4 different types of sushi on a plate with labels pointing to all of them

Sushi is one of our favorite foods to eat, especially in the summer. But how much do we actually know about this classic Japanese food? We sat down with Chef Naoki Nakashima, the sushi mastermind behind Naoki Sushi, to get the scoop on everything we’ve ever wanted to learn about sushi – from the many different styles of it, to how you’re supposed to eat it, and even what the word itself means. Get ready to get (sushi) schooled and have all your sushi questions answered by the master himself.

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Chef Naoki reaching over the counter to slice a piece of fish on a plate

What does the word “sushi” actually mean?
The word “sushi” doesn’t describe the fish but the rice and how it is cooked and seasoned.

What is the difference between sashimi and nigiri?
Sashimi is just a slice of fish. Nigiri is a small portion of seasoned sushi rice with something on top, not necessarily raw fish. It could be cooked fish or a vegetable, too.

2 photos side-by side of different preparations of sushi

What is maki?
Maki is a roll, and there are three different types. One has seaweed on the outside, which is more traditional. One has rice on the outside. There is also a hand roll, called Temaki.

2 shots of sushi next to each other a plate

What kind of rice is used in sushi rice?
Usually short-grain rice. It is seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt. We also use some other secret ingredients here at Naoki Sushi.

Any tips for cooking sushi rice?
You have to be very careful with the details – what type of rice you are cooking, the amount you are cooking, the temperature, even the pH. It can be very technical.

 Chef Naoki making rice in large bamboo pot

Do you have any tips on how to make maki rolls at home?
You have to have a good balance – you can’t overstuff the roll with too much rice or other ingredients. Tightness is important – it it’s too loose, it falls apart, but if it’s too tight, that also isn’t good. It’s hard to explain, but if you want to find out how to make a good maki roll, come sit at the sushi bar and maybe I can teach you.

Step-by-step of hands rolling sushi

Sushi being rolled with a bamboo sheet

What is the best type of fish to get in Chicago?
We are in the middle of the country, so you can get anything. We get great fish from the East Coast, the West coast – all over the world. A direct flight from Tokyo is only about 12 hours; some of that fish was swimming in the ocean 24 hours before it comes to us. We are very lucky to be in this location.

Where do you source your fish from?
It depends on the fish. I get some from Japan, some from South Korea – all over. It depends on whoever has the best product.

How can you tell if the fish is fresh enough for sushi?
There are a lots of ways – you can check if it looks nice, if there is no smell, and not too soft. I always check the gills – if it has a nice color that means it’s fresh; if the gills are brown, it’s old. 

Are you supposed to eat sushi with your hands or with chopsticks?
100 years ago, sushi was a street food, a grab-and-go item, so you ate it with your hands. Now, you eat sushi in a restaurant and it is more elegant to use chopsticks. For example, you have to eat sashimi with chopsticks – it’s not necessary to use your fingers. 

Why is ginger always served with sushi?
It cleans the palate before you eat the next kind of fish. It’s also tasty!

Are you supposed to dip sushi in soy sauce?
If you want to, but always dip your sushi fish-side-first into the sauce. If you dip the rice side in, it will fall apart. 

Tuna Nigir being dipped in soy sauce

Do you have a question about sushi that you’d like Chef Naoki to answer? Follow @NaokiSushiChi on Instagram and comment on their #NaokiSushiSchool posts! Stay tuned for details on an upcoming sushi class with Chef Naoki, too.

Click here to learn more about Naoki’s Fried Chicken!