What Is Nigiri? The Ultimate Guide On The Slab-Of-Fish Sushi
Nigiri (nigirizushi, 握り寿司) is made with a slice of raw fish or seafood on top of a ball of rice. It’s one of the most popular types of sushi in Japan, and for good reason – it’s delicious and so very fresh.
I’ll give you an in-depth look at nigiri and discuss what it is, how it’s made, and some variations you can try.
In this post we'll cover:
What is nigiri?
Nigiri is a type of sushi, but instead of the rice and fish being rolled into a makizushi, the rice is shaped into a small block of rice and the fish, smeared with a little wasabi and soy sauce, is presented on top.
What does nigiri mean?
Nigiri means “two fingers” (ni means two and giri fingers) and refers to the portion of rice needed to make the perfect bite, two fingers of sushi rice, called shari when formed into the nigiri balls.
Nigiri also comes from the word “nigiru”, or to seize or grip. Referring to the way the sushi rice is gripped and formed into the balls.
The history of nigiri
Nigiri sushi is thought to have originated in Edo, now known as Tokyo, in the early 1800s. At this time, sushi was a street food eaten with one’s hands. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that sushi started to be eaten with chopsticks.
It was originally called Edomae zushi, which referred to where people found it for the first time, Edo being the old name for Tokyo and mae means “in front of”. So people saw the street food in front of Tokyo and started calling it that.
Hanaya Yohei is credited with creating nigiri sushi. He is said to have been the first itamae, or sushi chef, to serve sushi this way. He opened his shop in 1824 and began serving nigiri with various fish that he caught himself in the Sumida River.
Yohei’s nigiri was an instant hit and people began flocking to his shop to try this new way of eating sushi. He is said to be the first sushi chef to use a neta, or topping, that was not seafood, adding tamago (egg) nigiri to his menu.
From there, nigiri has evolved into the many different types of sushi we know and love today.
How is nigiri made?
Making nigiri is a bit of an art form and takes some practice to get the perfect ball of rice with the right amount of fish.
It’s actually one of the simplest sushi forms to make at home. All you need is sushi rice and your favorite fish or seafood.
Once you have the sushi rice, form it into balls using slightly damp hands. You want the balls to be about the size of two fingers :)
Then, using a sharp knife, slice your fish or seafood into thin strips.
Smear some wasabi on each strip and then place it on top of the ball of rice, using a little soy sauce to help it stick if needed.
And that’s it! You’ve made nigiri sushi.
What kind of fish is best for nigiri?
Now, let’s take a look at some of the most popular types of nigiri.
Tuna (maguro) nigiri: Tuna is the most popular type of nigiri and for good reason – it’s delicious. The fatty tuna, called toro, is especially prized.
Salmon (sake) nigiri: Salmon is another very popular fish for nigiri. It’s typically served with just a little bit of wasabi to bring out its flavor.
Yellowtail (hamachi) nigiri: Yellowtail is a type of fish that is often used in sushi. It has a milder flavor than some of the other fish, making it a good choice for those who are new to sushi.
Eel (unagi) nigiri: Eel is a common type of nigiri. It is served with a sweet sauce called unagi no tare.
Shrimp (ebi) nigiri: Shrimp nigiri is another popular choice. The shrimp is usually cooked, though you can find raw shrimp nigiri as well.
Crab (kani) nigiri: Crab nigiri is made with either real crab or imitation crab. It is usually served with a little bit of mayonnaise.
Octopus (tako) nigiri: Octopus nigiri is made with boiled octopus. The octopus is then seasoned with a little bit of soy sauce and vinegar before being placed on top of the rice.
Nigiri vs maki
Maki is sushi that is rolled up in seaweed (nori) and then sliced into pieces. It usually has rice, fish, and vegetables inside whereas nigiri is simply a ball of rice with fish or seafood on top.
Also read: can you make sushi without seaweed?
Nigiri vs sashimi
Sashimi is raw fish or seafood that is sliced into thin pieces and served without rice. It is often confused with nigiri but the two are actually quite different as nigiri does have the rice where fish is placed upon. This makes for a different flavor profile.
Sashimi is also dipped into soy sauce at the table, but nigiri is almost never dipped in soy sauce because the chef has flavored it already.
Now that you know all about nigiri, let’s go over some etiquette tips.
Nigiri should be eaten with your fingers, not chopsticks. If you do want to dip it into soy sauce, pick up the nigiri sushi and turn it so that the fish side is facing down into the soy sauce. Gently press it against the sauce to flavor it and then eat .
Do not rub the wasabi directly onto the fish as this will make it too spicy. It is there to enhance the flavor of the fish, not to overpower it. But again, the sushi chef will probably have seasoned the fish already with wasabi, so adding some extra is not really considered good form.
Eat nigiri sushi as soon as it is made. The rice will start to get mushy and the flavors will not be as fresh.
Is nigiri healthy?
Yes, nigiri is a healthy option as long as it is made with fresh ingredients. The fish is a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids and the rice is a complex carbohydrate that will give you sustained energy. Just be mindful of the amount of soy sauce you use as it can add a lot of sodium to your meal.
Nigiri sushi is a delicious and healthy option for a quick meal. It is made with fresh ingredients and can be customized to your liking. Follow the etiquette tips and enjoy!
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.