When it comes to Japanese cuisine, sushi takes the spotlight. Everybody’s heard of the iconic maki sushi and hand roll, and most people have tried them. But they’re not the only stars of Japanese food! Enter: nigiri and sashimi.
Both of these raw fish dishes are delicious, authentic representations of Japanese fare. Let’s take a look at what these foods are comprised of, how to prepare them, and what to serve alongside them — so you can decide which to try for dinner tonight!
What is nigiri?
The word nigiri means “two fingers” in Japanese and is a great visual aid to what this dish is: a bite-sized package of thinly-sliced raw fish, lightly smeared with wasabi, and served atop a bed of tangy and salty vinegared sticky rice.
Is nigiri sushi?
Nigiri is a type of sushi because it contains both thin slices of raw fish and sticky, vinegared rice. Due to its simplicity and origins, it’s considered the purest and most traditional form of sushi.
Origins of nigiri
It was created in Tokyo in 1824 by a man named Hanaya Yohei, who opened the first sushi stall on the banks of the Sumida River. Thanks to the freshness of the fish, there was no need to ferment it. Thus, modern-day “fast food” sushi was born.
How to eat nigiri
As the name implies, a serving of nigiri can be picked up with two fingers (thumb and middle finger) or using chopsticks. It is meant to be eaten whole, in one bite (be sure to chew it!)
Nigiri sushi is usually served in pairs and is garnished with extra wasabi to smear on for added heat and a small dish of soy sauce for dipping. Pickled ginger can be used to cleanse the palate between bites.
Nigiri is meant to be eaten upside down! Japanese etiquette dictates that only the fish should be dipped into soy sauce, not the rice (which will absorb too much sauce, overwhelming the taste of the fish.) Don’t insult your sushi chef: flip before you dip!
How do you make nigiri?
Nigiri is often made with bluefin tuna, yellowtail (hamachi), salmon, or eel (unagi) due to their firmness and high fat content. Their melt-in-your-mouth texture combines perfectly with the sweet and salty rice ball.
Nigiri can also be made with shrimp (ebi) or octopus (tako). Vegetables, avocado, or an egg (tamago) can be used in place of fish for vegetarian eaters.
Traditionally, the fish is thinly sliced and served raw, although it could be cooked (if you’re not a purist).
The thin slices of fish are then smeared with a bit of wasabi and then carefully wrapped around a mound of authentic short-grain Japanese sushi rice, which is seasoned with sushi vinegar for that umami flavor.
Finally, the rolls can be wrapped in nori seaweed, similar to maki rolls, though nigiri is typically served unwrapped.
One great nigiri recipe
Ready to try making these simple yet delicious hand-pressed sushi rolls at home? This recipe for homemade nigiri from Food Network has all the tips and tricks you’ll need to get started and great step-by-step instructions!
What is sashimi?
In Japanese, “sashimi” means “pierced meat,” which could be a nod to the freshness of this “just hooked” fish. The Japanese delicacy is essentially thinly sliced raw food. Usually, it is seafood but meat and other types of food could be considered sashimi.
Common types of sashimi are tuna (maguro), salmon (sake), and sea urchin (uni). Sashimi can also be made using tofu or different types of meat such as beef, deer, and even horse.
What really sets sashimi apart from nigiri is that there’s no rice and no rolling involved. Sashimi is typically served with shredded daikon radish in lieu of rice and is often accompanied by soy sauce, wasabi, pickled ginger, and decorative cucumber.
Is sashimi sushi?
While you’ll often find sashimi on sushi menus, this Japanese dish is not technically a form of sushi due to the absence of rice.
Origins of sashimi
Some say the practice of eating raw fish was introduced to Japan from China as early as the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), although other accounts say the Japanese didn’t start serving raw fish as a dish until the Edo period (1603-1868).
Most agree that sashimi became popular in Japan during the Edo period between 1600 and 1867. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the now-staple Asian food began to rise in popularity in the United States.
How to eat sashimi
Smear a piece of fish with wasabi, if you like the heat, and use chopsticks to dip the meat into the soy sauce. Just like with nigiri, the pickled ginger or cucumber can be used between bites to cleanse your palate.
The proper way to eat sashimi is with chopsticks, not with your fingers like nigiri. If the fish is served with shiso leaves, you can use your hands to wrap a leaf around the fish before dipping and eating.
How do you make sashimi?
The most important consideration when making seafood sashimi is to use sashimi-grade, high-quality fish. Anything less can be dangerous to your health. You can ensure your fish is fresh by checking that it’s firm and bright in color.
If fresh seafood is not available where you live, you can also use frozen. For ease, it’s best to buy fish that has already been deboned, scaled, and trimmed. Then all you have to do is slice (though that can be easier said than done)!
Before you slice your sashimi, make sure your knife is very sharp. There are several slicing techniques employed by sushi chefs. Here is a great guide by Recipe Tin Japan on how to slice sashimi at home (with pictures!).
Whatever style of slicing you choose, remember to cut perpendicular to the direction of the spine, or across the grain. This ensures that the meat will not be stringy.
Once the meat is sliced, transfer it to a plate with the garnish ingredients, and you’re ready to go!
One great sashimi recipe
Ready to slice up some tasty raw protein? Spruce Eats has got you covered with this mouth-watering recipe for Tuna Sashimi with Daikon and Ginger!
What is the difference between nigiri and sashimi?
While nigiri and sashimi share some similarities — namely their raw fish component and the garnishes they’re served with — there are some notable differences that distinguish them.
Nigiri, a type of sushi, uses thinly-sliced raw fish that is hand-pressed onto a ball of sushi rice. It can be eaten with your hands. Sashimi, which is not sushi, is any thinly-sliced raw food (though it’s generally seafood.) There is no rice in sashimi.
So sashimi vs nigiri, which is better? They are both winners in our book: simple, authentic, and fresh raw seafood options served with classic accompaniments.
If you are looking for more Japanese recipes check out these 25 Restaurant Quality Sushi Recipes.
And if you're looking for even more fish recipes, this collection of orange roughy recipes is for you!