How to Order and Eat Sushi for the First Time

So sushi has come up at the last couple family gatherings with most of the people at the table turning up their noses that they would not want to eat sushi.  This reminded me of the first time I ate sushi.  I had a client ask if we could meet at a sushi restaurant.  I shared that I had never eaten sushi but would be glad to give it a try.  My first experience with eating sushi was great and I have eaten it many times since.  It is convenient for take out, for a quick lunch alone and great for date night.  Thinking back, I believe my first experience was so great simply because of who I was with that day.  My client expertly guided me through the menu of choices and taught me all the ins and outs of how to order and how to eat sushi.  Since that first experience I myself have stepped a handful of people through how to order and how to eat sushi by showing them these same tips.  So, I thought it might be fun to outline what my client showed me that day in hopes I can get a couple people out there to go ahead and TRY it on their own!

A common mistake is to refer to sushi as raw fish.  As I was told, sushi actually means vinegar-flavored rice and the raw food accompanying it are called Sashimi.  One of the most common misconceptions about sushi is that ALL of it includes raw fish.  This simply is not true.  There are options that are made from just fresh vegetables as well as options that include cooked fish.  Most often sushi restaurants will denote on the menu which items are made with raw fish so it is easy for the first timer to pick out one that is pretty basic.  There are a handful of sushi preparations with the most common being Nigiri and Maki.  Nigiri is served as an oblong mound of rice and is most commonly topped with cooked or raw fish or seafood.  Maki is served rolled in nori, which is a kind of pressed seaweed. The rice, seaweed and the toppings are rolled into a cylindrical shape using a bamboo mat. The roll is then sliced into various sized pieces.  For culinary, sanitary and aesthetic reasons the fish eaten raw must be fresher and of higher quality than fish which is cooked. Fish served raw include tuna, mackerel and salmon.  It is also common to see squid, octopus, shrimp and eel on the menu.

So for the first timer, here are a couple suggestions and tips on how to order sushi.  Perhaps one of the best for a “first timer” is a Maki roll that is likely on every menu at any sushi restaurant since it is so basic and also so popular.  It is the California Roll.  Typically this is made from cucumber, avocado and crab meat.  I prefer to order mine as a Cali with Cream Cheese which is the same set of ingredients but also includes a ribbon of cream cheese through the middle.  Another good Maki for a “first timer” would be a basic Shrimp Tempura.  For those of us in the Midwest this is very familiar as it is akin to a light beer battered fried shrimp.  You could also get Salmon Tempura or Crab Tempura.

Pickled ginger and wasabi

Small amount of wasabi.

Add small bit of soy sauce.

So when the sushi is served you will see a couple items included on the plate.  Most often sushi is served alongside a “dollop” of wasabi.  This will look like a green paste and is touted as having anti-bacterial properties for fighting off food poisoning.  Note it is HOT to taste.  Also you will see pickled ginger which is used to cleanse the palate when eating different sushi rolls and supposedly also helps with digestion.  On the table you will find soy sauce.

Smash wasabi and combine with soy sauce.

Smooth base for the final dipping sauce.

Now everyone eats sushi differently.  I have seen people take a piece of sushi, smear it with wasabi, drizzle with soy sauce, top with a slice of ginger then pop the whole combination into their mouth.  The way I was taught how to eat sushi by my client that first time is the way I eat sushi today.  Included here are some photos to step you through the experience.  By the way the sushi featured in these photos is from Sakari, a sushi restaurant in Des Moines.  I will be posting a restaurant review on them soon so stay tuned for that!

Sauce is perfect for dipping sushi.

Between bites enjoy a slice of pickled ginger.

Now a bite of the California roll.

Take a small amount of wasabi and place in the middle of the plate or dish.  Add just a small amount of soy sauce and stir the two together to make a smooth paste.  Doing it this way makes it easier to then add more soy sauce to taste and get a nice smooth dipping sauce.  If you add a lot of soy sauce from the beginning it can be hard to get the wasabi to incorporate in well for a smooth sauce.  This sauce is then used to dip each piece of your sushi roll for added flavor.  Then a small slice of ginger is enjoyed between each bite of the sushi roll.  This is a great approach if you are enjoying sushi with a friend and both of you have ordered different rolls. The ginger really clears away the flavors of the first bite so you can enjoy a bite of the other type of sushi.

Once you get through the initial experience of trying sushi you can then start to experiment by trying other types of sushi such as those that include raw tuna and working your way up to the Rainbow which includes a variety of raw fish all in one roll.

Inexpensive and easy to find this is the perfect pairing for last minute take out sushi.

I would not recommend that a first timer get pre-packaged sushi from a store.  The best way to enjoy sushi for the first time is fresh from a sushi restaurant as eat in or take out.  My sister Wendy and my Mom tell me there is nothing here in the Midwest that compares to the quality of sushi you can get in California.  Since I am not able to compare I can tell you that the sushi I ate to put together this post was very good!  The sushi featured in these photos are a Cali with Cream Cheese and a Maki that includes raw tuna.  Yum.  Pair with a Gekkeikan – purr “uuummm.”


Check out our Recipes for Main Dishes, Cookies and Desserts and Side Dishes – so many you have to page through older posts to see them all.


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