Different types of sushi

Japan has a type of sushi for every occasion. In the West, we often have a very limited view on sushi. When Belgian people think of sushi, they generally think of sushi rolls, as pictured below:

Japanese sushi rolls makizushi
Sushi rolls as we know them in the West.

This type of rolled sushi, wrapped in nori seaweed, is called makizushi (which literally means ‘sushi roll’). In my experience however, this is not the most common kind of sushi in Japan. When you go to a sushi restaurant, you will mostly eat nigirizushi (meaning ‘hand pressed sushi’). Nigirizushi is a rectangular piece of rice with a large sliver of raw fish or seafood on top.

types of sushi: nigirizushi
Delicious nigirizushi. When you eat this kind of sushi in Japan, it is not unusual for the piece of fish to be twice the size of the piece of rice. Yummy!

There is also a particular kind of nigirizushi that is quite common in sushi restaurants, called gunkanmaki. Gunkanmaki means ‘warship roll’. It is the same oblong base of rice as nigirizushi, with a fish or shellfish topping, but wrapped in a piece of nori. The nori serves to keep the topping of the gunkanmaki in place. It is usually prepared with softer toppings or some kind of fish eggs, which benefit from the structural support of the nori. In the picture below you see a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe, but the most common kind is with salmon roe.

types of sushi: nigirizushi and gunkanmaki
A nigirizushi with shrimp and a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe
types of sushi: nigirizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant
A snapshot of one of our sushi fests in a local sushi restaurant. You see lots of nigirizushi with one of my favourites: toro salmon. There is also a gunkanmaki with what I think is meat. That is by no means a common or typical type of sushi, but I think we were feeling adventurous when we chose that one.

But despite the dominance of the nigirizushi, you do encounter makizushi (sushi rolls) in Japan. It is possible for a meal at a sushi restaurant to include a few pieces of makizushi, but they are mostly very plain and meant to top off your meal with something cheap and neutral tasting to fill up on, rather than being the focus of the meal. They are also quite thin. This kind of thin, plain makizushi is called hosomaki, which means ‘thin rolls’.

types of sushi: makizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant
This is the makizushi that I got at the end of my meal at a more high-end sushi restaurant. They are a lot more simple and narrow than the makizushi served in Belgian sushi restaurants. These narrow makizushi are called hosomaki.

The variety of makizushi that we see most often in the West is called futomaki. This means ‘thick rolls’. In the West, these sushi rolls are filled with a variety of ingredients, usually some kind of raw fish with several other ingredients in one roll. Sometimes they are fried as well. In Japan, futomaki are usually vegetarian. Futomaki is popular during the Setsubun holiday, when it is considered good luck to eat an entire, uncut futomaki roll while facing that year’s lucky direction, as determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.

futomaki sushi roll for setsubun
Futomaki sushi rolls for Setsubun. Eating one of those babies in one go seems like a daunting task. I guess you have to make a bit of an effort if you want to have good luck.

There are some other types of sushi that I mostly came across outside of sushi restaurants. One of those is temaki. This literally means ‘hand roll’. I saw this kind of sushi at sushi parties at people’s homes. At a sushi party, people put all the ingredients for sushi out on the table, the guests compose their own sushi cone to their liking and eat it at once. The procedure is repeated until everyone has had their fill.

sushi party with temaki in Japan
The table setting for a sushi party at my neighbour’s house. You take a piece of nori, put some rice on it, add the ingredients of your choice, roll it up in a cone and eat it directly to avoid the nori getting soggy.
Sushi party in Japan
Another sushi party. On the left, you can see the start of a temaki, with the rice on the nori. Too bad I didn’t take any pictures of the finished cone. The cone usually looks quite messy, but since you eat it right away, that doesn’t matter at all. And the taste is delicious!

Inarizushi is another type of sushi that is fairly unknown in the West. Inarizushi does not contain any fish. It is an oval rice ball, wrapped in a pouch of fried tofu. It is one of the cheapest kinds of sushi. Inarizushi is a popular ingredient of homemade bento lunch boxes.

types of sushi: inarizushi
Making a big bowl of inarizushi. On the top right, you can see the fried tofu pouches soaking, and they are being filled with sushi rice.

Another lesser known form of sushi is chirashizushi, which means ‘scattered sushi’. This is a bowl of sushi rice (i.e. rice seasoned with vinegar), topped off with raw fish. It is typical of Hinamatsuri, the doll festival on March 3rd, but it is also eaten the year round.

types of sushi: chirashizushi
A big bowl of chirashizushi for dinner at a friend’s house. Underneath all that delicious raw fish is sushi rice.

Finally we might consider sashimi, which is raw fish and shellfish. By many Westerners, sashimi is mistakenly considered to be a form of sushi. While sushi and sashimi are often served in the same restaurant, they are not the same thing. The main difference is that sushi always involves rice while sashimi is raw fish without rice. Sashimi must always be eaten with chopsticks while sushi may be eaten with the hands if one so chooses.

sashimi at an izakaya in japan
A plate of delicious sashimi at an izakaya inΒ  Toyota City. As you can see, there is no rice in sight.

What is your favourite type of sushi?


23 thoughts on “Different types of sushi

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  1. i much prefer nigirisushi and chirashisushi over any other types of sushi. then again, i secretly like inarisushi. im a fan of tofu products.

    1. I love tofu as well! When people ask me what my favourite Japanese food is, I am always torn between tofu and sushi. I hate to say sushi because it is so clichΓ©, but I can’t help loving it πŸ™‚

      1. lol. yeah, both are good. as for me, it would be tough to choose if the choice was between tofu and rice. but between tofu n sushi, well, i may go with tofu as it can be made into so many different dishes. i’m greedy that way πŸ™‚

  2. My favorite is sashimi, but since you asked for favorite sushi I’ll go with nigirizushi from the kaitenzushi chain Kurazushi! It is so very good and so very cheap. I think my favorite there is the salmon-mayo-raw onion nigiri.

    1. I don’t know Kurazushi. What region of Japan are you staying in? In Toyota City, we always went to Kappazushi for a 100yen sushi restaurant. It had a bad reputation among Japanese people apparently, but I greatly preferred it to sushiro (another 100yen kaitenzushi). But more often than not we went to Totomaru, a slighter higher quality kaitenzushi restaurant. On average we went there about once a week! I love me some salmon, but I also really liked the hotate nigiri.

      1. When I lived in Aichi I went to Kappa a few times, not bad. In Kansai it’s mostly Sushiro and Kurazushi though, and like you I’m not a big fan of Sushiro. Their sushi often tastes like it’s been out for a long time. We are huge Kurazushi fans!

  3. great post. My favourite are futomaki but I’m very intrigued by Inarizushi: I didn’t know it at the time I went to Japan! …so I guess I have to go back again. πŸ™‚

  4. My mother’s family always used to eat futomaki during new year’s holidays as a family tradition, the reason probably being you could serve a lot of people and my grandmother probably liked it.

    The “tradition” of eating futomaki for setsubun was made popular by Seven Eleven fairly recently though it is said that the tradition did exist mainly in Osaka. I lived in the west as a kid but no one followed it at the time. πŸ˜‰

    1. I didn’t know that about Seven Eleven. Thanks for telling me! I first heard about it from people in Toyota City but afterwards I did read on Wikipedia that it is mostly a Kansai thing.

      I might try making futomaki myself sometime soon. A friend asked me to teach her, probably not realizing that I have only done it twice myself. But I will do my best! πŸ™‚

  5. I’m not a big fan of vinegar, so sashimi is my favorite! Though I’m glad I’ve learned to appreciate sushi so that I can enjoy kaitenzushi restaurants, though I’m usually happy with not terribly adventurous kinds of nigirizushi. Inarizushi is one of my favorite bentou fillings.

    1. Do you know what they use to soak the inarizushi pouches? When we were making them, I didn’t think to ask about it.

      Kaitenzushi is a great way to enjoy sushi. Altough in Japan, they are considered to be a very basic fastfood, compared to Belgium the quality of kaitenzushi is so good! Even kappazushi has better quality sushi than the average Belgian sushi place (which is of course not owned by Japanese people, mostly chinese or nepalese people).

      I miss sushi!!! πŸ™‚

      1. The same rings true for sushi in the US (especially far away from the ocean)! I do feel a little spoiled with Sea of Japan sashimi out here because it’s so good, but every so often something like kappazushi really hits the spot.
        No clue about the inarizushi pouches, though…

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