Sushi: The Ultimate Guide

Sushi is one of Japan’s most beloved exports and continues to grow in popularity worldwide with each year that goes by. Interestingly, it has its origins in Southeast Asia and not in Japan as one would naturally assume, so the Japanese may not have invented it, but they certainly did perfect it. In this guide to Japanese sushi, we’ll be looking at the different varieties, how its made, the equipment needed, and the most commonly used ingredients.

Topics Covered

  • The different types of sushi
    • Toro
    • Temaki
    • Amaebi
    • Uni
    • Hamachi
    • Ika
    • Suzuki
    • Unagi
    • Masago
    • Tobiko
  • Commonly asked questions
    • What does sushi mean?
    • What kind of tuna is used for sushi?
    • What kind of rice is used for sushi?
    • What type of eel is used for sushi?
    • What does sushi taste like?
    • What is the difference between sushi and sashimi?
    • Is sushi healthy?
    • What is sushi wrapped in?
  • Sushi sauces
  • The various ingredients used
Japanese rice cookerMaking perfect sushi rice by hand is an art. Simplify things with a rice cooker that has a sushi rice setting that will make the rice to perfection.
Yanagiba knifeWhen using fish as filling you’ll need a high-quality blade for precision slices and the best way to do that is with a yanagiba style knife.
Sushi serving setServe your sushi with this 6-piece serving set made from high-grade ceramic. It includes 2x soy saucers, 2x sushi plates, and 2x high-quality pairs of chopsticks.

The different types of sushi

What follows is only a small collection of what is available and is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many more varieties, but we have only listed some of the most popular ones.

Toro sushi

Toro sushi
Naotake Murayama from San Francisco, CA, USA, Sushi – Tuna Spectrum (2678128917), CC BY 2.0

Toro is one of the most expensive sushi types available – and it can be hard to find. It’s the most prized cut from bluefin tuna and is the small fatty section from the stomach area. In Japan, toro is usually only served on special occasions, and it’s said that the meat is so soft and tender that it melts in your mouth. Toro can be further subdivided into two sections – chutoro and otoro.

Chutoro: The chutoro section of bluefin tuna is usually more preferred to the otoro part because it contains slightly less fat. Chutoro comes from the belly area of the fish, which sits in between the otoro and akami regions.

Otoro: The otoro section of bluefin tuna sits right beneath the stomach area and is by far the fattest part of the fish. It contains so much fat that it almost breaks apart by itself.

Temaki sushi

Rolled temaki sushi.
Rolled temaki sushi.

The word temaki in the Japanese language means “hand-rolled” and is named that for its cone shape, which looks identical to a taco. It’s made from rice, nori, and any choice of fillings, which are commonly referred to as neta. Temaki is much easier to make than regular sushi rolls because of its cone shape, and no chopsticks are required when eating since eating with your hands is the preferred way.

Amaebi sushi

Amaebi sushi
7’o’7, Siroebi amaebi gasuebi, CC BY-SA 3.0

Amaebi is sweet shrimp. These shrimps are cold-water northern shrimp mostly taken from the Pacific ocean along the North American continent. They are tiny in size, which is why it’s not uncommon to get a double shrimp serving with your order. They are also the only type of shrimp you can eat raw because cooking them will remove most of the sweetness.

Uni sushi

Uni sushi
City Foodsters, Sushi Saito IMG 1780 (23776718626), CC BY 2.0

For those who do not know, uni is the Japanese word for sea urchin, and when it comes to uni sushi, it’s the genital area that gets eaten. It’s an acquired taste, and therefore some people love it while others hate it. Many describe the taste as being sweet and not too strong. The bright yellow-colored treat was once only served and consumed in Japan in the form of uni sushi and sashimi, but it has recently gained worldwide popularity and can now be found in sandwiches and pasta toppings in trendy restaurants around the world.

Hamachi sushi

Hamachi sushi
Douglas Perkins, Nigiri, CC BY 4.0

The hamachi fish is known as the yellowtail; however, it doesn’t refer to a single type of fish. Instead, the word hamachi (yellowtail) refers to three similar but different fish – yellowtail, amberjack, and yellowtail amberjack. So when ordering hamachi sushi, you could end up with one of the three mentioned species. All three are considered to be high-grade fish, but some are not fond of it because of the tangy taste and oily texture.

Ika sushi

Ika Sushi
City Foodsters, Sushi Saito IMG 2964 (31147850262), CC BY 2.0

Ika is squid and is regarded as being one of the most exotic types of sushi you can get. Some do not like the texture, which is often described as being too firm. The squid must get adequately prepared since it’s easy to get food poisoning from it. The firmness of the flesh is attributable to the fact that it’s mostly muscle and therefore requires a bit more chewing. The rich, sweet taste makes it all worth it, though.

Suzuki sushi

Suzuki sushi
Niedźwiadek78 at Polish Wikipedia, Sushi wawa, CC BY-SA 3.0

Suzuki sushi is made from sea bass. The name has been derived from susugi, which means ‘washed’ because it looks very clean. Suzuki flesh is considered to be tough, and to counter this, sushi chefs will dip the freshly cut meat into a combination of sake and warm water. Then immediately remove it and dip it into a bowl of icy cold water. By doing this, most of the fat falls away, and the flavors of the fish get enhanced.

Unagi sushi

Unagi sushi
Alpha, Unagi Nigiri Sushi – Suzuran Japan Foods Trading, CC BY-SA 2.0

The word unagi means freshwater eel and is a common ingredient in many types of Japanese Dishes. When it comes to sushi, most things are consumed raw, but with unagi, it’s always grilled for health reasons. Unagi might not be on menus for much longer because eel populations have been drastically reduced around the world – and with it, significant price increases.

Masago sushi

Masago sushi
sunday driver from Gion, Kyoto, Ikura gunkan maki sushi by sunday driver in Kyoto, CC BY 2.0

Masago is the fish eggs (roe) of the Capelin fish species, which can be found in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. It’s more readily available, and a cheaper option than the roe of its tropical cousin, tobiko. Masago is often dyed to enhance its color and tastes relatively bland when compared to tobiko. It’s still rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which makes it super healthy sushi.

Tobiko sushi

Tobiko sushi
Till Krech, Makizushi, CC BY 2.0

Tobiko sushi is very similar to the masago variety. The bright orange-colored and highly nutritious fish eggs come from tropical flying fish. They cost considerably more than masago and are mainly used as garnish or seasoning.

Commonly asked questions

What does sushi mean?

Most people are under the impression that the word ‘sushi’ refers to raw fish, but this is an incorrect belief. Raw fish, in actuality, has very little to do with sushi since most varieties contain no fish whatsoever. The word means ‘vinegared rice’ and refers to rice instead of raw fish.

What kind of tuna is used for sushi?

Bluefin & southern bluefin tuna

Sushi made from bluefin tuna is one of the most expensive varieties available. These fish are commonly found in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, are big, and can weigh as much as 1500 pounds. The pricing is set high because of their rarity, which is a result of overfishing.

Bluefin tuna
Bluefin tuna.

Southern bluefin tuna, which is a viable alternative to the regular bluefin species, is often used in its place. They are somewhat smaller in size, but the meat is of similar quality. These fish are mostly found in the Indian Ocean and are also considered rare due to overfishing.

Typically, there are three cuts from bluefin used in sushi. The first comes from the back of the fish and is known as akami. It’s a delicious deep red-colored meat known for its softness. The second cut is called otoro and comes from the upper section of the stomach area. It’s pink in color and is so soft because of all the fat that it melts in your mouth. The last cut, chutoro, comes from the lower belly. It has a very light pink color, contains a lot of fat, and is almost as soft as otoro.

Yellowfin tuna

Yellowfin tuna is not as rare as the bluefin species; therefore, the price is considerably lower. The fish is also much smaller in size and weighs 300 pounds on average. They are commonly found in most tropical waters near or along the equator. Yellowfin meat can appear pink to red but is not as soft as bluefin, yet it’s delicious enough to make great sushi.

If you ever order sushi in Japan without specifying the type you want – or if it’s simply labeled as tuna, you will most likely get served with yellowfin.

Big-eye tuna

This strange-sounding fish shares a lot of similarities with yellowfin when it comes to texture and taste. It’s also slightly larger than yellowfin and got its name because it has bigger eyes than other types of tuna. These fish appear in the same waters as yellowfin – the warm tropical waters near and along the equator.

Albacore tuna

Albacore tuna is what we in the West know as canned tuna. These fish are the least scarce of all tuna species and are, therefore, the most affordable. Sushi made from albacore tuna is also most commonly found in Japanese restaurants featuring conveyor belts.

Albacore is recognizable by its light pink color, and the texture is rougher than the higher grade species. The taste is also a lot milder than bluefin, which is why sushi chefs have devised a different preparation method known as tataki to compensate for that. With the tataki method, chefs lightly and quickly grill the surface of the albacore and then dip it in cold water. The outcome is slightly firmer flesh with a less mild taste. If you ever come across something called bintoro sushi, then know it’s albacore tuna prepared the tataki way.

What kind of rice is used for sushi?

The type of rice used in making sushi is essential. Polished white short-grain rice is the ideal choice, and it’s often simply referred to as sushi rice. There are different varieties; for example, in Japan, short-grain Japanese rice is a favorite; also known as Japonica rice. Medium grain California rice can serve as a good substitute and is often labeled as Calrose rice.

What type of eel is used for sushi?

Eel or unagi, as they call it in Japan, is a much-loved ingredient in various Japanese dishes. There are two types of eel – freshwater and saltwater eel – both popular in Japan, but when it comes to sushi, only freshwater eel is used.

What does sushi taste like?

There is no simple answer to this question because there are many different types of sushi with each variety making use of unrelated and sometimes even related ingredients. The trick to this unique Japanese cuisine is to prevent the taste of one ingredient from overpowering the other; in other words – one should be able to taste everything in equal balance.

What is the difference between sushi and sashimi?

Sashimi shares some similarities with certain types of sushi, and because of that, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Sushi is vinegared rice combined with any variety of other food items, while sashimi is thinly sliced raw fish commonly served on top of a small pile of rice.

Is sushi healthy?

There is no definitive answer because there are so many different types of ingredients one can use. The list of possible ingredients is far too long to cover, but whether or not it’s healthy comes down to the choice of ingredients.

What is sushi wrapped in?

Sushi is normally wrapped in a special type of dried seaweed known as nori, which can be recognized by its black/green color. Soybean paper, or mamenori, as it’s known in Japan, can also be used as a substitute.

Popular sushi sauces

It’s common to have sauces with sushi today, although it’s a fairly new thing and hasn’t always been around. Here we will cover some of the more popular and commonly used ones.

Mayo-based sauces

Finding a mayo-based sauce on your sushi is common, although it’s not from Japan itself. Instead, variations of mayo sauce and its use with sushi originated in North America. Some of the more famous examples include miso mayo, spicy mayo, and garlic mayo.

Ponzu sauce

Ponzu is a citrus-based sauce made from bonito tuna flakes, seaweed, mirin, yuzu (if not available, lemon will do), and rice vinegar; add some soy sauce to the mix, and you have ponzu shoyu. It’s not only great as a sushi dip but is frequently used in many varieties of Japanese food.

Unagi sauce

Unagi is freshwater eel, and the thick, sweet unagi sauce was created to go with Japanese eel-based dishes. The ingredients used for making unagi sauce include mirin, soy sauce, and sugar. It’s often applied to eel while being grilled or small amounts are placed on top of unagi sushi.

Shoyu sauce

Shoyu sauce is the Japanese version of Chinese soy sauce and serves as a sushi dip. There is not much difference between the Chinese and Japanese versions, but some variations of shoyu sauce contain up to 50% wheat. It’s also sweeter and less healthy than regular soy sauce.

Commonly used sushi ingredients

The choice of ingredients used depends on the type of sushi being prepared, and there is a rather extensive number of options to choose from. This is by no means an exhaustive list; instead, we have only listed the most widely and commonly used items.

The different fish varieties

Fish being weighed at a Tokyo Fish market.
Fish being weighed at a Tokyo Fish market.

Mention the word sushi, and most people would undoubtedly conjure up images of raw fish. Rightfully so, but which fish species are commonly used and compatible with this delicious Japanese cuisine?

Tuna is by far the most popular choice, and some species are associated with high-end sushi. There are five species used: albacore, yellowfin, bluefin, southern bluefin, and big-eye.

Apart from tuna, there are other types of fish also used. These include sweetfish, red snapper, salmon, sea bream, kingfish, trout, swordfish, mackerel, Japanese yellowtail, blue marlin, and even blowfish.

Pickled ginger

Ginger, with its plethora of health benefits, is a vital ingredient in the world of sushi. Some know it as pickled ginger, others only as sushi ginger or shin-shoga no amazu-zuki and gari if you are Japanese.

The thinly sliced, pink-colored young ginger which accompanies your sushi has been marinated in sugar and vinegar. Its purpose is to cleanse your palate so that you can better taste the different varieties of fish. Many people don’t know this, but there are rules when it comes to eating ginger. Some will pile it onto their sushi and eat it like that while others put it into their soy sauce and then dip their sushi into the combination. Both ways are wrong. The correct way is to directly take a bite from the ginger in between trying the different varieties.


Miso is highly popular in Japan, and many types of cuisine make use of this delicious seasoning. There are many varieties of miso, as it can be made from several ingredients. It’s a thick paste with its base ingredients being fermented soybeans, salt, and koji. Miso seasoning has been an important food source in Japan for centuries but has only recently gained interest worldwide.


Wasabi on a plate
Danaimge, HK 北角 North Point 和田 Wada Japanese Restaurant 放題 Buffet dinner 山葵 green Wasabi 30-Mar-2013, CC BY-SA 3.0

Wasabi, also known as Japanese horseradish, always goes hand in hand with sushi. You may know it as that green pasty stuff that burns all of your senses. Some people will request their sushi without wasabi, while others cannot enjoy theirs without it.

As with all things in Japanese cuisine, there are rules to follow when eating this condiment. It’s common practice for Westerners to mix their wasabi with their soy sauce and then dip their sushi into it. This is the wrong approach. The correct way is to take a tiny amount with your chopsticks and place it directly onto the sushi before consuming it.

Short grain white rice

Just like with brewing sake, not any type of rice will do. When it comes to sushi, only a particular type of rice makes the grade – sushi rice. It’s a high-quality short white grain rice known as Japonica. Calrose rice, which is more commonly found in the West, serves as a good substitute.


Everyone loves avocado, which is why it’s such a popular sushi ingredient. It’s one of the key ingredients in the world-famous California roll, and other varieties make much more extensive use of it.

Freshwater eel

Freshwater eel, or unagi as the Japanese call it used to be a favorite option in sushi bars all across Japan before 2013. The reason being that these eels have undergone an 80 to 90% population reduction due to overeating. As a result, Japanese authorities have added freshwater eels to their list of endangered species. They are still consumed, but the prices have risen dramatically, and they are not as readily available anymore.


Tofu, by itself, is a very important food in not only Japan but in all of East Asia. And not many people know this, but tofu is often used in sushi – especially with the vegetarian varieties. It’s a type of soybean curd that is very low in fat and high in protein.

Tempura mix

Tempura is a batter used for coating deep-fried seafood and vegetables. The name tempura may sound Japanese, but it’s Portuguese. It was introduced to Japan centuries ago when the Portuguese started trading with Japan. When it comes to sushi, you can make rolls out of deep-fried seafood and vegetables or make flakes and use them for seasoning.

Imitation crab meat

Frrrrred, Surimi – bâtonnet et miettes, CC BY-SA 3.0

Imitation crab meat, or surimi as they call it in Japan, is processed seafood made from ground whitefish and starch. These ‘fish sticks’ are shaped in such a way that they resemble the actual legs of Japanese spider crabs. Although it’s imitation meat, it’s still prevalent in most Japanese sushi bars and is a featured ingredient in the famous California rolls.


Edible seaweed goes by the name of nori in Japan and is considered a vital element in sushi rolls and onigiri. It’s used as a wrap to hold all the ingredients together and comes with an incredible amount of health benefits. Although nori does appear green as seaweed should, it’s red and is a type of algae belonging to the Pyropia family. The Japanese have been using this seaweed for many other types of Japanese dishes since ancient times.

Flying fish roe

The super healthy flying fish roe, or tobiko as the Japanese call it, can be identified as tiny orange-colored balls on your sushi. The main reason for its use is not for its health benefits or taste, as one might think, but instead, it’s used for visual appeal.

They may not always appear orange (its natural color) and can appear in a multitude of colors thanks to organic dying. For example, tobiko can appear black from squid ink, red from chili, green from wasabi, and even yellow from a citrus fruit known as yuzu.

Dried kelp

This edible dried kelp is called dashi kombu and mostly originates from Japan’s northernmost island – Hokkaido. Although considered to be very nutritious, when it comes to sushi, it merely serves as decorations since its sprinkled on top. Dashi kombu serves as much more than seasoning with other Japanese dishes, an example being Dashi – a delicious soup with this dried kelp as its main ingredient.

Shiitake mushrooms

Dried shiitake mushrooms are a popular ingredient when it comes to vegetarian sushi rolls. They are also the third most cultivated mushroom in the world and have an enormous amount of health benefits thanks to their antiviral, anti-fungal, and antibacterial properties.

When used in sushi, they are usually purchased dry but have to be hydrated under cold water, and then marinated in mirin, sugar, and soy sauce is used.

Quail eggs

Quail Eggs
THOR, Quail Eggs (4279000274), CC BY 2.0

Quail eggs, along with fish roe, are commonly used in tobiko sushi. These eggs are a quarter of the size of regular chicken eggs and, with most other ingredients – consumed raw. It works by wrapping a small rice ball in nori and then placing the raw quail egg contents on top.

Although delicious, there are health risks associated with this ingredient. High levels of cholesterol and saturated fats being the main problem and, of course, the risk of salmonellosis (salmonella poisoning).


Vegetables make a great alternative, especially for vegans. Varieties are featuring just about every vegetable on earth – many which you know and some which you don’t. Asparagus, carrots, cucumbers, and yams are just some of the options available.

Related Content

Interested in making your own sushi at home? Learn how to do that here.

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Be sure to check out these sushi making classes in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Learn more about sashimi here.

Find out all the differences between sushi and sashimi here.