How to Enjoy Sushi: A Beginner’s Guide in the US

The History of Sushi in the US

Sushi, a popular Japanese dish consisting of vinegar-seasoned rice combined with various ingredients, made its way to the United States in the early 20th century. Although first introduced in the late 19th-century, its popularity began to rise in the US during the 1950s. The origins of sushi can be traced back to Southeast Asia, where it was developed as a fermentation technique to preserve fish. Over centuries, it evolved in Japan and became a culinary art form.
In 1900, a sushi chef named Kinezaburo Shigeoka became one of the first to introduce sushi to the US. He opened a sushi restaurant called Saito in a neighborhood in Los Angeles, attracting a predominantly Japanese clientele. However, the real breakthrough came with the arrival of Toichiro Nakatani, a sushi chef from Tokyo. In 1966, he opened Kawafuku Restaurant in Los Angeles, which later transitioned to a sit-down sushi bar in Little Tokyo. Nakatani’s introduction of the California roll – a sushi roll containing avocado, crab, and cucumber – became a game-changer for customers who were hesitant to eat raw fish. This innovative dish delighted Americans’ taste buds and provided them with a more familiar entry point into the world of sushi.
As sushi’s popularity skyrocketed, several sushi chains began to emerge across the US. The California-based company, Kula Revolving Sushi Bar brought sushi to the masses by featuring a conveyor belt system that offered a unique and affordable sushi experience. More creative and innovative sushi concepts and variations started to surface, including fusion sushi dishes, which combined traditional Japanese sushi with American, Latin, or other cultural flavors.
Cultural influences played a significant role in sushi’s integration into American cuisine. Immigrants from Japan contributed to the population growth in cities with established Little Tokyo neighborhoods, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. The increase in demand for sushi in the US inspired sushi chefs in Japan, encouraging them to develop and refine the art of making sushi, which led to a continued evolution of the culinary delicacy.
Today, sushi has become an essential part of the American culinary scene, influencing popular diets, food trends, and even the way people dine. Sushi restaurants can now be found in towns and cities across the country, appealing to a diverse clientele, while traditional and fusion sushi dishes continue to influence culinary creativity and innovation.

Choosing the Right Sushi Restaurant

Embarking on a sushi adventure in the United States requires finding the perfect sushi restaurant that not only offers delicious food but also an enjoyable and culturally immersive experience. This proactive search involves considering several key factors and being vigilant of potential red flags that could compromise the quality of your sushi experience.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Sushi Restaurant

When searching for a reputable sushi restaurant in the US, keep in mind the following factors:

  • Location: Sushi tends to be more authentic and fresher near the coast, where fish can be sourced daily from local fisheries. However, this doesn’t mean that inland sushi restaurants can’t also provide a fantastic sushi experience.
  • Ambiance: The atmosphere of a sushi restaurant can significantly influence your experience. Select a place with a welcoming ambiance that suits your dining style and personality.
  • Customers’ Reviews: Online platforms such as Yelp, Google, and Zomato contain valuable information from previous customers. Look for establishments with high ratings and positive reviews, and pay close attention to comments about the quality, taste, and freshness of the sushi.
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Red Flags to Watch Out for

Beware of certain warning signs that could indicate a less-than-ideal sushi restaurant experience:

  • Poor Sanitation Practices: Look for clean tables, utensils, and surfaces. A sushi chef should maintain a high standard of cleanliness with proper handling of food. If you notice any unsanitary conditions or cross-contamination issues, it’s best to find another restaurant.
  • Limited Selection: A good sushi restaurant should offer a variety of options catering to different tastes and preferences. If you find that the menu is limited, this could indicate that the ingredients may not be fresh or that the chefs lack expertise in preparing a wide range of sushi dishes.
  • Inattentive Staff: The staff’s attentiveness and service quality can greatly affect your overall dining experience. Avoid restaurants with unresponsive or indifferent staff, as this could lead to a disappointing meal.

By carefully considering these factors and heeding red flags, newcomers to the world of sushi in the US can confidently find the right restaurant to embark on their gastronomic journey with delightful, fresh, and delicious sushi that leaves a lasting impression.

Understanding Sushi Menu Terms

Embarking on a journey to explore and relish sushi requires an understanding of the key terms and ingredients featured on a sushi menu. As a beginner, being familiar with these terms will help you navigate and appreciate the vast world of sushi. Let’s uncover the most common sushi terminology used in the United States.

Sushi Terms and Meanings

  • Nigiri – This popular sushi item consists of a slice of raw fish or other seafood placed on top of a small bed of seasoned, vinegared rice. It is often hand-pressed, served with a dab of wasabi, and dipped in soy sauce before consuming.
  • Maki – Maki sushi refers to rolls, where the ingredients are wrapped in seasoned, vinegared rice and nori (dried seaweed). These rolls can be thin (hoso-maki), thick or fat (futo-maki), or hand-rolled (te-maki).
  • Sashimi – A dish featuring fresh, raw, thinly sliced seafood served on its own without rice. Sashimi is often accompanied by earthy garnishes like daikon radish, ginger, or shiso leaves.
  • Temaki – Meaning “hand roll” in Japanese, temaki is a cone-shaped sushi roll made with a piece of nori, filled with rice and various ingredients, then wrapped in a paper-thin sheet of plastic or parchment to hold its shape.

Popular Types of Fish and Other Sushi Ingredients

Fish/Ingredient Description
Salmon Famous for its rich, oily texture and pinkish hue, salmon is a staple in sushi and sashimi. Learn more about salmon.
Tuna Another beloved sushi ingredient, tuna boasts a bright red color and a meaty, tender texture. Yellowfin and bluefin tuna are the most sought-after varieties in sushi. Explore the world of tuna.
Crab Crab is often used in sushi rolls and can be prepared in various ways, including imitation crab (surimi) or freshly chilled crab meat. Delve into the history of crab.
Shrimp Succulent shrimp is a sushi favorite, usually boiled, shelled, and served at the base of a sushi roll or as part of a platter. Find out more about shrimp.
Avocado Creamy and rich in flavor, avocado is an excellent vegetarian alternative to seafood in sushi rolls. The California roll, a popular sushi variety outside of Japan, features avocado as a key ingredient. Uncover the history of avocado.

Familiarizing yourself with these sushi terms and ingredients will significantly enhance your sushi experience. Keep exploring different sushi preparations, flavor combinations, and dining destinations as you become more confident with this culinary art.

Choosing the Perfect Sushi Dish for Beginners

When you’re starting to explore sushi, it can be overwhelming to navigate the extensive variety of dishes available. Here are a few pieces of advice for newcomers to choose the right sushi dish based on your preferences and dietary needs.
Consider Your Personal Preferences:
You may not like raw fish, have a soft spot for seafood, or prefer rice to vegetables. Assessing your personal preferences helps narrow your choices down and allows you to enjoy your sushi experience better.

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Common Beginner-friendly Options

Certain types of sushi are considered to be beginner-friendly because they are milder in taste and incorporate cooked ingredients. Some examples include:

  • California Rolls: These rolls typically consist of cucumber, crab (or imitation crab), and avocado, wrapped in rice and then seaweed. They are a great introduction to sushi because they contain no raw fish.
  • Salmon Nigiri: If you’re willing to try something with raw fish, salmon nigiri is a good starting point as salmon has a mild flavor and a firm texture.
  • Shrimp Tempura Rolls: These rolls feature tempura-battered, deep-fried shrimp rather than raw fish and, to some people, are easier on the taste buds.

Understand Your Dietary Restrictions:
If you have a special diet, such as being vegetarian, vegan, or allergic to certain types of fish, make sure to communicate that to your sushi-chef.

Expand Your Knowledge of Fish

As you become more comfortable with sushi, try experimenting with different types of fish, such as tuna (Maguro), yellowtail (Hamachi), or red snapper (Tai). This can help you refine your taste and understand why certain sushi dishes are more expensive than others.
With these tips, you can select a sushi dish that perfectly matches your palate and get the most out of your dining experience.

Sushi Etiquette: Creating an Enriching Dining Experience

To fully enjoy and appreciate the art of sushi, understanding proper sushi etiquette is essential. Here are some guidelines to ensure your dining experience is as enjoyable as it is respectful:

Proper Chopsticks Usage

  • Hold the chopsticks towards the top, like a pencil, with the tips relatively close together.
  • Avoid crossing chopsticks or placing them upright in your rice, as it’s considered bad luck in some traditions.
  • Refrain from excessive waving, “sword fighting,” or other playful chopstick behaviors.

The Correct Way to Eat Sushi

  1. Start with light flavors first, such as white fish, before moving on to stronger-tasting options, like salmon and tuna.
  2. For nigiri, place the piece of fish on the sushi rice and flip it over. Dip only the fish in the soy sauce, making sure to not let the rice touch it, as it easily falls apart.
  3. For maki rolls, break off a bite-sized piece, then dip it in soy sauce – again, only with the fish exposed.
  4. Do not excessively dip your sushi in soy sauce, as it may overpower the subtle flavors.

Requesting Personalized Ingredients or Allergy-aware Dishes

  • Communicate any dietary restrictions or preferences to your server or the sushi chef (itamae) before ordering your meal.
  • If you have seafood allergies or dislike certain ingredients, inform the staff to avoid any mishaps.
  • Be open to substitutions or alternative preparations to enjoy a tailored experience without compromising flavor or quality.

Other Manners for an Enjoyable Dining Experience

  • Divide your attention between your sushi and the conversation at hand. Sushi is meant to be enjoyed together with companions.
  • Show appreciation for the chef’s creation by not mixing the flavors with excessive condiments or spices, as it can alter the original taste.
  • Taste and comment on the sushi throughout the meal. Engaging with your fellow diners and the sushi chef can lead to additional recommendations or insider tips.

By adhering to these sushi etiquette guidelines, you can express respect and gratitude towards the chefs and the culinary art of sushi while enjoying an exceptional dining experience.

Pairing Sushi with Drinks: A Harmonious Culinary Experience

One of the most satisfying aspects of enjoying sushi is the art of pairing it with the perfect drink. Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages can enhance the flavors of sushi and elevate your dining experience. In this section, we will discuss the best drink pairings to complement your sushi feast.

Alcoholic Beverages

1. Sake

Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice and is undoubtedly the most popular drink to pair with sushi. Sake’s subtle sweetness and delicate aroma complement the flavors of sushi, enhancing the overall taste experience. When choosing a sake to pair with sushi, opt for a Junmai-shu, which is a full-bodied and dry sake, or a Ginjo-shu, which is a more aromatic and refined sake.

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2. Japanese Beer

A crisp and refreshing Japanese beer is another excellent choice to accompany sushi. Lagers, such as Asahi or Sapporo, are the most popular options due to their clean taste and easy drinkability. The combination of sushi’s vibrant flavors and a cold beer creates a harmonious contrast, making this pairing truly enjoyable. Pair lighter sushi dishes, like cucumber rolls or albacore tuna nigiri, with a lighter-bodied beer, and stronger flavors, like spicy tuna rolls or fatty tuna nigiri, with a more robust and hoppy beer.

Non-Alcoholic Beverages

1. Green Tea

Green tea is a staple in Japanese culture and is often served with sushi as a natural digestive aid. It complements sushi’s flavors and helps balance richness and umami notes. Choose a high-quality green tea, like Sencha or Matcha, to accompany your meal, as it will not only enhance the taste of the sushi but also contribute to an authentic Japanese dining experience.

2. Japanese Plum Wine (Umeshu)

Umeshu is a sweet and fruity Japanese liqueur made from ume plums, a traditional Japanese fruit. Its sweet and tangy taste pairs well with sushi, making it an enjoyable non-alcoholic alternative. Umeshu can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, or mixed with soda water for a refreshing twist.

Exploring the World of Sushi Beyond the Basics

Once you’ve mastered the art of ordering and eating sushi, it’s time to dive a little deeper into the vast world of sushi experiences. The US is home to a plethora of unique sushi-related events, restaurants, and workshops, perfect for those looking to expand their horizons. Let’s explore a few of these options and help you make the most out of your sushi journey.

Sushi-Making Workshops

One of the best ways to truly appreciate sushi is by learning how to make it yourself! There are many sushi-making workshops available across the US, where amateurs can learn the basics of sushi preparation. These classes often cover food preparation, knife skills, and the correct way to make various sushi dishes such as nigiri, maki rolls, and more. You can also find specialized online sushi-making tutorials and videos, such as the ones offered by experienced sushi chefs like Niven or this detailed guide on

Omakase Dining

Omakase, meaning “I’ll leave it to you,” is a style of dining where the chef chooses the dishes served to the customer. This concept often results in a memorable dining experience, as it allows diners to try a variety of different dishes based on the chef’s recommendations while enjoying the freshest ingredients of the day. Some excellent omakase restaurants in the US include the award-winning Nage Restaurant in Washington, D.C., and Tempokitchen in Los Angeles.

Fusion Sushi Spots

Fusion sushi refers to dishes that incorporate both traditional sushi techniques and flavors paired with various other ingredients, resulting in creative, unique, and often unexpected flavor combinations. If you’re craving something more adventurous than your typical sushi roll, visit a fusion sushi spot for a memorable experience. Some well-known fusion sushi restaurants in the US include Izakaya 121 in Denver and Sushi Yuan J in Chicago.

Sushi Events and Festivals

For sushi enthusiasts, attending events and festivals related to the cuisine is an excellent opportunity to widen their knowledge and experience sushi from different cultures and viewpoints. Some noteworthy sushi events include the Chicago Sushi Fest, which takes place annually, and The Texas Poke Fest in Plano, Texas. Attending these and similar events allows serious sushi lovers to explore the dish’s multi-faceted roots, talk to experts in the field, and learn interesting tips and tricks.


With so many ways to experience sushi in the US, there’s never been a better time to broaden your horizons and explore the depths of this delicious and intricate Japanese culinary tradition. So go ahead, book that sushi-making workshop, reserve a seat at an omakase restaurant, or purchase tickets for the next sushi event in your area – your taste buds will thank you!