Sushi & Sashimi for beginners

This is an excerpt from the food and drinks chapter of Lonely Planet's Tokyo guide.

The first thing most visitors in Tokyo are intent on eating is either sushi (す し or 寿司) or sashimi (刺身). Sushi is raw fish served with sweetened, vinegared rice, while sashimi is slices of raw fish served with soy sauce for dipping.

There are two main types of sushi: nigirizushi (握りずし; a small slice of fish served on a small pillow of rice) and maki-zushi (巻 き寿司; served in a seaweed roll).

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Image of nigirizushi by avlxyz

Lesser known varieties include chirashi-zushi (ちら し寿司; a bowl of rice covered in strips of fish, vegetables and julienned egg), oshi-zushi (押 し寿司; fish pressed in a mould over rice) and inari-zushi (いなり寿司; rice in a pocket of sweet fried tofu). Nigiri-zushi and maki-zushi usually contain a bit of wasabi (わさび).

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Image of chirashi-zushi by Marshall Astor - Food Pornographer

Sushi shops run the gamut from cheap and cheerful kaiten-zushi (回転寿司; conveyorbelt parlours) and stand-up eateries to more expensive and highly refined bars and restaurants. Generally speaking, quality is equated to price, though it’s not necessary to eat at the best of the best to indulge in great sushi.

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Image of kaiten-zushi by MShades

So, you’ve made it to the sushi restaurant, but now you’re feeling a bit dumbfounded about what to do next. Here’s a quick crash course to help you get started. If you’re seated at the sushi counter, you can simply point at what you want; most of the selections are visible in a refrigerated glass case between you and the itamae (sushi chef ). One portion (ichi-nin mae) usually means two pieces of sushi. If ordering à la carte feels like a chore, you can order a mori-awase (assortment, generally six or seven pieces); prices vary according to the type of fish used.

Some sushi is served with a sauce already on it, while other kinds are meant to be dipped in soy sauce. If you’re not sure, ask the server ‘o-shōyu wa?’ (‘Should I use soy sauce?’). Pour just a little soy sauce at a time from the bottle on the counter into the small saucer provided (don’t fill the saucer), and if there is a side of wasabi, add a little at a time – it can be very hot!

Remember, the soy sauce is used to flavour the fish and not the rice, so don’t dip your sushi rice-side down (plus, the rice tends to fall apart in the soy sauce). If you’re not good at using chopsticks, don’t worry; sushi is one of the few foods in Japan that it is perfectly acceptable to eat with your hands. Slices of gari (pickled ginger) are served to help refresh the palate. The beverage of choice with sushi is beer or sake, with a cup of cloudy green tea at the end of the meal.