Traditional Japanese VS American Sushi: Not What You Think

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  October 20, 2022

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In this post, I’ll explain the differences between Japanese and American sushi. We’ll also take a look at the most popular types of sushi you can find.

In America, the California roll is an iconic sushi roll enjoyed by sushi lovers everywhere, but it’s not a traditional Japanese sushi roll.

Traditional Japanese sushi is simpler, not dressed as much with sauce, and mostly focuses on the rice and fish. American sushi focuses more visual appeal of thesushi rolls, and it is topped with lots of sauces and garnishes. 

What is sushi? Explaining maki & nigiri rolls

Japanese vs Western-style sushi

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Although it would seem that most types of sushi are the same, there is a big difference between Japanese sushi and Western-style sushi.

The Americanized version of sushi is more concentrated on rolls and is topped with a lot of sauces and garnishes, whereas traditional Japanese sushi is simpler, less adorned, and centered on the fish.

Essentially, Japanese sushi is simpler. The Western-style rolls are full of more toppings and fillings and are usually garnished with sauces.

Spicy mayonnaise is a common sauce, but it’s quite fatty.

Cream cheese is another popular Western ingredient that wouldn’t be common in an authentic Japanese sushi restaurant.

For example, the California Roll is a uniquely Americanized sushi roll that is filled with crab meat, avocado, and cucumber.

This roll would never be found in Japan.

In contrast, a nigiri sushi would consist of only a small mound of rice and a single slice of fish or raw seafood on top.

Another difference is that Japanese sushi is healthier because the sushi pieces mostly have raw fish inside.

Many American types contain fried fish or seafood instead of raw fish.

Shrimp tempura or prawn tempura is a good example of this.

It is a popular type of sushi in America, but it would be unthinkable to find something like that in a traditional Japanese restaurant.

Also read: Is Sushi Good For Losing Weight? 6 Helpful Tips

There’s no doubt that Japanese sushi is the original and the best type of sushi. However, the Western-style, inspired by a fusion of American and Eastern sushi is also very tasty. 

The main difference between the two is that American sushi contains more than one ingredient. The sushi is usually in roll format and full of delicious toppings and fillings which give a bold flavor. 

In the United States, the sushi rolls are packed full of meats, veggies, and fried ingredients. In Japan, sushi rolls only contain a couple of ingredients at most and they are usually not fried. When it comes to ingredients, Japanese sushi is usually not spicy and doesn’t contain avocado. 

Type of rice used (brown rice vs. sushi rice)

The Japanese are very specific about the type of rice they use, and they usually use a particular variety of short-grain rice that is perfectly seasoned with sugar, rice vinegar, and salt.

Western restaurants, on the other hand, use brown rice, rather than white short-grain rice. However, the brown rice usually alters the flavor of the sushi and takes away its authenticity.

Levels of complexity

Japanese sushi is very simple, and it comprises of one type of fish, seaweed, some veggies—which are optional, as well as sushi rice soaked in rice vinegar.

Western sushi, on the other hand, they are stuffed with toppings and fillings, which comprise different varieties of fish, vegetables, and any other thing that can fit in the sushi roll.

The American version of sushi, like the rainbow roll, has three varieties of fish, which are placed on top to give the sushi a beautiful appearance.

Then the sushi has some vegetables and avocado on the inside—this can be compared to the American burgers or sandwiches that can hold different things whenever possible.

The rolling technique

Traditional Japanese sushi comprises of vinegared sushi rice, raw or cooked fish, and veggies that are wrapped in a nori sheet (seaweed) that is toasted.

American sushi, on the other hand, is rolled inside out, where the nori is on the inside, and the sushi rice on the outside.

Japense vs American sushi

Size

Traditional Japanese sushi should be eaten with only one bite. One sushi roll is mostly cut into six small pieces, which are ideal to be eaten in just one bite.

American sushi roll, on the other hand, is a bit fat, and the roll can produce 8 or more pieces, which cannot be eaten in one bite.

Also read: these rice cookers will make your cooking so much easier

What is the most popular type of sushi in America and Japan?

It depends if you are asking about Western or Japanese sushi. 

In America, the most popular types of sushi are:

  • California Roll
  • Dragon Roll
  • Spicy Tuna Roll
  • Rainbow Roll
  • Tiger Roll

In Japan, the most popular sushi are:

  • Makizushi
  • Nigiri
  • Sashimi

Popular types of American sushi 

The inside-out roll (uramaki) is a type of sushi that is popular in America. It’s made by rolling the rice on the outside of the nori seaweed instead of the inside.

The inside-out roll can be made with any type of sushi ingredients, but it’s often filled with fish, vegetables, and avocado.

Types of American Sushi

Today, there are different varieties of sushi that are served in American restaurants. These varieties are considered to be a western version of the traditional Maki sushi. 

Even though these American varieties are not traditional, it does not mean that they are not delicious. The following are some of the common types of American sushi rolls, which are served in various American restaurants. 

American sushi is typically a bit less healthy than traditional sushi, if you’re worried about the calorie count read this article we’ve written as well

California roll

California roll american sushi

These have the appearance of an inside-out sushi roll. A California roll has the rice layer on the outside, and the sheet of seaweed (nori) is on the inside.

Mostly, this sushi roll comprises or imitation crab, avocado, cucumber, and at times flying fish roe (tobiko).

The California roll is a type of Uramaki.

The uramaki sushi is similar to maki rolls. It is made with vinegared rice, meat (usually seafood), vegetables, and seaweed.

But instead of the ingredients being wrapped in seaweed on the exterior, the filling ingredients are wrapped in Nori and the rice is on the outside. Usually, the uramaki rolls contain lots of fillings and toppings which may be raw or cooked.   

Tempura roll

Closeup of a tempura shrimp sushi roll with sesame seeds

Just like California rolls, tempura rolls have the rice< on the outside.

The rice covers a nori sheet, which contains tempura fried shrimp, together with other veggies like cucumber and avocado. 

Spicy tuna roll

Chopsticks picking up the top spicy tuna piece for a stack of sushi

These sushi rolls have a sheet of seaweed on the outside and rice on their inside.

The sheet of nori and rice is wrapped around raw tuna, which is then mixed with seasoned and spicy mayonnaise. 

Dragon roll

Beautifully decorated and presented dragon sushi roll on a stone plate

These resemble tempura rolls since they use avocado, cucumber, and shrimp tempura. The rice on the dragon rolls is on the outside, and it is mostly sprinkled with sesame seeds.

But, one thing makes these sushi rolls unique, they include thinly sliced avocado on the top of the sushi roll, together with tobiko, and then they are drizzled with spicy unagi sauce and mayonnaise. 

Spider roll

Spider roll soft shell crab sushi on a plate in a restaurant

This is a text overlay image of the original work Spider Roll – Soft shell crab sushi by Loren Kerns on Flickr under cc. 

These are made using deep-fried soft-shell crab, and they include different fillings like cucumber, lettuce or daikon sprouts, avocado, spicy mayonnaise, and roe. 

Rainbow Roll

Closeup of a few pieces of rainbow roll sushi

This is basically a sushi roll that has been topped with different varieties of sashimi.

Most often, the sushi roll that’s covered by sashimi is a California roll, which consists of crab and avocado.

To prepare a rainbow roll, the sushi chef first makes a California roll, and then adds the extra toppings after that to create a rainbow-like color scheme. 

Philly roll

Philly sushi roll

This is one of the most common sushi varieties that you will find in America.

This sushi roll comprises of salmon, cucumber, and cream cheese, even though some chefs usually add other ingredients like onion, avocado, and sesame seed.

The roll is known as Philly roll not because it’s from Philadelphia, but because chefs use Philadelphia cream cheese to make the sushi roll. 

Vegetarian roll

Plate of green vegetarian sushi pieces

If you were worried about people who don’t like seafood and meat, then there is something for them as well.

Almost every other sushi restaurant usually offers a vegetarian sushi roll. The sushi roll contains different varieties of veggies, including cucumber and avocado. 

Volcano roll

Sushi volcano roll

This is a text overlay image of the original work Volcano roll by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr under cc.

The volcano roll comes with a variety of ingredients—however, all volcano rolls come with one thing in common: the toppings on these rolls make them look as if they want to explode.

That’s the reason why they were given the name “volcano roll.”

Tiger roll

The 21 types of sushi to know for your Japanese restaurant trip Tiger roll

The tiger roll is a very flavorful and jam-packet sushi roll. It is vinegared rice, filled with avocado, tempura shrimp, and sometimes fish eggs (tobiko).

Also, it has a seaweed exterior and it’s popular in many North American sushi restaurants.

The tiger roll doesn’t contain raw fish, so it’s a great option if you prefer cooked ingredients. The tempura is a fried ingredient and shrimp is cooked.

The reason it is called a tiger roll is because of its main ingredient: tiger shrimp. 

Conclusion

Sushi is a popular Japanese dish that is made with rice and fish.

There are many different types of sushi, and it’s often served with soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger.

Sushi rolls are the most popular type of sushi in America, but there are many other types of sushi that are popular in Japan.

The reason why this dish is so beloved is that it has a fishy flavor with a slightly sweet taste. The rice is usually vinegary, and the nori seaweed gives it a savory flavor.

The wasabi adds a bit of spice, and the soy sauce and pickled ginger provide a salty flavor.

Sushi is healthy, but some types of sushi can be high in calories and fat.

When dining out, it’s important to follow sushi etiquette, so you don’t offend the chef or other diners.

Next, check the 16 Best Sushi Sauces (I Was Astounded When I Tasted #5!)

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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.