Sushi is sushi, right? Not exactly...

Any seasoned sushi rice eater will know that there are various different types of sushi rolls in conventional Japanese cooking, not even all of them being cylindrical in shape! And not all of them containing the famous ingredients, at that, of vinegared rice and sushi grade fish!

So, even if you are a fan of homemade or shop bought sushi but don't know the ins and outs of sushi rice, its history or the different categories that make up this Japanese delicacy, keep reading to find out something new about one of your favourite dishes!

Forget the art of sushi making - here's a quick guide to the art of eating sushi!

A Brief History of Sushi

All the while you have been thinking that the term sushi means raw fish, but in actual fact, it doesn't. Any chef offering sushi making classes will be able to tell you that the word instead refers to a dish containing vinegared rice served with a range of toppings and/or fillings which may or may not include raw fish. This is because the food term sushi accommodates all dietary requirements, with vegetarians unable to eat meat and even some people preferring different types of rice, like brown or wholegrain rice for example.

If the word sushi conjures up an image in your head, you may need to look past that for the purpose of this guide! We are hoping to teach you about sushi, where it originated from and the different types of sushi you can find around the world, not just in Japan.

Sushi rolls were originally thought up as a concept for preserving food, with fermented rice being used to store uncooked fish for up to a year in some cases. In this dish or process, named narezushi, the rice was discarded and only the fish was eaten. Later, during the 16th century, namanarezushi came about and this time it was vinegared rice that was used and this was consumed instead of being thrown in the bin.

Although widely known as a popular Japanese dish, sushi rice was thought to have been invented in China between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. Each Japanese region, over time, developed its own version of sushi but nearly all follow the same principles and share many of the same ingredients and methods such as rice, water, soy sauce, pickled ginger wasabi, rice vinegar sugar and sushi grade fish.

Different Types of Sushi

According to experts, there are three main types of sushi: Maki, Nigiri and Sashimi, however even this is argued by many.

While Maki (a sushi roll that is rolled up with a bamboo mat and is usually wrapped in nori or seaweed) and Nigiri (sliced raw fish on top of a mound of rice shaped into a ball) are positively classed as Sushi rice, many say that Sashimi isn't sushi because it is a dish served without rice, the main ingredient of sushi as we've just discovered!

Do you know your Sashimi from your sushi?
Technically, Sashimi is not a type of sushi according to experts. Photo on Visualhunt

Here's a quick overview of the different types of Sushi you might have heard of either in a restaurant or when attempting to make homemade sushi at home:

Maki Rolls or makizushi

Maki Rolls are long, round pieces of vinegar rice accompanied by other ingredients which are wrapped with sheets of seaweed (or nori). The seaweed might be replaced by cucumber slices or soy paper. You eat these with your fingers too.

Interesting fact: When the reverse is made, ie with the rice on the outside, this is called a Uramaki.

Nigiri or nigirizushi

Nigiri is a word to describe a mound of vinegared rice which is shaped using the palm of the hands. It usually has some wasabi on top and is topped with one single ingredient (usually a vegetable or a thin piece of raw fish). Nigiri is eaten with your fingers, after dipping it into some soy sauce upside-down.


Narezushi, finally, is somewhat like the original form of Sushi; made up of fermented fish with seasoned sushi rice, and preserved for a few months before being served and eaten (only the fish is consumed, however).

Temaki, or hand roll

Temaki is a cone-shaped Sushi piece with seaweed nori on the outside and vinegared rice with other ingredients placed on the inside. This is finger food.


Inarizushi comes in the form of a pouch of fried tofu with rice inside, eaten with your fingers.

Chirashi or chirashizushi

Chirashi is a bowl of rice vinegared rice alongside mixed ingredients which you eat with chopsticks.


Oshizushi is rice mixed with rice vinegar, along with other ingredients like vegetables or sushi grade fish, shaped into a cylindrical block using a mould. Once cut into bite-sized pieces, you pick one piece up and eat it with chopsticks.

US Derivatives of Japanese Sushi

It is common knowledge that people from the US love to Americanise things, especially food. Japanese nationals are notoriously shocked by the way that Americans have taken their traditional food and added their own twists, like using avocado in sushi, for example (which is not common practice in Japan!).

That said, many of the American takes on sushi have remained popular for decades despite not being true to their origins. After all, they are still pretty and delicious tasting!

Here are just some US versions of sushi rice you might come across in a restaurant across the pond.

California Roll

A California Roll is a bit lie an inside-out sushi, with rice on the outside and the seaweed on the inside. And that blasted avocado usually makes an appearance here, along with cucumber, imitation crab and more.

A sushi roll can look quite different in America, for example.
Many countries have their own take on the asian sushi roll. Photo credit: debbietingzon on Visual hunt / CC BY

Tempura Roll

Tempura Rolls, similarly to California Rolls, have a layer of rice on the outside around a sheet of nori and their filling is made up of tempura-fried shrimp along with vegetables or salad (such as avocado and cucumber).

Spicy Tuna Roll

Spicy Tuna Rolls once again have the rice on the outside, with a sheet of nori seaweed on the inside, and then they are wrapped around raw tuna fish mixed with spicy mayonnaise, hence the name.

Dragon Roll

Dragon Rolls are a lot like Tempura Rolls in that they use many of the same ingredients and have the rice on the outside, sprinkled with sesame seeds. However, Dragon Rolls have the addition of thin slices of avocado on top along with tobiko and are drizzled with spicy mayo and unagi sauce.

Spider Roll

Last but not least, Spider Rolls are made up of deep-fried soft-shell crab and stuffed with cucumber, avocado, lettuce, roe and that special spicy mayonnaise.

As you can see, many of these ingredients are pretty common so it is easy to give sushi making at home a try when trying to decide what you could be cooking next.

Did you know you can also sign up for sushi making classes with a professional sushi chef or buy a sushi making kit to try out at home?

Ordering Sushi Like a Pro

When it comes to ordering sushi in a Japanese restaurant or sushi bar, you may now be able to identify the different types of sushi rolls but can you actually pronounce them?

Nobody wants to show themself up in a restaurant, especially in an international one, by not being able to pronounce the dishes on the menu. It can be embarrassing, and some people might even take offence at your seeming lack of effort (but we all know it's not shortness of effort that the problem, it's our pride).

And imagine the level of shame if you have been calling a sushi roll by the wrong name all this time, in every sushi bar you have been to but nobody has corrected you out of politeness?!

Well, worry no more, as here we have dug out a guide especially for 'dummies' explaining everything you need to know about sushi - and it even breaks down the names into similar bite size chunks to help you to master the pronunciation of the various names of sushi types.

Do you know how to pronounce the different sushi types?
You may need a little language lesson before being able to pronounce the japanese terms! Photo credit: OiMax on VisualHunt / CC BY

Here is a snippet from the Sushi for Dummies cheat sheet guide:

"To get familiar with the types of sushi, use this list:

  • Chirashi-zushi (chee-rah-shee-zoo-shee): Scattered sushi
  • Gunkan-maki-zushi (goon-kahn-mah-kee-zoo-shee): Battleship sushi
  • Maki-zushi (mah-kee-zoo-shee): Sliced rolls, in general, including the following two types:
    • Futo-maki-zushi (foo-toh-mah-kee-zoo-shee): Thick (2- to 2 1/2-inch wide) sliced rolls
    • Hoso-maki-zushi (hoh-soh-mah-kee-zoo-shee): Thin (1-inch wide) sliced rolls
  • Nigiri-zushi (nee-gee-ree-zoo-shee): Finger sushi
  • Temaki-zushi (teh-mah-kee-zoo-shee): Hand rolls"

You can find more by purchasing the book or by giving the extended online cheat sheet a read!

Are you interested in finding out about sushi making classes near you?

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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.