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Japan Food – Tasty Sushi Guide to Iconic Culture

Japan in Japanese

Sushi is not just food; It’s an art form, an experience. A reflection of the soul.

MADE IN JAPAN: The first time in a sushi restaurant can be intimidating. The menu, even though written in English, is in a language all its own. While there are hundreds of sushi-related terms, you can use this quick guide to the most common sushi vocabulary to help navigate your first few sushi and Japan food experiences.

Sushi in Japan
Sushi in Japan

The world of sushi has its own language, with many words that are not used in the same way as ordinary Japanese. We introduce some of the special terms related to Japan’s iconic food.
Our wordlist begins with a look at some words connected with the main parts of sushi and how to count the pieces.

Neta (sushi toppings)
Neta (sushi toppings)

Neta (Tane)

The toppings for sushi rice are commonly known as Neta. The word comes from reversing the syllables in tane, literally “seed,” which can also be used for the toppings, or central ingredients that make a sushi morsel.

Shari

Vinegared sushi rice is known as shari. This originally comes from a Buddhist term referring to the fragments of bones left after the cremation of Buddha, which are said to resemble grains of rice. The term ginshari (literally “silver sushi rice”) means white rice.

Shari
Shari

Kan

This is a word used to count pieces of sushi. However, depending on the region and the restaurant, ikkan (one piece) can mean either one piece of sushi or one dish with two pieces of sushi.

Next, here are some of the neta found in sushi restaurants serving Japanese food.

Toro

This is the belly part of the tuna. Its name comes from the word torotto, describing a sticky consistency, because it has a soft, fatty texture that seems to melt in the mouth.

Toro fatty tuna
Toro fatty tuna

Tekka

This is another name for akami, the red flesh of lean tuna. The word tekka lines up the characters for iron and fire, creating an image of red-hot metal. Tekkamaki is a type of sushi roll that is filled with akami lean tuna. There is also tekkadon, which is sliced tuna served on top of sushi rice in a donburi rice bowl.

Zuke

This comes from the verb tsukeru, meaning to marinate or pickle. Fish such as tuna and bonito are marinated in a combination of soy sauce, sake, and mirin. So, for example, akamizuke is marinated lean tuna.

Gunkanmaki

This is a type of sushi roll where nori (dried seaweed) is wrapped around vinegared rice and then topped with various neta (toppings) that would lose their shape if placed on rice alone, such as ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin), and kobashira (surf clam adductor muscle). It takes its name from its resemblance to a gunkan (battleship).

Gunkanmaki
Gunkanmaki

Gunkanmaki topped with ikura (salmon roe) on the left and uni (sea urchin) on the right.

Engawa

This is the muscle at the base of the fins on flounder and flatfish. Its naming comes from the fact the sinewy lines in the fin resemble engawa, the verandas that run around the outside of Japanese houses.

Geso

This is a word for squid’s tentacles with quite complex origins, according to one theory. At entertainment halls and theaters, there used to be attendants who collected people’s footwear (gesoku) when they entered, and handed them tags so they could collect them later. The word geso came to be applied to squid’s tentacles (as they have ten), but not to those of octopuses, which have only eight.

Hikarimono

Literally meaning “shining things,” hikarimono refers to fish with blue backs and shiny silver bellies. This includesmackerel, iwashi (sardine), kisu (sillago), kohada (gizzard shad), saba (horse mackerel), sayori (Japanese halfbeak), and sanma (Pacific saury).

Saba oshizushi (pressed sushi
Saba oshizushi (pressed sushi

Saba oshizushi (pressed sushi) made from layers of marinated horse mackerel and sushi rice.

Shinko

This is the name for kohada (gizzard shad) when it is still juvenile. As it grows larger, it becomes known as konoshiro and then is called kohada when fully grown.

Gyoku

The character 玉 can be read tama or, in this case, gyoku, and means tamago (egg) as this topping is made using tamagoyaki rolled omelet.

Geso (squid tentacles).
Geso (squid tentacles).

Kappa

Cucumber is known as kappa, named after the Japanese yōkai of the same name, which are said to love cucumbers. The cross-section of a cucumber also looks like the circular dish on the top of the kappa’s head. Kappamaki is a thin sushi roll filled with cucumber.

These are some words connected with serving sushi.

Geta

A wooden board used for serving sushi that looks like the traditional footwear geta, or wooden clog.

Gari

Often found accompanying sushi, this is thinly sliced young ginger that has been pickled in sweet vinegar. Its name comes from garigari, the crunchy sound it makes when eaten. Gari is said to be a palate cleanser and is thought to help kill bacteria that may be found in raw fish.

Agari

Simply, this is ocha or green tea. It originates from a reference to the tea drunk at the end of a meal. In the past, in pleasure quarters and at restaurants in geisha districts, this tea was called agaribana (literally “the last flower), which later became shortened to agari.

Agari, the last green tea before leaving.
Agari, the last green tea before leaving.

Sushi Terminology

Wasabi – Japanese horseradish. This green paste is usually served along with sushi to add a burst of heat and flavor.
Tempura – Battered and deep fried. Many American sushi restaurants now serve tempura platters or tempura shrimp or vegetables inside of traditional sushi rolls.
Tataki – Finely chopped.
Sushi – The word sushi refers to rice that has been seasoned with vinegar and sugar. A small amount of sugar dissolved in vinegar is sprinkled over freshly cooked rice and then folded in. The vinegar and sugar provide a uniquely light flavor and texture. Any seafood, vegetable, or other ingredient served in combination with this rice can be referred to as sushi.
Sake – Rice wine that can be served either hot or cold. Unlike regular wine, sake is distilled and should not be aged.
Sashimi – Sliced, fresh fish. Although sashimi may be served with a bowl of plain rice, it is not served in combination with rice or any other ingredient. Sashimi is a Japanese dish of thinly sliced raw food, usually fish and seafood, but also sometimes other meats.
Shoyu. Soy sauce is made from fermented soybeans and gives a nice salty or briny flavor to food. It is used lightly only to accent other flavors.
Miso. Fermented soybean paste that is used in many soups, sauces, and marinades. Miso not only offers nutritional benefits, but it also provides a strong umami flavor to balance dishes.
Dashi. A Japanese soup stock made from seaweed or other ingredients. This broth is the base for many soups and has a distinct umami flavor.
Bara. Sushi ingredients mixed together in a bowl as a rice salad.

Akamizuke marinated lean tuna
Akamizuke marinated lean tuna

The difference: From sushi to good sushi

It sounds snobbish, but there is a difference between that sushi and good sushi. I’m discovering that the sushi I used to think was good was just a stepping stone to even better sushi. Don’t be afraid of becoming a sushi snob.
Having said that, your appreciation of sushi is growing if you notice these five things.

  1. The rice itself starts to take on more importance
    Sushi is vinegared rice. The toppings may be the showpiece but the rice is where it’s at. If you notice any hardness, coldness or mushiness, take note. You may still enjoy it but probably not for much longer.
  2. The size of your sushi concerns you less
    If you expect your meals to fill your belly until you are bloated, remember the old Japanese saying, ‘hara hachi bun’ – eat until you are 80% full. Quantity of your sushi is different to quality.
  3. Why other foods offered at the sushi restaurant
    Like most everything else, the better something is, the more attention it has probably been given. The more attention your sushi has required, the more likely it is that you will not be offered the choice of hamburgers, noodles, or tempura.
  4. Mayonnaise on your nerves
    Japanese sushi relies on drawing out the flavors essential to its ingredients. Non-Japanese sushi seems to be based on the combinations of added flavors for taste. That’s fine but do remember that Japanese cuisine is listed as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage.
  5. The distinction between topping and rice
    If you don’t like your al dente pasta mixed with canned sauce or your fresh tomato-based sauce covering soggy pasta, then you will understand. Harmony becomes more and more important to you.

True Artists: Sushi is not just about the food; it’s also about the experience. Approach it with an open mind, enjoy each piece, and embrace the cultural flavors of this Japanese culinary tradition. Enjoy your sushi journey, and don’t be afraid to ask the sushi chef for recommendations if you’re unsure about what to order! In Japan, most of the sushi chefs are true artists.

Gudmund Lindbaek
Gudmund Lindbaek
Journalist founded King Goya online travel magazine. Meeting people for engaging stories. I´m off to uncover the best strategies for long life living. This is part of my venture “Around the World in 80 Lanes” – about travel, run sprint, staying fit! I just want a tiny slice of adventures to feel alive, and then excited to return home.

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