Sushi vs. Sashimi | the differences in health, cost, dining & culture

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 9, 2020

The confusion between the 2 world-famous Japanese delicacies – sushi and sashimi – has been going on since Western foreign tourists discovered it around the Meiji Restoration back in 1867.

In fact, there are a great number of people that are uncertain about the clear difference between sushi and sashimi.

Unfortunately, they use these 2 names interchangeably often to describe the same dish or completely switch them (by mistake) based on their appearance or sometimes it’s just a case of misidentification.

Sushi vs sashimi

At first glance, they may both seem very similar, especially since they are both traditional Japanese fish-based cuisines, but if you look closely you will find that they are unique to each other and have quite a number of differences.

Today sushi and sashimi still confuses people and not just those in the West, but even South East Asians who are not yet familiar with Japanese food.

So we’ve decided to write this article in order to break down the basic differences between the 2 dishes and “flesh them out” for you to be able to identify them individually even at first glance.


What is Sushi?

There are various ways to make and prepare sushi; however, one key ingredient will always remain and that is the sushi rice, which is often referred to in Japanese as shari (しゃり), or sumeshi (酢飯).

Sushi is one of the most popular Japanese dishes in the world; in fact, almost every person in any country knows what the word “sushi” means.

There should be at least 1 sushi restaurant in every major city 195 countries in our world today and the sushi that you’ll order most likely include raw fish, seaweed, cucumber, soy paper, omelets, and avocado.

We’ve talked to different sushi chefs and they told us that you don’t need fish to make sushi – it blew us away. We always thought that sushi translates to “raw fish” or something that is related to fish, but this wasn’t the case.

The exact translation for the Japanese word “sushi” is “sour-tasting,” and this is because the fish that were first used to make sushi was soaked in a wooden barrel filled with rice and vinegar that fermented the fish.

It is believed by historians that ancient SouthEast Asian fishermen were the first to discover sushi, although they cannot pinpoint the exact location of its origin nor do they know its original name.

It had already spread across southern China before the Japanese discovered it and called it nare-zushi (salted fish).

Today, sushi is enjoyed all around the world and has transformed into contemporary dishes with varying preparation, condiments, and ingredients. It has even evolved to have new subtypes now namely the hand-made sushi, pressed sushi, sushi rolls, and scattered sushi.

Also read: these are the different kinds of sushi explained

What is Sashimi?

Sashimi is another famous traditional Japanese recipe that is made up of either raw fish or meat sliced into thin pieces and is commonly eaten with soy sauce.

The word sashimi is roughly translated to “pierced body” in the Japanese language.

The original term should have been “cut body” instead of what it is now; however, the word “切 る” = kiru (cut) was an exclusive word reserved for samurais during the Muromachi Era (1336 – 1573).

It was even considered too inauspicious to the point of almost superstitious to be used anywhere outside the samurai circles.

On the other hand, sashimi may also derive from an ancient culinary practice in Japan where chefs/cooks would often stick the fish’s tail or fin to their meat slices in order to identify the fish that has been served on the customer’s table as writing them on paper was time-consuming and too distracting.

Historians also point out that there is a traditional fishing method in Japan where fish caught by individual handlines are considered “sashimi-grade.” Once the fish lands on the boat or the side of the river, a sharp spike is used to pierce its brain, and then it is placed in slurried ice.

Fishermen deliberately do the spiking to kill the fish immediately in order for it not to produce any melatonin or lactic acid and its meat remains fresh and delicious to eat for up to 10 days.

The spiking process is called ikejime.

The Difference Between Sushi and Sashimi

For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese food they often confuse sushi and sashimi for each other and even go as far as using them interchangeably, but it only takes a little familiarization with Japanese food and tradition to understand that the 2 dishes are distinct from one another.

Sushi is simply explained as any dish that has to do with vinegared rice. Traditionally raw fish was one of sushi’s key ingredients; however, there are many sushi dishes that have cooked seafood in them, while others have no seafood contents whatsoever.

By contrast, sashimi is a standalone dish and does not require any side dishes.

Another difference that can be observed between them is that while sushi requires having rice that has been dressed in vinegar, sashimi is always served without rice and it’s simply just thin slices of raw fish like tuna, salmon or any other seafood.

Chefs often prefer saltwater fish over freshwater fish when preparing sashimi, because freshwater fish tend to have parasites that could cause food poisoning and other intestinal problems.

It’s true that sushi chefs also use sliced raw seafood when preparing sushi dishes; however, it cannot be considered as sashimi as long as it is paired with vinegared rice.

In order for it to be called a sashimi dish, then it must be served without any side dishes, especially rice.

Normally, when you dine in a Japanese restaurant and order sashimi, it will be served to you on top of shredded daikon (white radish) along with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce.

In high-end Japanese/Sushi Restaurants, the fish are alive in fish tanks ready to be prepared and freshly served for the customer.

Below is a list of fish types that are used to make sashimi dishes.

We can, therefore, surmise that sushi can have sashimi as part of its ingredients, but its core ingredient is rice dressed in vinegar. On the other hand, sashimi cannot be served with vinegared rice but by itself only.

Also read: this Japanese sushi eel is called unagi and it’s delicious


Sushi vs. Sashimi Nutrition

plates of sashimi

When talking about nutrition with regards to sushi or sashimi it’s hard to get an exact figure as ingredients vary with both dishes; however, I can give you a ballpark figure.

Comparing calories it’s clear that sashimi is the winner because a piece of sashimi only has 20 – 60 calories and fish meat has lots of other health benefits too.

The benefits of eating sashimi regularly are

On the other hand, sushi rolls on average have around 200 – 500 calories and this is mostly due to the rice in the sushi.

Nigirizushi is known to have similar calories with sashimi roughly 40 – 60 calories apiece.

The rice in sushi is actually called vinegared rice and it contains vinegar, salt and a good amount of sugar, which is why it’s high in calories.

So if you’re looking for the healthier choice, then you should eat sashimi more than sushi, although sushi can sometimes taste better.

I guess it will be a battle of will versus cravings then!

Sushi vs. Sashimi Safety Concerns

Forgive me for using Uncle Ben’s famous line from the Spider-Man comic books “with great food comes great health risks” (paraphrased with pun intended) because there are safety issues associated with sushi and sashimi.

But high-end sushi/sashimi restaurants have a reputation to keep, so you can rest assured that they go through great lengths to make sure that their food is safe.

One of the safety concerns is fish and seafood meats.

If they are not placed inside a freezer, then they will most likely get bacterial infestation and time is the killing factor for these types of meat.

Getting sushi from the supermarket: make sure that the fish is prepared recently (maximum time allowed out of the ice is 10 hours).

But there’s no need to worry if the fish or seafood is pre-cooked.

Get your quick start in enjoying Japanese cuisine here with our top recommended tools

In rare cases, parasitic worms show up in fish meat, but most local market vendors and high-end restaurants follow strict protocols in making their food safe for consumption.

Pregnant women should avoid eating sushi or sashimi as the fish used for making these dishes are often laden with high methylmercury content.

Methylmercury is a naturally-occurring chemical compound in the ocean and it passes on from prey to predator.

Unfortunately, shark, swordfish, mackerel, tilefish, and tuna are all at the top of the food chain, so they get a more concentrated amount of methylmercury than, say, the amberjack.

This makes them unsafe to eat as the methylmercury in them could potentially cause abnormal development for the baby in the mother’s womb, or worse – kill it.

But if you’re not pregnant and have no related allergies concerning sushi, sashimi, or any other seafood, then you can eat these dishes at the recommended amount.

Are Sushi and Sashimi Street Food? Party Food? Or Fine Dining Food?

If you go around major cities today, you will find that sushi and sashimi are always found in fine dining restaurants and never in street food stalls.

But once upon a time in ancient Japan in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) sushi and sashimi weren’t that sophisticated and were considered “common” food, although not necessarily street food.

It also wasn’t considered haute cuisine during the 1600s, nor was it similar to what we eat today.

It was also during the Edo Period where chefs started using freshly caught fish for sushi and sashimi as these cuisines evolved from being served after much later time to being eaten right after preparation.

This was obviously limited in scope because of the lack of good ways to preserve raw fish for a while yet.

It’s also important to note that the hand-shaped sushi was Edo-style sushi as opposed to the box-shaped sushi, which was Osaka-style sushi.

At the turn of the 20th century during the Meiji Restoration Japanophiles (foreigners who appreciate and love of Japanese culture, people and history) were first introduced to Japanese culture, and sushi became one of their food novelties and stuff of curiosity.

Naturally, these foreigners who had visited Japan recount their experiences to their family, friends and even strangers whether by bringing home a sample of sushi/sashimi or actually preparing and serving them as meals for their friends to sample.

On the other hand, Japanese communities that lived overseas also shared Japanese cuisines –including sashimi and sushi – to their non-Japanese neighbors and friends.

Over time and due to the complexity of the preparation required for these dishes, they became a delicacy almost exclusively for fine dining and later on for home cooking as well when cookbooks and food & drink blogs were invented.

So we can surmise therefore that sushi and sashimi can be considered as fine dining and party food, but no longer a street food as it hasn’t been one since the Meiji Era.

Final Thoughts on Sushi vs. Sashimi

It’s actually not a good thing to make people choose between sushi and sashimi, simply because both dishes are amazing. And the best thing about them is that anyone can enjoy the kind of sushi or sashimi that they want because it has a lot of varieties!

Aren’t into the whole raw fish thing? There are sushi varieties that have cooked seafood in them.

You’ve tried raw fish a few times before or want to get into it? Most sushi varieties use raw fish or other seafood types in them.

So start exploring sushi and sashimi restaurants now and look for the best variety that suits your taste.

Soon you will find the sushi or sashimi variety that will become your favorite; however, I encourage you to keep trying different ones occasionally.

Get your quick start in enjoying Japanese cuisine here with our top recommended tools

Who knows? You might find a second or third favorite sushi/sashimi variety along the way.

Also read: what are the fish flakes on sushi: Katsuobushi

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.