Food

Things to Order at a Japanese Sushi Bar (From WTF to the Tame)

Updated on 2/12/2021

You can keep on eating your salmon, or you can eat like most Japanese do which is a good way to expand your world (or possibly improve your gag reflexes)

Most American’s stick to the “safe” stuff which is salmon, salmon, salmon, maybe some tuna, and some oysters if it’s date night. Although, if that sounds a little too tame for you, you may be up for some tentacles, and you just might want to go full Japanese. So these are items to order on your next visit.

Get in Where You Fit In

I broke down my list into categories, so that you can choose the appropriate category that matches what you’re up for although keep in mind that many of the items listed below are seasonal.

  • 10-7 – TAMAGOYAKI, FUTOMAKI TO INARIZUSHI, ANKIMO, SHIRASU, MIRUGAI: These are like a Japanese sushi starter kit.
  • 6-5 – SHIRAKO TO SHIOKARA: Some people climb mountains, but you try different foods and live to tell the story.
  • 4 – ENGAWA: For the middle of the road types that won’t swipe left or right.
  • 3-2 – ANAGO TO ZUKE MAGURO: Time to switch up your usual routine (do it for the sake of your S.O.).
  • 1 – HIKARIMONOThe fishier the better.

10. TAMAGOYAKI (Grilled Egg Omelette)

Sunnyside up, over easy, soft or hard-boiled to scrambled, and now you’ll want to add tamagoyaki to your list. If you have never had it, I highly suggest you give it a try at the end of your meal for an authentic Japanese sushi bar experience. After you’ve had it, I’m sure you’ll want to eat it on a boat, on a train, or here or there, or anywhere.

Photo Description: tamagoyaki served at a sushi bar. The rectangular piece has a branded stamp of the restaurant I was eating at in Costa Mesa, CA.
Sam I am would eat tamagoyaki in a box and with a fox (well, I don’t really know that for sure).

9. FUTOMAKI TO INARIZUSHI (Vegetarian Rolls and Sushi)

This is what I grew up eating: futomaki (the “fat roll” is commonly a vegetarian roll, and I have eaten enough of these to last a lifetime), kanpyomaki (a pickled gourd), tekkamaki (a simple single item tuna roll), kappamaki (cucumber roll), inarizushi (a sweetened deep-fried tofu pouch), and I will add one of my favorites which is a roll that consists of takuan (a pickled daikon radish), saba (mackerel), and yamagobo (and if you want oba shiso, you can toss that in too).

Photo Description: one of my favorite rolls that you will not find at an Americanized sushi restaurant. This roll is fill with saba, takuan, yamagobo, and oba shiso. 6-pieces are shown in the image.
I think this saba combo, futomaki, and inarizushi characterizes the bulk of Japanese rolls.

This is where the sushi roll came from, but leave it to us Americans to turn a taco into a Dorito taco loco and a roll into a sauce-drenched piece of rice with a bunch of crunchy bits where you can not taste the fish.

Photo Description: inarizushi is pictured. It's a seasoned "tofu pouch" filled with sushi rice and this version has sprigs of sprouts and a sliver of yamagobo.
As a kid I had a nickname for inarizushi that rhymes with “rut sack” sushi.

8. ANKIMO (Monkfish Liver)

CNN Travel rated ankimo as the 32nd best foods in the world which is why most of you have already had the “foie gras of the sea.” Whether or not you had it prepared with ponzu, sliced green onion, and momiji oroshi, or any other imaginative way, it’s popularity had once gotten the monkfish onto the endangered and overfished list although it is no longer on it. The reason I bring that up, is so that you’re mindful of overfishing, and if you want to do your part, you can check with Seafoodwatch.org to see the status of the seafood you’re eating.

The foie gras of the sea is now plenty abundant again.

Photo Description: ankimo is steamed monkfish served in a small bowl with ponzu, sliced green onion, momiji oroshi, and a slice of lemon.
You can get all Hannibal Lecter on the monkfish by eating its liver, a nice Chianti is optional. Image by Takaokun.

7. SHIRASU TO MIRUGAI (Clam, Crab, Squid, Shrimp, etc)

These items are typically only found at a restaurant that caters to Japanese although I wouldn’t have listed them if they were impossible to find. If you can find one, start with trying: shirasu (white bait), hamaguri (clam), mirugai (geoduck clam is fairly easy to find, just look out for a giant penis looking clam), shiroebi (white shrimp), to hotaru ika (firefly squid, they’re not baby squid even though they’re tiny). As for items that might be a challenge to try are uni (sea urchin gonads, if you like it, you will love it), mentaiko (cod roe), kazunoko (herring roe), natto (easy to find, but it’s an acquired taste and texture like okra), to namako (sea cucumber… I love the chew).

Photo Description: Mirugai is a geoduck or giant clam. The pic is of mirugai as nigiri sushi.
Before being cut up, if you’re really childish, you’d chase your co-workers around the kitchen with a phallic looking geoduck clam. Image by Takaokun.

If oysters are supposed to be aphrodisiac, I will attach a link to what a geoduck clam looks like.

The shrimp nigiri sushi I had in Japan. It was mind blowing, and I thought I had it all till I had this piece.
How could a shrimp taste so good.  I don’t have the answer for that, but I’d like to find out one day as to why (took this one in Ginza, Japan).

If you are wondering what makes authentic Japanese nigiri sushi great, you can read my post on “What is Good Sushi.

Photo Description: shirasu is tiny, tiny, tiny little fish that are barely a little over a half inch in size and transparent. The most noticeable feature are their eyes. The fish are mixed in with julienned myoga which is slightly pinkish in color.
This is the best I can do for a pic of shirasu (white bait) which is prepared as an appetizer with a mix of myoga (it’s like if a shallot and ginger had a baby).

6. SHIRAKO (Fish Sac/Milt/Sperm/Semen)

What you are looking at is “white children” aka sperm sac/jizz or fish milt? I’m not sure which you prefer that I refer to it as, but I’m sure either sounds appetizing, so I’m torn. Well, I’ll just get to describing the texture which is soft like the consistency of tofu with no objectionable taste even if you had a mouthful of it (oh, and I have). Although, for first-timers, I suggest the deep-fried version which are both topped off with ponzu (citrus soy sauce) and momiji-oroshi (grated daikon with chili sauce).

A mouthful of shirako (fish sperm) was a lot like the consistency of tofu.

Photo Description: shirako almost looks like what an intestive might look like because it's white bulbous looking ingredient with a glossy finish. This dish is served in ponzu with momiji oroshi and green onions.
Shirako, all ready for you to guzzle on down because this mouthful actually does contain protein and vitamins and is being considered to fight malnutrition (I’m not making it up, so here’s the link).

5. SHIOKARA (Squid and Fermented Squid Guts)

This won’t help you grow hair back on your balding head, but it’s what separates the Ameri’cans and the Ameri’can’t’s who are willing to try new things. You’ll know which camp you’re in if squid and fermented squid guts topped off with my favorite ingredient, or the pièce de résistance, a good squirt of yuzu (citrus) sounds good to you. If that has your mouth-watering, it pairs perfectly with loads of sake, kanpai! you Ameri’can.

I can not get enough of this, especially with some yuzu citrus.

Photo Description: shiokara is squid guts. This one is served in a small bowl with slices of cucumber, a slice of lemon,  all topped off with green onion.
Ika no shiokara is a Japanese dish that goes way back to the olden days of Japan (yes, way before the Playstation).

4. ENGAWA (Flounder Fin/Ridgeline) AND A LOT OF SHIROMI (White Fish)

A Japanese sushi bar is better than a visit to the Aquarium of the Pacific because you also get to eat the fish, not just look at them. If that sounds good to you, starting with the shiromi is a good place to start although if they are not prepared well (aged/konbujime), many of them can be very mild in taste. Although starting with a fattier fish, like akamutsu/nodoguro (rosy sea bass) will help ease you in. Others to try: engawa (when the “fin” is torched a little and finished with lemon and salt, it’s so damn good), suzuki (sea bass), karei (flatfish), madai (red seabream snapper), ishidai (striped beakfish), kamasu (barracuda), yagara (cornet fish looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment), and the list goes on…and on.

Photo Description: akamutsu nigiri sushi. This shot has a really dark shari su which has turned the nigiri color into a dark brown color.
Definitely one of my favorites on this list is akamutsu, along with this shot by the City Foodsters

White, sometimes fatty, and mild in taste…. no wonder, us Muricans love it.

Photo Description: a shot of a few pieces of sawara and kamasu. The kamasu has a slight char to it most likely from being torched.
Sawara (background) is one of my other favorites (I do have a lot of favorites) although kamasu (foreground) is no slacker. Image by tbe City Foodsters

3. ANAGO (Saltwater Conger Eel)

Yea, yea, yea, you order unagi. I get it, you like that it is slathered and buried in a sweet soy sauce. That ingredient you like so much is a fresh water eel, so how about trying something from the ocean where you can actually taste the ingredient. If that sounds like it’s doable, anago is what you’ll want to try. Just a FYI, I didn’t even like it at first (I was team unagi at first), but now I love it. It is one of my goto’s when done correctly which is cooked in a soy-based marinade and topped off with either a (ni)tsume (eel/soy based sauce) or with what I like, a dash of shio (salt).

Photo Description: salt water eel is light in color and almost white in color.
You don’t dip anago in soy sauce (it’s already been prepared in it), all you need is a little dash of shio (salt) or drizzled with eel sauce.

I can not remember the last time I ordered unagi (fresh water eel), but anytime I can find anago (salt water eel), I’m ordering it.

Photo Description: another shot of salt water eel prepared with eel sauce drizzled over the top.
Unagi at a lot of American sushi bars come straight out of a package where the sushi chef just throws it in a toaster, so how could you not want to give anago a try.

2. ZUKE TO NIKIRI AKAMI MAGURO (Marinated Tuna to Pre-seasoned Lean Tuna)

From big-eye to yellowfin tuna, to ultimately hon-maguro or the “true” tuna, bluefin. can be a mind-blowing experience for anybody who has never had good maguro. To be clear, I’m not talking fatty cuts of chu/o-toro, but the “standard” (lean akami cuts). Outside of that, I highly suggest you try it “zuke” or marinated to “nikiri (a shoyu, sake, mirin sauce brushed on), no additional dipping is necessary since the chef already did it for you

Photo Description: maguro (tuna) nigiri sushi served at Seamon sushi in Ginza, Japan.
A quick dip in a soy-based marinade or a brush of nikiri will put your pool of soy sauce and wasabi tub out to the pasture.

Having tuna nigiri sushi in the U.S. can be underwhelming compared to Japan, unless you go to a standout sushi bar which will make you appreciate sushi done right (such as Kusakabe in San Francisco).

Photo Description: this is the works when it comes to chu-toro because it is a zuke version which is marinated in a soy sauce marinade, along with one end torched to heat up the fat.
Not a lean piece of maguro, like many of the patrons who visit a sushi bar (pictured a zuke chu-toro).

1. HIKARIMONO (shiny fish)

I have said it before, but Americans like their beef beefy, their pork porky, women girly, and men manly, but their fish not fishy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my fish being bland, so for all the girly girls, this list is for you: kan sawara (Spanish mackerel), shima-aji (striped jack), sayori (halfbeak), aji (horsemackerel), saba (mackerel), iwashi (sardine), and kohada (gizzard shad) all a try.

Photo Description: aji or horse mackerel topped off with grated ginger and sliced green onions with ponzu.
How people don’t like fish to taste like fish is beyond me because the oiliness is so good (omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, magnesium, and phosphorus).

I like my beef, beefy, just like how I like my fish, fishy (plus these are really healthy for you).

Photo Description: iwashi or sardine sushi is so damn good. Its very visually discernible due the darkish reddish hue with a shiny silver sheen. Grated ginger and sliced green onions top it all off.
Iwashi (sardine) nigiri is nothing even close to what you would find in a can. Image by Takaokun.

The Portuguese love sardines for good reason (12lbs per person on average).

If You Had Everything Listed

If you can get through eating everything on this list, you just might be turning Japanese (“I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so” – the Vapors).

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[…] Think this is a weak list of suggestions, go full Japanese and read this list. […]

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