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Goin’ Japanesque!

36 Words from the Sushi Lingo of Professionals

Today, we’ll be delving deeper into sushi, a cuisine familiar to people around the world. Specifically, we’ll be looking at the terminology used by professional sushi chefs. We’ve gathered together a selection ranging from words you’ll already know to ones that might even be new to the average Japanese ear. Read this, and you may find yourself with a much better understanding of the conversation between sushi chefs on the other side of the counter.


The Fundamentals

1. Murasaki (“Purple”)

Soy sauce, named for its purple-ish color.


2. Nikiri (“Alcohol-simmering”)

A special sort of soy sauce used at sushi shops. This soy sauce has mirin (a sweet rice wine) and a puree of kelp and dried skipjack tuna in alcohol added to it. Nikiri really kicks sushi’s flavor up a notch or three.


3. Namida (“Tears”)

Wasabi. Ever use too much wasabi, only to have tears running down your face? That’s the origin right there.


4. Shari

Vinegared sushi rice. It has its roots in the word “busshari,” which means “bones of a Buddha.” This term is used because individual grains of vinegared rice are slim, white, and shiny, resembling bleached bones.


5. Donshari

Regular rice, as opposed to shari.


6. Tane (“Seed”) / Neta (reverse of “tane”)

Sushi toppings placed on shari.


7. Kusa (“Grass”)

Nori, the dried seaweed used to wrap rolled sushi. The word comes from another name for seaweed in Japanese, “grass of the sea.”


8. Obizuke

The nori that binds the shari to the tane. It’s another word for the belt of a kimono.


9. Gari

Sweet-pickled ginger. The name for this sushi shop sidekick comes from a Japanese onomatopoeia, “gari-gari,” which describes the sensation of biting into something firm. As gari helps cut fishy flavors and also cleanses the palate, it’s a must-have for enjoying sushi. On a note, though it’s normally tough to get soy sauce onto gunkan-maki (lit. “battleship roll,” a vertical sushi roll), sushi aficionados use the pickled ginger to soak up some soy sauce then put it on top of the sushi roll to eat it.
Related: Sushi vs Onigiri: Similarities and Differences


10. Nami no Hana (“Flower of the Waves”)

Salt. The name’s origin lies in salt being made from seawater, and how sea spray looks like flowers.


11. Tsume

A sweet sauce used to coat eel and other foods.


12. Teppo (“Cannon”)

Sushi rolls (particularly thinly-rolled ones), named for their resemblance to cannons.


13. Gunkan (“Battleship”)

A sushi item where shari is wrapped in nori vertically and ingredients added on top. There are gunkan made with salmon roe and sea urchin.


14. Agari

The final tea served. This word comes to us from the ephemeral world of evening entertainment (think geisha and the like.) Conversely, the first tea served is called “debana.” On a note, “agari” is also used when playing Japanese card and board games, referring to completing the stage when a game has been won and things cleared up.


Tools of the Trade

15. Geta (“Wooden Shoe”)

The stand sushi comes on. It’s named for how it looks like traditional Japanese footwear when seen from the side.


16. Otesho

Small dishes for soy sauce, etc.


17. Miyajima

A paddle for rice. The name derives from the fame of the paddles of Itsukushima Shine in Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture.


18. Yama – 1 (“Mountain”)

Bamboo leaves for wrapping sushi, from bamboo being gathered in the mountains. They’re used to bring color to sushi in lovely designs.


19. Makisu

A bamboo mat used to make rolled sushi, a combination of the Japanese words for the two items: makimono (rolled sushi) plus sudare (bamboo mat).
Related: Asakusa’s Kappabashi—Three Shops for the Best Japanese Kitchen Knives



20. Gyoku

Japanese omelet. From the Chinese reading (“gyoku”) of the first character of the dish’s name in Japanese.


21. Hikarimono (“That which Shines”)

Any fish with glittering scales, including sardines, mackerel, saury, and herring.


22. Zuke (“Pickling”)

Tuna marinated in nikiri. Refrigeration wasn’t available until recently, so fresh fish would be preserved this way.


23. Toro

A fatty portion of tuna held to be the most delicious, from a Japanese onomatopoeia meaning “meltingly soft.”


24. Kappa

Cucumber. A kappa is a mythical monster of Japan: not only are cucumbers their favorite food, but the top of a cucumber when cut looks like a kappa’s head.


25. Geso

Squid legs.


26. Odori (“Dance”)

Nigiri-zushi (sushi rice with toppings) made with living prawns. Additionally, eating live ice goby is called “odori-gui” (“gui” means “eat”.)


27. Kata-omoi (“One-sided Love”)

Abalone, from it having a shell on only one side of its body.


28. Gareji (“Garage”)

A species of mantis shrimp. The name is a real groaner of a bilingual pun—the shrimp’s name, “shako,” also means “garage.”


29. Himo (“Thread”)

The mantle of a bivalve such as a clam.


30. Kizu

Dried gourd shavings (“kampyo”), named for the originating locale of the food.


Conversational Words

31. -kan

Japanese grammar involves special counter words for different objects, and the counter for sushi is “-kan.” Long ago, ordering one kan meant getting two pieces of sushi, but nowadays one kan commonly means just the one piece.


32. Aniki / Ototo

Aniki refers to old toppings, and ototo to new toppings. To prevent fish-borne illness, toppings are generally used starting with aniki (the oldest). The words mean older and younger brother, respectively,.


33. Omakase (from a verb meaning “to rely”)

Leaving the choice of sushi to the chef. You never know what you’re going to get!


34. Okonomi (from a verb meaning “to prefer”)

Choosing the sushi you want to eat, the opposite of “omakase.”


35. Yama – 2 (“Mountain”)

“Out of stock.” This is another definition for “yama,” and alludes to there being no sea creatures on a mountain. The word is used a lot at restaurants outside the sushi world, too, and this definition is more common than the one introduced earlier.


36. Oaiso (“Goodwill”)

The bill or check. This refers to the idea that a customer returns home once a shop has exhausted their supply of goodwill. Consequently, this expression is used by shop staff, and for a customer to use it would be quite rude, so best leave it to the chefs and servers.


Related: Sharing the Ins and Outs of the Japanese Conveyor Belt Sushi Shop (Sushiro)

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