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Nigiri vs Sashimi vs Maki: What's the Difference?

BY: Shannon Grilli |

For the uninitiated, the world of sushi can seem rather intimidating. Sushi restaurant menus present a staggering number of different rolls and ordering options, and those options all seem to involve ingredients that most Americans won't come across elsewhere. Ingredients like nori. Hamachi. Uni. Fugu.

But before you can even begin to unpack the ingredients in your sushi, you first need to determine what type of sushi you want to order. How do you know whether to choose nigiri vs sashimi? Or nigiri vs maki? To help you order with confidence, we created this brief guide unpacking the differences between each preparation.

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  Maki Nigiri Sashimi
What it is: A traditional sushi roll consisting of fish, veggies, and rice, rolled up in seaweed Thin slices of raw fish served atop rice Sliced raw fish (or other meat) served without rice
Cooked or raw? Either one Raw Raw
Does it count as sushi? Yes Yes No

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What is maki?

Maki is probably what you think of when you think of sushi. It's fish, vegetables, and sushi rice layered atop one another, then rolled up in a sheet of seaweed. So chances are, if you're eating a traditional sushi roll, you're eating maki. However, there are some variations on the style. Temaki, for example, is prepared in a similar fashion, but uses less seaweed and is formed by hand, giving it a cone-shaped appearance. Hosomaki, on the other hand, looks just like a regular maki roll, but has only one single ingredient (plus rice).

What is nigiri?

Nigiri sushi isn't rolled like maki. Instead, a thin slice of raw or cooked fish is layered atop a mound of vinegary rice. Typically, a small amount of wasabi is placed between the fish and the rice, though in some case, a small strip of toasted seaweed, or nori, may be used instead. In Japanese, nigiri translates to "two fingers," which refers to the size of the rice portion.

What is sashimi?

You'll see a sashimi section on most sushi menus, but surprise! This actually isn't sushi at all. Technically speaking, sushi is not sushi unless it has rice, and sashimi refers to a simple preparation of sliced fish, served without rice or other ingredients. But just because sashimi's presentation is simple, doesn't mean its preparation is. Sushi chefs take great care selecting the best fish for sashimi, and they can even bring out different flavors in the fish depending on how they slice it or which garnishes they pair it with. This attention to quality and detail is why the best fish is often referred to as "sashimi grade"—it indicates that the fish you're about to eat is of such high quality that it can be eaten raw and enjoyed on its own.

Keep brushing up on sushi in its many forms with our beginner's guide: