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Get Ready to Roll: The Complete Guide to Sushi

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There’s no better way to learn Japanese than exploring the culture and sampling some of the signature dishes! Sushi is one of the most popular Japanese foods, not only in Japan, but also worldwide.

Sushi has a long history in Asia, and the traditional Japanese cuisine is vastly different from the sushi you find in America, which brings us to etiquette. Learn proper dining manners, whether you’re a longtime sushi fan or just discovering this delicacy.

Sushi History

Sushi as we know it today is an edible art form. The itamae (sushi chef) uses the freshest ingredients: fish, rice, shoyu (soy sauce), wasabi (Japanese horseradish), and other seasoning, adds rice, and rolls it neatly in nori (seaweed). The presentation is just as appealing as the taste.

Sushi has a long history which dates back to second century A.D. in China. It was derived from a method to preserve fish; placing fish in rice would prevent it from going bad. The rice was later thrown away and the fish was eaten by itself.

Once this concept reached Japan, around seventh century A.D., the Japanese began eating this fish with the rice. Shortly thereafter, a man from Edo (Tokyo), Matsumoto Yoshiichi, began adding rice vinegar and selling this early version of sushi.

Sushi has gone through several upgrades since the early stages; here is an awesome look at its evolution.

Sushi Vocabulary

Now that you’re a sushi historian, it’s time to learn some important vocab. Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Maki – Maki is a type of sushi rolled with a bamboo mat.
  • Gunkan Nigiri – Gunkan means “boat.” The ingredients are held in place on top of the roll in a boat shape.
  • Temaki – hand rolls. You can generally order sushi as a hand roll or a cut roll. Hand rolls are cone-shaped single servings, whereas cut rolls are smaller and easy to share.
  • Nigiri – Sliced raw fish over rice. If you don’t like nori, you should try nigiri.
  • Sashimi– Sliced raw fish (no rice).
  • Chirashi – Assorted fish over rice, served in a bowl.

Sushi Ingredients

Some of the most popular sushi rolls are the California roll (crab, avocado, and cucumber), Philly roll (salmon, cream cheese, and vegetables), rainbow roll (crab, avocado, cucumber with tuna, yellowtail, and salmon on the outside), caterpillar roll (cucumber, fish cake, crab, avocado), and the dragon roll (cucumber, avocado, eel, and eel sauce).

One of the best things about going out to eat sushi is trying new things. Here are some of the common ingredients you will find on the sushi menu:

  • Hamachi – Japanese amberjack (a type of yellowtail).
  • Nori – Seaweed
  • Tako – Octopus
  • Tamago – Sweet egg
  • Tobiko  Often used as a garnish, tobiko are flying fish roe (eggs)
  • Unagi – Fresh-water eel.
  • Wasabi – Be careful with this one, this spicy Japanese horseradish will add a kick to your roll.
  • Shoyu – Soy Sauce

This is just a small sample of many ingredients you can add to sushi. Depending on how adventurous you feel, step out of your comfort zone and try ordering something new!

Sushi Etiquette

Impress your friends next time you dine out at a sushi restaurant with these guidelines:

Sushi Dos

  • Eat what you take; wasting food is considered disrespectful. Plus, sushi is delicious!
  • If you’re not great at using chopsticks, rest assured, you’re permitted to use your fingers to eat sushi. Keep in mind, however, this applies to hand rolls and cut rolls, you shouldn’t use your hands to eat sashimi.
  • You should eat nigiri-style sushi in one bite.
  • When you eat at a Japanese restaurant, you may hear a lot of slurping. Go ahead and join in, slurping noodles is OK!

Sushi Don’ts

  • Sushi is generally served with ginger and wasabiDon’t combine the ginger with your sushi; it should be used between bites to cleanse your palate.
  • Don’t shake the shoyu off of your sushi.
  • Dip your sushi fish side down. Only the fish (not the rice) is meant to be dipped in the shoyu.
  • Only order sushi from the sushi chefs. You should order drinks, sides, appetizers, and additional items from your server.
  • You may see people doing this all the time, but you’re not supposed to rub your chopsticks together.

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Sushi

  • Most people think sushi means raw fish. This is a common misconception. Sushi actually means rice seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt.
  • While many people eat Miso soup as an appetizer, in Japan, Miso soup is served at the end of the meal to aid digestion.
  • The knives used by sushi chefs are direct descendants of samurai swords; the blades should be sharpened every day.
  • You shouldn’t leave your chopsticks sticking up in your bowl. This symbolizes offering food for the dead.
  • A sushi chef used to have to complete 10 years of training before he or she could work in a restaurant. Now, because of a much greater demand, a sushi chef can begin working after only two years of training.

Now that you’re a sushi expert, try some new items next time you grab sushi with your friends.

What are your favorite sushi rolls? Let us know in the comments below!

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Japanese Vocabulary: 11 Mealtime Words & Expressions

let's eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Japanese

Food is an essential part of life and a central part of any culture. Japan is well known for its sushi, curries, soups, noodles, and more. Japan’s penchant for courtesy and respect also plays a part in the country’s mealtime expressions.

Here are some Japanese vocabulary terms you can use during meal times.

1) Gohan (meal)

hiragana: ごはん kanji: 御飯

This term literally refers to the white rice that plays a big role in most meals. Over the years, it has become understood in context to refer to a meal in general.

2) Asagohan (breakfast)

hiragana: あさごはん kanji: 朝御飯

Asa literally means “morning.” You might recognize gohan from our first Japanese vocabulary word. When you combine the two, asagohan translates literally to “morning meal.”

3) Hirugohan (lunch)

hiragana: ひるごはん kanji: 昼御飯

Just as asa means morning, hiru means noon. So hirugohan literally means “noontime meal.”

4) Bangohan (dinner)

hiragana: ばんごはん kanji: 晩御飯]

By now you may have already guessed that ban means “evening.” So yes, bangohan means exactly what you’d think – “evening meal.”

5) Itadakimasu (Let’s eat!)

hiragana: いただきます kanji: 頂きます

This is a traditional phrase to say before you eat; it’s almost like saying bon appetit in French.

6) Gochisou sama deshita (What a feast!)

hiragana: ごちそうさまでした kanji:

The literal translation for gochisou sama deshita is “What a feast.” Figuratively, however, it’s a way to say, “Thank you for the food,” or “What a great meal!”

It’s generally considered polite to wait for everyone and say, “Let’s eat”; but it’s also polite to recognize the cook’s hard work. If you have ever tried Japanese food, or observed a Japanese cook at work, you may already have an appreciation for his or her way of doing things.

7) Taberu (to eat)

hiragana: たべる kanji: 食べる

You may have noticed that many of the mealtime phrases that include verbs end in –masu, while this verb in its given form ends in -ru. This is because taberu is the dictionary form, while other phrases have been conjugated into a more typical present-tense format.

The -masu form of taberu is tabemasu. To say “I am/you are/we are/they are eating breakfast,” you could say:

  • Asagohan o tabemasu. (Romaji)
  • あさごはんをたべます。(Hiragana)
  • 朝御飯を食べます。(Kanji)

In most cases, you don’t conjugate Japanese verbs according to subject. You can also leave out pronouns, for the most part, since the intended pronoun is generally understood from context.

Among friends or peers, you can simplify the verb by using the dictionary form, but stay on the safe side and use the -masu form the majority of the time.

8) (O)cha (tea)

hiragana: (お)ちゃ kanji: (お)茶

Tea is one of the most widespread and common drinks in Japan. The Japanese have also developed very elaborate tea ceremonies as part of their traditions and culture.

The optional “o” at the beginning is a title of respect – rather appropriately, since tea is a respectable drink.

9) Nomu (to drink)

hiragana: のむ kanji: 飲む

Like taberu, nomu is the dictionary form.

The masu form is nomimasu (hiragana: のみます kanji: 飲みます).

So to say “(Someone is) drinking tea,” you could say:

  • Ocha o nomimasu. (Romaji)
  • おちゃをのみます。(Hiragana)
  • お茶を飲みます。(Kanji)

10) (O)hashi (chopsticks)

hiragana: (お)はし kanji: (お)箸

Like tea, chopsticks can be referred to in a more formal or respectful fashion by adding “o” () to the beginning.

11) Chawan (tea cup)

hiragana: ちゃわん kanji: 茶碗

Traditional Japanese teacups are simple, but difficult to create. They are very artistic; the potter must use techniques and materials to allow the inner spirit of the piece to emerge. Take a closer look next time you enjoy a cup of tea!

For a visual reminder of these mealtime expressions and terms, see the helpful infographic below.

Japanese Meal Vocabulary: Let's eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Japanese

Along with these words, make sure you learn appropriate Japanese etiquette for meal times. Try using these words when you go out to eat or sit down for a meal with family and friends. Consistent practice with a private Japanese tutor will also help you improve your speaking skills!