Leslie's Seven
Sushi Lessons

My First Sushi Eating Experience!

If you'd like to contribute a brief (say, 200-300 words) narrative of your first sushi experience,  please e-mail it to me at the address below, and I'll publish it here.  I reserve the right to edit, and please be sure to tell me how you want to be identified.

These originated during correspondence with a friend who was planning to brave the world of sushi for the first time. These are not the last word on sushi by any means, but maybe others in the same situation will find some useful tips here. If you have any comments or suggestions, please write me at: LRampey@panix.com.

Lesson One: Pronunciation

Lesson Two: Sushi and Sashimi

Lesson Three: Dubious Stuff

Lesson Four: Favorites!

Lesson Five: Some Other Good Stuff

Lesson Six: Condiments, Management of

Lesson Seven: Odds and Ends

(And if you are interested in trying this at home, take a look at Mark Hutchenreuther's wonderful "Rolling Your Own Sushi".)


OK -- first lesson. Basic Japanese pronunciation, so that you can ask for what you want. And this part of the language is easy (good thing, because nothing else about it is). Basically, just remember that in almost every case, consonants are going to be pronounced just like you think they should be, and the vowels are pronounced exactly the same as Spanish vowels (which is easy in itself as Spanish has only the five vowel sounds as opposed to the 15 or more in French):

a = our broad "a" sound as in "father"
e = our long "a" sound as in "hay"
i = our "ee" sound as in "see"
o = our o sort of but shortened (you kind of have to imagine a Spanish-speaker pronouncing this one)
u = our "oo" sound as in "boo"

And that's it. Just get those five sounds, and you can sound very passably like you know what you are talking about.

LESSON TWO: SUSHI AND SASHIMI Many people do not know the difference and misuse the terms:

"sushi" = vinegared rice served with pieces of something else -- not necessarily raw fish, and not necessarily fish at all. The majority of the times people use the term "sushi," they are referring to the rice with raw fish, but not always. Sushi can come in the individual (about two bite-size) pieces that may be called "nigiri-sushi." Or it can come in rolls cut up in to pieces (probably called "maki-sushi"). The rolls make for a bit easier eating, so if someone is self-conscious about how he/she is going to look eating it, the "maki-sushi" might be the way to go. [It's possible that you may see "sushi" spelled as "zushi" in these combinations. I don't think it makes much difference in the pronunciation."]
"sashimi" = always means raw fish without the rice. (I would prefer always to eat sashimi, but without the rice filling me up, I would never stop and run up a bill the size of the national debt!)

LESSON THREE: DUBIOUS STUFF Lesson Three: Things you probably *don't* want to eat.

This is a bit subjective on my part, but I have had about 25 years of experience. "ika" and "tako" = squid and octopus. Although these are very popular items, I've just never seen the point to them. They are very chewy with no particular taste at all as the payoff. "hamo" and "uni" = eel and sea urchin. Pretty much only for the experienced and/or really adventurous. I've heard "uni" described as a definitely acquired taste -- someone said that it tastes like something that had been sitting in a tidal pool in Puget Sound. If I've ever eaten it, I don't remember. Next: my favorites! :)


Hamachi -- ah, hamachi! My favorite of all! It means "yellowtail." It is possible but probably not likely that that you might see it listed as "buri" or "inada."
You can get it straight as nigiri-sushi -- that is the piece over the rice -- or as what might be called "negahamachi-maki" -- that is, hamachi with scallions (which really is a wonderful combination) in a roll of rice wrapped in seaweed. Either way, you cannot go wrong! (But you will get more pure hamachi flavor the first way.)
Other than hamachi, you can't go wrong with:
-- tuna, which will be listed as "maguro" or "toro," the latter being a much choicer cut. This will be available on the single "nigiri" pieces or in the "maki" rolls. It's nowhere near as big a taste as "hamachi" but many people, especially beginners, find it very pleasant. I would, however, stay away from anything called a "spicy tuna roll." As far as I can figure out, they douse it with tabasco-laced mayonnaise. I don't think that it's exactly authentic, and it'll ruin your palate for the rest of the meal anyhow.
-- salmon -- the fresh salmon is "sake" (not to be confused with the rice wine "sake" -- the accents are a little different). This is good -- very delicate tasting, probably best eaten prior to hamachi. Sushi bars very often will have the smoked variety of salmon also. That will taste more or less like novalox. I don't particularly care for the smoked salmon in the sushi context (I guess because if I want smoked salmon, I can buy it and serve it at home), but it's OK and certainly a respectable choice if one really can't handle the raw items. Am trying to remember the word for the smoked variety, but just can't come up with it right now.
-- mackerel -- many words for the varieties but often grouped under the generic word "saba." Now, this mackerel thing is a true mystery to me, and I would love to solve it. It seems that there are not only a variety of mackerels, but it can also come in various stages of preparation. When it is good, it rivals the "hamachi." (In fact, there has been more than one occasion when I've driven Bryan up a wall by continuing to order one after the other, trying to figure out which one was better!) But often, I don't care for it at all because it has been pickled or something, and then it loses its rawness and tastes more like plain old cooked fish. So, I never know whether to order it or not, because I haven't been able to figure out the right question if it is of the right type or the right condition that it's what I like. As I said, very mysterious. So, if you learn anything about mackerel, let me know.
-- salmon roe -- "ikura." If you like caviar, you really must try this! Large red roe that are fun to pop between your teeth. (Also very good with champagne should you ever get it in mind to stop for a jar on the way home.) It usually comes in a short, squat tube of seaweed -- packed into it with rice on the bottom. It is a bit tricky to eat, as there is no way to make two bites out of it. Easier to eat if you can find it in the "maki" (roll) format, but that does not seem to be very popular.
So, to summarize, the Big Five for me are:
-yellowtail ("hamachi")
-tuna ("maguro" or "toro")
-salmon ("sake" = the fresh, non-smoked)
-mackerel ("saba" or "?" -- when it is how I like it)
-salmon roe (ikura)


Here's some suggestions if one wants to join in the fun but finds him/herself unable to handle the raw stuff:
-- There is the smoked salmon that I mentioned.
-- Shrimp -- "ebi." The shrimp is boiled first. (But not "ama ebi," which is raw. I think that raw shellfish is a good thing to avoid. There is also a still-living variety, on which I will not comment.)
-- Faux crab -- "kani-kamaboko." It's just that salad "crab" meat that is really pressed, rolled pollack (cooked).
-- Cucumber -- "kappa" or "kappa-maki" in a roll.
-- Sweet egg omelet -- "tamago." Comes in little sushi pieces, often wrapped with a strip of seaweed.
-- California Roll. Most likely not authentic and perhaps a bit declasse to order, it is still very tasty (and good to make at home). Strips of avocado and faux crab are sprinkled with sesame seeds and wrapped in rice and seaweed. Often it will be rolled up inside out with the rice on the outside and then rolled again in a coating of smelt roe, which makes it very nice to look at, and I like the crunchiness of the smelt roe.

Note: A lot of new-fangled sushi rolls, such as the above, have appeared in recent years -- often mind-boggling concoctions of individual chefs. Some have become generic, such as the California Roll, but others are idiosyncratic and often named for cites.


The basic condiments are important because being able to handle them, well, shows that you know how to handle them. :) Also, they really add greatly to the enjoyment of the meal. The basics are just three:
1) Soy sauce
2) Wasabi paste
3) Pickled ginger slices
THE SOY SAUCE: At your place will be your own small saucer-like dish (might be round or square or rectangular). The sauce itself will be either in the original commercial bottles or in a very small ceramic pitcher which you will share with one or more other persons. (If the commercial bottles are there, and you have a choice between the regular and low-sodium, choose the low-sodium. Of course, it is healthier but it really does bring out the flavor of the fish better *and* doesn't drown it in so much salt that you'll be spending the rest of the afternoon at the water cooler. In fact, if you want to try asking for the low-sodium stuff, I suppose that that would be OK.) Anyway, pour a small amount in your little dish -- enough to soak but not so much that it will slosh. You can always add more later.
The actual dipping of the sushi pieces is a matter of many opinions. Some people hold that the ONLY way is to allow only the fish part of the piece to touch the soy sauce. For myself, I like to let the rice soak up some of the soy -- just be careful not to let it do that for too long because then the packed rice will fall apart, and it's kind of icky to have a whole lot of rice grains floating in your soy dish. You might want to watch what some others are doing.
THE WASABI PASTE: This will appear as a clump or mound of green stuff on the dish with the sushi. It is horseradish and usually *very* hot (although the strength can vary depending on who makes it), so try it only in a very SMALL amount first. We have been told that it is authentic to put some of the wasabi paste into your soy dish and mix it around. Bryan has grown to like doing this, but I still prefer to smear a small bit on the fish itself. Again, I guess you can watch what the others are doing. Keep in mind, however, that the chef usually will add a bit of the wasabi himself between the rice and the fish, so you might not need any at all. Probably taste the sushi piece first. If it's already hot enough, forget the wasabi.
THE PICKLED GINGER: This will appear on the plate with the sushi as a mound of golden or pinkish slices. It is very spicy although not hot in the same way the wasabi is. It generally is NOT to be eaten *with* the fish, but between sampling the different varieties. The idea is that it clears your palate. It is also wonderful for your stomach! Just use a slice or two whenever you change to a new fish. (Haha -- DON'T make the mistake I did on one of my early Japanese restaurant visits: I had a sashimi plate, and in my eagerness to try *everthing* I took the ginger clump for another variety of fish and ate the whole thing at once!!! As good as ginger is for you, you don't want to do that!)
You might find a few other odds and ends on the plate as garnish -- some edible, some not. Obviously, doon't eat the little piece of green paper grass. :) There might be something that looks like a clump of white grass. I originally thought that might be shredded cabbage, but one of the readers of this page informs me that it actually is a shredded white radish called "daikon" -- probably OK to eat, but not required. Citrus slices also might appear.
So, that's the condiment basics. I think that all we have left to cover is some odds and ends!


Just a few comments left:
1) Chopsticks: You're kind of on your own here, as I am not expert. Perhaps you have had some prior experience in Chinese restaurants which will come in handy. If not, go to:
They've got diagrams there that show the basics much better than I can explain them. The thing is that even if you've got the basics of it down, sushi still presents some problems. If you get the "maki" (the rolls) that are cut up in bite-size pieces, that shouldn't be any trouble. The problem comes with the "nigiri" pieces. These usually are larger than one bite, but it's impossible (for me) to get that first bite while holding the remainder of the piece between the chopsticks. And it ain't easy to dip the whole thing in the soy sauce either while holding it in chopsticks. Usually the result is a very large and embarrassing soy sauce splatter! :( So, I usually give in with "nigiri" pieces and just pick them up with my fingers. We've been assured by many Japanese restaurant personnel that this is entirely acceptable -- but, then, I don't know enough of the language to figure out what they're saying when we actually do it! :) On the other hand, I figure at the prices we're paying in a sushi bar, we can do just about anything we please. :))) And sometimes we do!
2) Ordering: This pretty much is going to depend on your company and whatever the plan is. If feasible, try to order ala carte. That way, you can control what you get. That usually works by filling out a little form on which you indicate how many pieces of what you want. (Be a little careful here. Once it was customary that one order of, say "hamachi nigiri" meant *two* pieces. Now many places have gone to one order meaning one piece. If it does not clearly say on the form, you can figure that anything under about $2.25 probably means that you will get just one piece. The "maki" rolls always mean one roll, but keep in mind that they are cut into six or eight pieces.)
[While I'm on the subject, avoid what are called "hand-rolls," cone-shaped ones that are really messy to eat.]
If the agenda is such that it is not possible to order ala carte, then you will have to settle for ordering a sushi or sashimi sampler plate, which usually come in two sizes. If that is what you must do, try to request "no squid or octopus" ("ika" or "tako"). It's been my experience that they always put that on the assorted plates, and that they're just not worth it. And if you do get a sampler plate, ask the wait-person what is what. That way you'll know what you like for future reference.
I think that is about it . . .

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