Sushi glossary: the Japanese terms you need to know

by Henry Coldstream 13 August 2021

Sushi is Japan’s most famous culinary export – but there are a huge amount of different ingredients and terms which can make reading an authentic menu intimidating. We’ve put together a glossary of some of the key sushi-related terms to make it easier.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

While every country has its signature dishes, not many cuisines are more defined by a single style of dish as Japan is by sushi. Seen as a cuisine in its own right rather than a subset of Japanese food, sushi is now a global phenomenon, enjoyed by people from all cultures and prepared by everyone from home cooks to master sushi chefs who’ve spent decades honing their craft. At these upper echelons, sushi preparation is regarded as more of a fine art than cooking, with incredible precision required to ensure that every item served has the perfect finish.

Whether you’re a sushi novice or someone who has been eating it for years, one thing that can get a little confusing is all the terminology surrounding it. Go beyond the packets of faux-sushi in supermarkets and you’re hit with words like onigiri, tobiko, maki and inari, which can make it tough to know where to start if you don’t know your Japanese. A good place to start is with the meaning of the word ‘sushi’ itself; although many people think of sushi as a raw fish dish, the word actually refers to the cold, vinegared rice, which is why it’s possible to have vegetarian and even meat sushi. To help you understand your sushi even better, below we’ve put together a beginner’s glossary of sushi-related terms, ingredients and equipment which you can refer back to next time you’re indulging in one of the most refined and tasty types of food on the planet.

Types of sushi

Chirashi

Not a hugely common type of sushi in the UK but still popular in Japan, chirashi sushi consists of rice served in a bowl, topped with a variety of different ingredients, ranging from vegetables to raw fish. Also known sometimes as scattered sushi, its easy-to-assemble nature when compared to other types of sushi makes it popular amongst home cooks.

Maki and futomaki

These cylindrical sushi rolls are one of the most recognisable styles of sushi out there. Usually wrapped in nori seaweed on the outside, maki can be filled with everything from raw fish to cucumber. There are also various sub-types of maki, including the larger futomaki rolls which often contain three or more fillings that complement each other. It’s tradition in Japan that during the evening of Setsubun (the day before spring begins), people eat uncut futomaki cylinders, known as ehō-maki.

Inari

Inari sushi is probably the most distinct of all the varieties of sushi to look at, due to the fact its outer layer is made of deep-fried tofu, which comes stuffed with vinegared rice. The tofu pouches used to make inari sushi (also known as aburaage) tend to be cooked in a dashi broth seasoned with sugar, meaning that inari sushi often has a slight sweetness to it.

Nigiri

Relatively simple to construct yet wonderfully elegant, nigiri are comprised of oval-shaped balls of sushi rice formed by hand, which usually come topped with finely sliced raw fish. Common types of nigiri include salmon (sake), tuna (maguro) and shrimp (ebi).

Onigiri

Onigiri aren’t technically a type of sushi as they’re made with plain, unseasoned, rice; however, their similar appearance means that they’re often still served at sushi restaurants. Often shaped into small triangles, in essence onigiri are balls of rice with a meat or vegetable filling concealed inside, wrapped in nori to finish.

Sashimi

Sashimi, once again, isn’t technically a type of sushi on its own but that doesn’t stop it from being a hugely important part of the cuisine. This thinly sliced top-quality raw fish is a delicacy and can either be eaten by itself, or alongside rice and soy sauce. The slices of fish which sit on top of nigiri are technically a type of sashimi.

Temaki

These large sushi rolls are prepared by hand and feature a cone-shaped piece of nori filled with sushi rice and other fillings. Unlike most other styles of sushi, temaki are eaten with hands rather than chopsticks due to their size.

Uramaki

Uramaki, meaning 'inside-out', is created in a similar way to maki but with the rice on the outside and the nori within it, along with the filling. This style of sushi is one of the most common along with maki.

Sushi ingredients

Ahi (yellowfin tuna)

Ahi is the most common type of tuna that you’ll find in a sushi restaurant and can be marinated and served raw, seared, or cooked.

Ebi (shrimp)

A classic nigiri topping, specifically ebi are black tiger prawns which have been pierced, boiled, chilled in ice water and then butterflied. Ebi can however also be eaten completely raw.

Gari (pickled ginger)

Often served alongside sushi as well as wasabi and soy sauce, gari is made from thinly sliced ginger which has been marinated in vinegar. It acts as a palate cleanser between bites and provides an added sharpness to sushi.

Hamachi (yellowtail)

Also known as Japanese amberjack, hamachi is a type of fish which isn’t massively well-known outside of Japanese cuisine but its melt-in-the-mouth texture makes it a winning choice for sashimi, nigiri and more.

Hotate (scallop)

Known for its delicate taste and slight sweetness, hotate can be eaten raw or cooked and is best kept simple, allowing the flavour to shine. That’s why it’s most often thinly sliced and served atop nigiri.

Ika (squid)

While most parts of a squid can be used in sushi, it’s the body which is usually served raw on nigiri. Ika has more bite to it than some other types of seafood used in sushi, which provides a great contrast to the sticky rice.

Katsuo (skipjack tuna)

Best known as the ingredient which is fermented and dried to make bonito flakes, or katsuobushi – an umami-rich seasoning used extensively in Japanese cookery – katsuo (also called bonito) is also commonly used in both sushi and tataki.

Nori

These dried sheets of edible seaweed, along with sushi rice, are one of the key ingredients in sushi rolls. Usually found on the outside of maki, where it is used to hold the rice together, nori is also occasionally found on the inside of a sushi roll (uramaki) and is also used when making onigiri.

Sake (salmon)

Undeniably one of the most versatile types of fish used in sushi, sake (confusingly the same word for liquor or alcohol in Japan) is used in everything from nigiri to the filling of maki, and is also commonly served by itself as sashimi. Ironically salmon never used to be eaten raw in Japan because of the parasites it was thought to harbour, until the Norwegians introduced the concept to the country in the 1980s. Because of the similarity in the word for liquor, most sushi restaurants will make it clear that sushi contains salmon, and it tends to be pronounced ‘shak-e’ when referring to the fish.

Shoyu (soy sauce)

Providing a whack of umami and seasoning to a whole host of different Japanese dishes, shoyu plays just as important a role in sushi. Usually served in a shallow dish, the idea is to briefly dip your sushi into the soy sauce but for a short enough time that it doesn’t absorb too much of the shoyu and overpower the flavour of the fish.

Tako (octopus)

Tako differs from many of the other types of seafood used in sushi, as it’s almost always boiled before being served to bring out more of its flavour. With the potential to have a slightly chewy texture, it’s essential that tako is sliced incredibly thinly.

Tobiko (flying fish roe)

These tiny orange eggs have a slight smokiness to them and are used both as a topping and a filling in some varieties of sushi. The most common of these are California rolls, which are often sprinkled with tobiko, providing an added crunch. You can also find tobiko flavoured with the likes of wasabi, yuzu and squid ink, which also change its colour.

Tamago

One of the more popular vegetarian sushi toppings, tamago is a sweet Japanese omelette made by folding eggs over and over again to create a fluffy, layered texture. Predominantly found either in maki or on top of nigiri, tamago is also occasionally used as an alternative to nori for wrapping sushi.

Wasabi

Made from the rhizome – a knobbly root that grows underground – of the wasabia japonica plant, wasabi is sometimes known as Japanese horseradish and has the same white heat as mustard. It’s most commonly served as a bright green paste, made by finely grating the rhizome, although you will often only find ‘true’ wasabi at high-end restaurants in the UK (the more common and cheaper pastes are bulked out with horseradish). Its intense spiciness, which provides a nasal kind of heat, is used to balance the umami of soy sauce and highlight the flavour of raw fish without overpowering it.

Sushi equipment

Makisu

An essential part of making most forms of sushi roll, a makisu is a bamboo mat used for rolling the rice, nori and fillings into a perfect cylinder. Rolling using a makisu is the last stage of sushi-making before chopping it up, ready for service. Sometimes chefs will line a makisu with cling film to stop the rice from sticking to it. This is most common with uramaki, where the rice is on the outside of the roll.

Hashi

The Japanese word for chopsticks, hashi are an essential part of eating most types of sushi. Made with everything from bamboo to porcelain, a well-made set of hashi only makes eating sushi an easier and nicer experience altogether.

Sashimi bōchō

Japan is famous for making some of the most beautifully crafted knives (bōchō) in the world. Using a high-quality knife is crucial when preparing the best sushi and sashimi, to ensure the slices of raw fish are beautifully smooth and even. A sashimi bōchō is a long, thin knife, used specifically for achieving this perfect finish.