What’s The Difference Between Sushi And Sashimi?

What’s the difference between sushi and sashimi? They are both slices of raw fish, right? Well, although raw fish is involved most of the time, the answer is a little bit more complicated than that. Do you want to know it and learn a bit about the history, manners, and way of preparing sushi and sashimi? Then read on!

Sushi

While in most people’s minds sushi equals raw fish, the Japanese word actually refers to the rice ball rather than its topping. By definition, sushi is “vinegared cooked rice.” The thought of sprinkling vinegar on rice doesn’t seem like a good idea? It may feel like that, but vinegar actually does wonders in cooking: it has antimicrobic properties, enhances flavors, removes fishy smell, softens ingredients, and also chemically increases appetite (even if you might haven’t liked the thought of putting vinegar on rice at first!). Oh, and it helps your digestion too.

No wonder vinegar would be the perfect companion to raw fish; if you think about it, all the above properties make raw fish safer and more appetizing, especially in an era before refrigeration. In fact, sushi has a history spanning centuries, although, in the beginning, it looked very different from the kind of sushi we are used to today.

What experts define as the first instance of sushi is a thing called nare-zushi, which is thought to date back to the Kofun era, a period of Japanese history dating from the 3rd to the 7th century AD. Fish was preserved by pickling it in rice and salt; the lactic acid resulting from the fermentation process would prevent the fish from spoiling but reduce the rice to mush, which would be discarded before consuming the fish.

Japanese funazushi, a fermented dish based on fish; similar to what the first form of sushi must have looked.
Funazushi, a surviving form of narezushi. Photo by WikiTaro, distributed under a public domain license.

 

With time and experience, people would start to avoid having rice turn completely inedible and instead try to find an optimal point at which fish and rice could be eaten together while still taking advantage of the preserving properties of fermentation. This kind of experimentation gave birth to some traditional sushi forms, not well known outside Japan, like kabura-zushi, hatahata-zushi, and bō-zushi.

The form of sushi that most people outside Japan are familiar with is called nigiri-zushi: when preparing this kind of sushi, instead of waiting for acidity to go up via fermentation, rice is sprinkled with vinegar, formed in small, roughly oval balls, and raw fish (or other toppings!) are put on top of it. This way of doing sushi is said to have been invented around the 1800s in Tokyo by the intuition of a man called Hanaya Yohei. Back in the day, the city was called Edo, reason why nigiri-zushi is also known as edomae-zushi in Japanese.

Japanese woodblock print ukiyo-e of a bowl of sushi, by Hiroshige.
Japanese woodblock print ukiyo-e by Hiroshige. Nigiri-zushi, which appears together with rolled sushi in this print, was born during the artist’s life.

Although more traditional kinds of sushi are still eaten in Japan, together with maki-zushi (sushi rolled in nori seaweed), nigiri-zushi is today the most common form of sushi. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when eating nigiri-zushi:

  1. Make sure that only the freshest fish and meat are being used
  2. Don’t dip the rice into soy sauce, or the piece of sushi will fall apart; dip the topping side instead
  3. To better savour the sushi, make sure the topping comes in contact with your tongue first

Sashimi

Contrary to a common belief, sashimi doesn’t refer exclusively to raw fish but rather to an ingredient cut in slices and eaten raw, either dipped in soy sauce or eaten together with wasabi, which can also be dissolved in the soy sauce. Aside from seafood, ingredients that are usually consumed in sashimi form in Japan are raw red meat (for example, basashi, horse meat sashimi) or even vegetables and derived products (for example, yuba – Japanese style “tofu skin”).

The roots of sashimi are most probably even more ancient than sushi, and if it is true that raw fish is not the only ingredient used for sashimi, it can’t be denied that seafoods have been the most common and appreciated ingredients right from the beginning of Japanese history, thanks to the unique position of the island, surrounded by waters full of fish.

Sashimi most probably originates from namasu, which originally consisted of fish, meat, or vegetables thinly sliced and eaten raw with seasonings such as grated ginger, vinegar, and Japanese herbs. Namasu still exists today; however, the word has acquired a slightly different meaning, as it now refers to vinegared dishes, mostly vegetable-based.

Kohaku namasu, a Japanese dish made with vinegared daikon and carrots.
Kōhaku namasu or “red and white” namasu: vinegared daikon and carrot. Today’s namasu are mostly made with vegetables. Photo by Ocdp, distributed under public domain license.

Unlike sushi, where the raw ingredients are placed on top of vinegared rice, sashimi is eaten alone; although it can be part of a meal that includes rice (not vinegared). Of great importance when serving sashimi are the garnishes, known in Japanese as ashirai. There are three kinds of ashirai called tsuma, ken, and karami. They all serve the dual purpose of making the sashimi plate more visually appealing while at the same time removing fishy smells and keeping the fish safe to consume; karami especially are effective at contrasting the development of bacteria (although, of course, sashimi is still to be eaten while very fresh!)

A plate of sashimi.
A plate of sashimi; on the bottom right of the plate, some wasabi paste, a typical karami. Things like the green leave of perilla are know in Japanese as ashirai.

Another thing of vital importance when it comes to sashimi is the cutting technique. On this, it can be said that sashimi is the perfect food to represent Japanese cuisine, where cutting is considered the most essential skill for the cook to master. Such is the importance of cutting techniques in Japanese cuisine that the word for traditional Japanese restaurants, kappō, is written with two characters meaning “to cut” and “to cook” – in that order. No wonder that the head of a kitchen brigade in kappō restaurants is called itamae “(the person) in front of the chopping board.”

Oriental philosophy, particularly the Yin and Yang theory, is also connected to sashimi culture. In fact, it is said that there is both Yang and Yin sashimi, according to how the slices are cut. Japanese knives traditionally have only one sharp edge; when the upper side of a slice has come in contact with the knife’s sharp edge, that slice is said to be Yang sashimi; in contrast, a slice whose upper side came in contact with the dull part of the blade is said to be Yin sashimi. The correct way to serve a sashimi plate would be to arrange it so that both Yang and Yin sashimi slices are on the plate; however, this recommendation is more “philosophical” than practical – you can rest assured that fresh sashimi is delicious even if this traditional pattern isn’t followed to the letter!

The right tools for the job

While sushi and sashimi are two pretty different things, in both cases, making sure that the freshest fish (or meat or vegetables!) is cut in an appropriate size with the right thickness is critical to ensure every mouthful has an enjoyable consistency and balance of taste. To do so, it’s essential to have the right tools for the job. Oishya knives are made in Japan by Japanese craftsmen; their high quality and sharpness make them precisely what you need to prepare the perfect sushi and sashimi!

Subscribe to get cooking tips and fascinating stories around Japan.
Get 5% off your first order:

You may want to read...

japanese cutting blade knife

How The Japanese Knives Are Made

For centuries, Japanese artisans have passionately honed their skills, breathing life into blades that epitomize a harmonious blend of sharpness,