masago – gathered from the capelin fish) and flying fish roe (Tobiko).

When people hear “fish eggs”, though, their mind generally goes to caviar, so is there a difference between that and roe? Of course there is! “Roe” refers to the fish eggs themselves, while “caviar” is roe that has been salted and tinned for storage and aging. Caviar also tends to come from sturgeon roe, which is not considered a sushi fish.

There are also a ton of other nigiri, and while it’s impossible to list them all here, I’ll leave you with a nice sampler platter. Go enjoy some!

Fugu: Puffer fish – A delicacy, but poisonous if not prepared properly.
Taco: Octopus
Saba: Mackerel (mentioned in the episode as speedily racing its way to the top of our list of favorites)
Anago: Salt-water eel
Unagi: Fresh-water eel – We recommended this one highly.
Uni: Sea urchin
Tamago: Egg omelet – A strange inclusion on a fish-based menu, but can be very good.
Ika: Squid
Kani: Crab
Hotate: Scallop
Ebi: Shrimp – Can also be served as Ama Ebi (sweet shrimp).
Mirugai: Giant clam – Also called “geoduck”, one of the ugliest creatures on the planet.
Hirame: Halibut