Sushi Guide for Beginners: What To Try & Dining Etiquette

Want to try sushi but don’t know where to start? This post will teach you what to expect when you eat at a sushi restaurant, different types of sushi for beginners, how much to order, and other sushi etiquette. You’ll be a sushi addict in no time!

What is sushi?

hand rolls, cut roll, nigiri and inari

Sushi is a famous Japanese dish made of seasoned, vinegared rice served with raw or cooked seafood and vegetables. The origins of sushi come from Neolithic China with the fermentation of salted fish called narezushi. 

What started as a way to keep fish for longer periods by storing them in vinegar, salt, and rice eventually became nigiri sushi in the Edo Period. These days there are multiple types of sushi like maki sushi, temaki sushi, nigiri sushi, inari sushi, and more. 

How beginners should start

For anyone who wants to venture out and try sushi for the first time, my best advice is to take a friend who’s familiar with sushi. There are different price levels of sushi depending on your budget, but I recommend going with a reputable and well-known sushi spot to ensure you have access to fresh fish. Some of my favorite sushi restaurants in Southern California are Hama Sushi, Oo Toro Sushi, and Honda Ya.

sushi rice in a hangiri

If you don’t have access to a good local sushi spot, you can also make sushi at home. It’s often cheaper, but you may need to locate a Japanese or Asian grocery store to get ahold of ingredients like short-grain white rice to make sushi rice, rice vinegar, nori, and most importantly, fresh sushi-grade fish. 

how to cut salmon for handrolls

Our favorite places to buy ingredients is Mitsuwa Market or online at Catalina OP. Although the term “sushi-grade” fish isn’t monitored by the FDA, I still believe this label from reputable sources like Catalina OP. When you buy sushi-grade fish from reputable sources, you know it’s been adequately frozen to prevent parasites in the fish. 

Sushi table setting

sushi plate setting: soy sauce, ginger and wasabi, soy sauce, chopsticks

When you sit down at a sushi restaurant, there’s a specific place setting at most sushi restaurants:

  • small rectangular plate
  • one pair of chopsticks
  • dipping bowl – for the soy sauce
  • one napkin – some restaurants will also give you a cold towel to clean your hands, so make sure to wipe your hands before eating. 
  • soy sauce – always dip into the soy sauce fish side down, otherwise, the rice will soak up too much and the nigiri may fall apart. You also don’t want to drench the sashimi in soy sauce because it will overpower the taste of the fish. 
  • gari – thinly sliced pickled ginger that is meant for a palate cleanser in between bites of sushi. If you run out, feel free to ask for more. 
  • wasabi – a spicy paste traditionally made from Japanese horseradish and has a spiciness that is pungent and bright. Many restaurants, unfortunately, serve alternative wasabi made from horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring because real wasabi is so expensive. No matter what type of wasabi you are served, it’s recommended not to add too much or mix your wasabi into your soy sauce because it muddles up the taste of fresh fish. 

Common beverages to pair with sushi are green tea (iced or hot) and sake (a fermented rice wine). 

Hands vs. chopsticks

holding eel sushi with chopsticks

You can use clean hands to eat nigiri sushi or maki-sushi, or you can also use chopsticks. If you’re eating sashimi, make sure to use chopsticks. Use my chopstick tutorial here, if you need help with your chopstick skills. 

For extra spiciness, add a small amount of wasabi onto your fish–it’s improper to mix the wasabi into your soy sauce. If you want to dip your fish into soy sauce, make sure only to dip the fish part of the nigiri otherwise, the rice will absorb too much of the sauce, and it will be too salty. 

Some nigiri sushi is also preseasoned by the chef like eel or albacore, so it’s important not to add additional wasabi or sauce on top. Sometimes waiters or the chef will let you know it’s preseasoned so you don’t have to add anything else. 

Best sushi and sushi rolls for beginners to try

If it’s your first time ordering sushi and you are scared of trying raw fish, there are multiple rolls and types of sushi that are good for beginners:

  • Veggie maki-rolls: avocado maki-roll or the cucumber maki-roll are a great start to sushi because they’re all veggie without any fish. You can get used to sushi rice and nori without worrying about raw fish. You can also practice eating these smaller rolls with your hands or chopsticks, dipping them into soy sauce, and eating them in one bite.
cucumber maki / cut rolls
  • California rolls: These rolls have cooked imitation crab (aka fish), cucumbers, and avocado wrapped in nori and a layer of sushi rice outside. It’s one step up from the veggie rolls and oftentimes a bit bigger.
slicing california rolls with a knife
  • Seared or cooked nigiri: There are seared nigiri options in some restaurants like seared salmon nigiri or cooked options like tamago (egg omelet) nigiri. You can test out using your hands or chopsticks to pick up, dip, and eat the nigiri with these slightly or already cooked pieces before you venture on to raw fish. The texture is also more familiar for those not used to eating raw fish. 
albacore tuna nigiri

After testing these types of sushi out, I would suggest raw pieces of nigiri and sashimi. 

How to order sushi

No matter how many times I’ve been to my favorite sushi spot, I like to ask if they have any specials for that day. Sometimes my favorite restaurant Oo Toro will have new varieties of fish. 

When ordering sushi at a restaurant, you might be confused as to how much to order. Maki-sushi like California or spicy tuna rolls can range in size but are typically more filling than nigiri sushi or sashimi. Nigiri comes in pairs, so one order is two pieces of sushi. 

Sashimi comes in thinly sliced pieces of fish; One order of sashimi is about two to three pieces per order, whereas combos are a mix of different types of fish anywhere from six pieces and up.

Here are some examples of how much to order. Each bullet is one entire order for one person. You can always start off smaller and add more after eating each couple of dishes:

  • Two maki-rolls
  • 6-10 orders of nigiri (about 12-20 pieces of sushi) 
  • One maki-sushi roll and four orders of nigiri (eight pieces of sushi)
  • Two orders of sashimi (four pieces), two orders of nigiri (four pieces of sushi), and one maki-roll
  • One chirashi bowl 

Is it rude not to eat sushi in one bite?

cutting nigiri with chopsticks

It’s customary and polite to eat sushi in one or two bites, and it’s considered taboo to cut the sushi in half with chopsticks or other utensils. When eating at a fancy sushi shop, the chefs may tailor the size of the fish and rice to your size. You should not separate the fish from the rice.

Is sushi a starter or main?

Sushi is typically the main course of a meal. Therefore, some restaurants will only offer a limited menu that features sushi and sashimi. However, some restaurants offer sashimi under the appetizer section. 

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