Ever ordered a dish from a sushi menu — without a clue what will appear on your plate? You’re not alone. Maybe you asked for “sake” and got a piece of fish (not a drink), or maybe you had to Google the difference between nigiri and sashimi (again).
No matter how often you eat sushi, it’s easy to feel like you’re learning a new language every time you open up the menu at a Japanese restaurant — because you kind of are. The good news: Once you know the main terms on a sushi menu, it’s simple to read, understand and order exactly what you want.
We sat down with chef Cedric Woodward and owner Matt Baydala of Yuki Yama Sushi to decipher some of the most common terms on a sushi menu, once and for all. (They’re listed alphabetically, below.)
Dashi = a broth made from two ingredients: konbu (kelp seaweed) and smoked katsuo (a type of tuna). This slightly fishy, smoky broth forms the basis of most Japanese sauces.
Gyoza = dumpling.
Hama = abbreviation for hamachi, which is yellowtail amberjack, a mild, firm fish.
Hirame = fluke, a white fish that’s light, sweet and firm.
Hobo = sea robin, a mild and firm whitefish.
Kimchee = fermented cabbage. Contrary to popular belief, this is not vegetarian, since it’s made with shrimp paste, crab paste or squid paste (called shiokara).
Maguro = big-eye tuna, a fish with a mild, medium texture.
Maki = roll. There are usually two categories of rolls on sushi menus, Woodward tells us. Traditional rolls are the more simple rolls, such as California rolls or spicy tuna rolls. Special rolls are more complex, and each sushi restaurant has its own style of “special” rolls, usually dependent on the region.
Negi = thinly sliced green onion.
Nigiri = any ingredient over seasoned rice. The full term is “nigirizushi,” and yes, it’s typically a piece of raw fish served over rice. But other foods can be served over rice and called “nigiri” as well, such as mushrooms, avocado, eggs, or salmon roe.
Nikiri = house soy sauce that’s sweeter and more smoky.
Omakase = loosely translated to “I will leave it up to you” in Japanese, this means you’re letting the chef choose your order.
Oroshi = any grated substance; usually refers to daikon (Japanese white radish).
Sake = salmon, as well as the rice wine (this is where things can get tricky!).
Sashimi = simply fish, no rice.
Shima aji = trevally or stripe jack, a firm and lean fish.
Shiso = Japanese herb. This edible green leaf usually comes on a sashimi platter — it’s not just garnish! It tastes more herby than minty.
Sushi = a catch-all term for any food that comes with seasoned rice.
Suzuki = striped sea bass.
Tataki = seared.
Tamago = house-made egg omelet served over rice.
Togarashi = Japanese seven spice.
Unagi = broiled eel.
Uni = sea urchin. It has a custard-like texture that tastes like the ocean, with a sweet, slightly nutty flavor.
Yuzu = an Asian citrus fruit that’s very tart. Yuzukosho is another word you may see, which refers to a condiment made from fermented yuzu rind with red or green peppers.