Food & Drink

Confusing Sushi Terms, Defined

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Shimmy Shimmy Ya” by Ol' Dirty Bastard wasn't about sushi, but between liking it raw and all that money his backup singer owes him, ODB's clearly not afraid of food poisoning or the cost of fresh tuna. And although Big Baby Jesus might have picked up a few phrases from samurai films, he's still probably confused by some of the terms on a sushi menu.

Wu-Tang aside, the most daunting part of the sushi experience for most people is the language barrier. It's understandable to be confused when half the menu is in Japanese, especially given that changing just one letter can signify an entirely different type of fish (madai is sea bream, medai is bluenose).

To make a visit to the sushi bar feel a little less foreign, we've compiled a glossary of the most important sushi terms from exhaustive raw-fish resource, along with linguistic context from other expert sources. Without further ado, irasshaimase to this list (read on to learn what that means).

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Aji: horse mackerel

Depending on which sushi chef or fish seller you ask, aji can mean horse mackerel, Jack mackerel, or Spanish mackerel, but is technically not considered a member of the mackerel family. Regardless of how a chef interprets it, it's typically smaller and less fishy-tasting than the other most popular type of mackerel (saba). Both aji and saba are typically served in cured form (shime saba), as they spoil quickly.

Abura bouzu: oilfish

This traditional creamy and fatty sushi fish goes by many official names (abura bouza, escolar, shiro maguro), but is often colloquially referred to as "that fish that makes people sick because it's so rich."

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Chirashizushi: a variety of fish over rice

Considered the sushi-bar equivalent of a combo meal, chirashizushi is a selection of the chef's favorite sliced fish (sashimi) served raw on top of a bowl of rice.

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Fugu: pufferfish

One of the most well-known sushi myths is that eating fugu will definitely kill you. Which it will... if the liver sack is punctured. But thankfully, chefs take the dangers of fugu so seriously that it actually requires a specialized permit to process.

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Futomaki: oversized rolls

Often this is synonymous with the specialty-roll section of a menu. Made using a bamboo mat (makisu), these rolls feature a buffet's worth of different fish varieties. Honestly, you probably shouldn't order them, but if you must have some seaweed (nori) in your diet, try a simpler roll (makizushi).

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Irasshaimase: welcome

Many sushi chefs will make an effort to say hello to each guest by shouting out an aggressive-sounding greeting. Don't be scared, they're just welcoming you to their restaurant. A simple, respectful nod in return will suffice.

Ikizukuri: preparation of live fish

Dave Lowry, author of The Connoisseur's Guide to Sushi, schooled us on ikizukuri. Although many people associate it with sushi, it's actually considered an entirely different category of cuisine.

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Kamaboko: imitation crab meat

Also called surimi, these red-and-white sticks of imitation crab meat are actually made from a white fish called pollock. Kamaboko combined with avocado and cucumber makes a California roll, the history of which is currently up for debate.

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Neta: the fish placed on top of sushi rice

Preparing the neta for nigiri is considered a high-level skill for a sushi chef (itamae) and is only learned after they've mastered the art of making rice and rolls.

Nigiri: sliced fish on top of rice

Derived from the verb “to grasp,” nigiri is the simple pairing of fish and rice. It's typically served with minimal accouterments, listed on a menu by types of fish, and sold by the single bite.

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Omakase: chef's choice menu

Literally translated by some as “you choose,” ordering omakase allows the chef to create a menu based on the day's best offerings and tailored to each customer. A sushi bar is one of the few places where a chef will customize a menu to each guest's tastes, so the biggest mistake most sushi eaters make is not explaining what type of fish they like.

Sashimi: raw fish slices

Cuts the carbs out of the sushi equation.

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Sushi: seasoned or vinegared rice

There's some debate on the exact etymology of the word sushi, but the idea that it translates to fish with rice is a total misnomer. The term harks back to sushi's early days when raw fish was packed in vinegar and rice in order to preserve it for longer periods of time.

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Shoyu: soy sauce

Although it's almost always on the table at a sushi restaurant next to Japanese horseradish (wasabi), sushi chefs cringe when customers dunk a carefully composed bite into a bath of soy sauce.

Tamago: egg

In Japan, tamago is considered a strong sign of a chef's skill level, so many diners will order a piece of tamago nigiri to start a meal in order to gauge a restaurant's quality. Stateside it is less popular, but considered one of the most underrated sushi toppings.

Temaki-zushi: hand roll

Less popular on American menus, this is a larger uncut roll shaped like a cone with the seaweed on the outside.

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Toro: belly meat or fatty tuna

Like a tamanegi (onion), the word "toro" has many layers. It can be used to refer to a specific belly cut of tuna (maguro, which you can read all about here), but also used as a general modifier to signify fatty cuts of other types of fish, as in sake toro (salmon belly) or buri toro (fatty yellowtail).

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Unagi: fresh-water eel

Usually served grilled and sauced, unagi is often confused with its salt water-dwelling cousin (anago), which is generally less rich-tasting and rarer to see on sushi menus.

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Uni: sea urchin genitals

One of the most pungent and acquired tastes in the realm of sushi, uni is a creamy, puree-like hunk of urchin that looks somewhat like a tongue and is traditionally served wrapped in seaweed. 

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He loves uni, 90% of the time. Follow him to sea urchin roulette at @Dannosphere.