Want to know what Nigiri Sushi is?
Where it came from?
How to make it? 
How to eat it properly?

If you Answered "Yes" to any of the above questions, then you've come to the Right Place!

Nigiri sushi on a sushi plate

Nigiri Sushi, I guess you could say, is the Sushi leader that brought to us the Sushi that we know of today. 

It's Origins

Sushi actually had its roots in Southeast Asia around the 4th century B.C. At that time cleaned, gutted and salted fish was kept in cooked rice because the natural fermentation process of the rice helped to preserve the fish.

The fermented rice was later discarded and only the fish was eaten.

Fast forward to Edo, Japan (and later Tokyo) 1824.

A man named Hanaya Yohei installed a sushi stall in Ryogoku district of Edo near a bridge that crossed the Sumida river. The traffic was excellent and he was also able to take advantage of the availability of the fresh fish from the bay.

Yohei decided to use a newly discovered quicker fermentation process which added rice vinegar and salt to freshly cooked rice, allowing it to sit for only a few minutes before using it. 

He would then take a small palm sized piece of rice, form it into an oblong shape and then top it with a thin slice of raw fish from the nearby bay, selling it to passing pedestrians.

This was the major turn in Sushi history that brought using raw fish instead of fermented fish to the forefront of Sushi preparation methods.

It was not long after this that Nigiri sushi became the rage in Edo spreading quickly to the rest of the country...and then, well, to the rest of the world.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

So what is the Formal Definition of the Nigiri Sushi of Today?

Nigirizushi or Nigiri Sushi basically means "hand-pressed sushi".

Sushi rice is formed into an oblong shape using the palm of one hand and the forefinger and thumb of the other, then it is topped with a swipe of wasabi and covered with Neta (a topping that is normally some type of seafood, but can also be a Japanese Omelette, chicken, horse or something else).

Some toppings are bound with a thin strip of nori around the middle, normally eel, squid, octopus and tamago (sweet egg). The rhyme or reason for that and the reason for those toppings I am not quite sure of.

Since presentation is very important in Japanese sushi cuisine, slicing of the raw fish for Nigiri sushi is very exact and precise. Usually a very sharp sashimi knife (yanagi ba) is used for this so the meat is not torn.

When using a "block" of sashimi grade fish, usually the cut is made at a 45 degree angle across the narrow width of the block, starting with the back edge (edge closest to your body) and drawing the knife forward to the tip accomplishing the cut in one swift motion.

Sawing back and forth is not done as this will tear the meat. The cut may additionally be made in the same manner as just stated, except that the knife is tilted to the right (instead of being at 90 degrees) and the cut made, ending up with a piece that is wider than the previously mentioned cut.

Some common Nigiri sushi toppings include:

  • Abalone
  • Flounder
  • Japanese Omeletee
  • Octopus
  • Salmon (wild)
  • Sea Bass
  • Sweet Shrimp
  • Yellowtail
  • Albacore
  • Geoduck
  • King Crab Leg
  • Red Snapper
  • Sardine
  • Skipjack
  • Tuna
  • Young Yellowtail
  • Conger Eel
  • Giant Scallop
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Seabass
  • Squid
  • Whitefish
  • Fake Crab
  • Gizzardshad
  • Monk Liver
  • Salmon Roe
  • Sea Urchin
  • Surf Clam
  • Whiting

Gunkanmaki ("warship" or "battleship" roll)

Gunkanmaki ("warship" or "battleship" roll)

Although Gunkanmaki is referred to as a warship or battleship "roll", it is actually a special type of nigirizushi.

It was invented in 1941 by Kyubey restaurant in Ginza, a district of Chuo, Tokyo.

A hand formed oval of rice as used in regular nigiri sushi is enclosed or "wrapped" with nori around its perimeter so that the nori extends above the rice forming a depression that can be filled with various soft toppings. Toppings that would otherwise just fall off of a standard nigiri sushi.

Some common toppings include quail eggs, natto (fermented soybeans), oysters, sea urchin and ikura (salmon roe). Many other different kinds of toppings are now used, as are the types of "wrappers" that are being used, seemingly bounded only by the imagination.

How to make Nigiri Sushi

Tuna and Salmon Nigiri Sushi

Have you ever heard the term, "Half of the fun is in getting there?". Well, it can certainly be said of making Nigiri Sushi. Namely, shaping the bite sized pieces of oval shaped rice that the topping sits on and slicing the sushi grade fish.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's make some sense out of this and take it step by step.

Make the Sushi Rice

First, you will have to make sushi rice. And it just so happens that I might know where you can get your hands on the best sushi rice recipe on the planet :-)

Follow this recipe and you can't go wrong.

Get the best Sushi Grade Fish or Seafood

Next, you will have to gather your desired toppings. If that includes any kind of raw seafood then I suggest that you buy it from a reputable and trusted source.

I'm not near the ocean and I'm a little hesitant to buy sashimi grade fish from any local grocery store (yes, I have been bit) because you never really know how fresh the fish is and if it has been properly treated (if you want to learn more than you'll ever want to know about this subject visit our sushi grade fish page). 

For these reasons, I get all of my sushi grade fish online from Catalina OP.

They have the freshest fish available online that I have found anywhere, it will have been properly handled and it will also arrive frozen hard as a rock the very next day.

I don't like to have to worry about the freshness and safety of my seafood and with Catalina OP, I don't.

Once you have your sushi grade fish you will need to slice it for nigiri. 

Slicing tuna using a straight cut at a 45 degree angle
Slicing tuna using a straight cut at a 45 degree angle
Finished tuna sliced for Nigiri sushi

In the pictures above, I am slicing tuna (from catalina op) using a straight cut at a 45 degree angle. Slice it around 1/8 inch thick. If you order your sushi grade fish, normally you will receive tuna in a block like in the pictures above. Actually that is about a half block. 

If you order Salmon, it will have to be prepared and sliced a little differently. Visit our slicing salmon for nigiri page to see how you will receive salmon from Catalina OP and then how to slice it for nigiri sushi.

How to Hand-Shape your Nigiri Sushi

If you are making a lot of Nigiri Sushi, it probably would be best to slice any sushi grade fish, put them on a plate, cover them with saran wrap and place them in the refrigerator until you are ready to put them on top of your rice.

When you are ready to assemble your nigiri you basically have 2 choices.

  • You can make all of your oval shaped rice pads all at one time, covering them with a lightly damp vinegared towel or paper towel to keep them moist if necessary. When you have all of them shaped and ready, then go back and swipe the top with wasabi before topping them with your sushi grade fish slices
  • Or you can put your fish slices to your left and your sushi rice on your right, with your vingared water and a tea towel within easy reach to continually wet your fingers during the process. 

I prefer the second option. Making each nigiri one at a time. And that is the way I am doing it in the examples below. 

1. Have you sushi rice prepared and to your right. On your left, have your toppings on a plate and ready. I also have the bowl of vinegared water to my right with a tea towel next to it and some wasabi laid out where I can pick it up with my finger tips when I need it.  

Dipping fingers in vinegared water

2. Dip your hands in vinegared water (1/4 cup rice vinegar + 1 cup water) and tap your fingers on a folded damp rung-out towel to remove any excess water from your hands.

Picking up golf ball sized sushi rice in right hand
Picking up tuna in left hand and forming an oval with the sushi rice in the right hand

3. Pick up and gently squeeze about a ping pong ball size (approximately 2 tablespoons) of sushi rice into a slender oval shaped log around 2 inches long by 1 inch wide in your right hand. Use the palm and fingers of one hand to do this, closing it partially to shape it and using just enough pressure for the rice to stick together and hold its shape.

See pictures above.

Swiping wasabi across tuna in left hand

4. With your left hand, pick up a piece of fish and place it about midway down and across the fingers of your left hand (if right handed). While holding your oval rice ball (cupped in your right hand) take your index finger and get some wasabi on it and swipe it onto the fish. 

Laying oval of rice on the tuna in the left hand

5. Now place the oval rice log on top of the fish slice still laying on the fingers of your left hand.

Take thumb and middle finger of right hand on either side of oval rice log and form a more rounded rectangle shape; at the same time press the thumb of left hand into rice log to form a depression
Another look at oval rice and tuna in left hand; notice the "hump" in the rice

6. With the thumb and middle finger of the right hand on either side of the oval rice log (in your left hand), form a more rounded rectangle shape.

7. Now, press the thumb of your left hand slightly into the center of the reshaped rice rectangle to try to give a slight "hump" to the rice.

Flip the nigiri over so that the tuna is on top and press down the tuna on both sides of the rice and also use thumb of left hand to push down the front and back end of nigiri sushi
Finished salmon nigiri sushi

8. Flip the piece over so that the fish is on top in your left hand. Again take your thumb and middle finger of your right hand and form up your rice and fish together more. 

Press down the sides of the fish to get it to hug the rice and also take the thumb of your left hand and rub down the ends of the fish to get more "hump" and to get the ends to hug the rice too. 

See the salmon above on the right to see what you are shooting for. 

9. Place the finished nigiri sushi on a plate and move on to the next piece. 

Salmon and Tuna Nigiri sushi on white sushi plate

10. When you are finished you should have a plate of beautiful sushi to serve or enjoy. Your family, friends or guests will be impressed...you sushi chef you! 

You did good.

How to Eat Nigiri Sushi

Normally, Nigiri is picked up and eaten using the fingers, but actually you can eat it with chopsticks also if so desired. It is just more difficult to hold it with chopsticks and eat it "properly" (as discussed next) than it is to just use your fingers.

The proper method for dipping it into your soy sauce is to turn the Nigiri over so that the meat is on the underside and "dip" the corner of the meat only in the soy sauce so that the rice does not touch it.

Then put the whole Nigiri in your mouth at one time, letting the meat hit your tongue so that you can taste the delicate flavors of the meat first, before the sushi rice. Try not to bite it off. And never put a half bitten piece back on the plate (it is an insult to the sushi chef); if you have to, just hold it and eat the remaining piece after swallowing the first half.

In Japan, eating Nigiri in one bite is very possible because the piece of rice is smaller than it usually is in the United States. Everything seems to get supersized here in the U.S.

Just do the best you can :-)

Afterward, follow up with a piece of ginger (to cleanse your pallet) and then take a sip of whatever beverage you are drinking.

For a more detailed explanation of the proper way to eat sushi, visit Eating your Sushi or How to eat Sushi.

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David Guthrie, EzineArticles Basic Author