Nigiri vs Sashimi – What’s the Difference?

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by Sil Pancho

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10.30.2021


Have you ever been to a sushi restaurant and been confused by the menu? Maybe you’ve wondered, “What’s the difference between sushi, sashimi, and nigiri?” Today we’re breaking down nigiri vs. sashimi. 

A beautiful platter with sushi, sashimi, and nigiri to show the differences.

It’s no secret that I love sushi! In fact, my whole family is obsessed with it. Whether we’re making vegan sushi at home or going out to our favorite place, it’s delicious, nutritious, and often requested.

But have you ever looked at the menu in a sushi restaurant and wondered what everything is, exactly? Well, you’re not alone. There are countless styles of rolls, ingredients, and types of fish.

Sashimi and nigiri are usually two of the most recognized types of sushi, but many people don’t know how they differ. Although these two dishes may appear similar, they’re very different.

Read on to learn more about these two sushi favorites!

An overhead photo of a variety of nigiri including salmon, ahi, and cucumber over rice. A bowl of soy sauce sits at the left corner.

What Is Nigiri?

Nigiri is a common, and much beloved, sushi dish in Japanese cuisine. The main ingredients are fish and sushi rice. Sushi rice is the base, seasoned with vinegar and a sweetener, topped with a thin slice of fish.

Nigiri comes in many forms including salmon, yellowtail, halibut, and tuna. In most restaurants, I’ll see a small amount of wasabi nestled between the fish and rice. Some places will serve a separate side of wasabi so we can control how much we put on our rolls.

At first, I thought nigiri was always served raw, but it’s also sometimes made with seared or cooked fish. Cooked or seared nigiri uses the tataki method, meaning it’s briefly held over an open flame.

If you follow a plant-based diet, you can make vegan nigiri, which is delicious! Instead of fish, top your sushi rice with cooked mushrooms (Enoki, Portobello, or Shiitake would be great!), shaved cucumber, thinly sliced avocado, oshinko, mango, or tofu. You can even serve it with a little Yum Yum Sauce

A bowl of greens topped with ahi tuna sashimi (plain raw fish).

What Is Sashimi?

Sashimi is not sushi at all! To be part of the sushi family, a dish must include rice but sashimi consists only of raw fish or meat.

Even though sashimi isn’t sushi, it often shows up on sushi menus. In my experience, I can usually find salmon, tuna, and yellowtail sashimi at most sushi restaurants.

Interestingly, sashimi isn’t only made of fish. There are chicken and meat varieties as well. It can also consist of other types of seafood, including shrimp and squid.

Preparing sashimi is an art form and one must have precision, attention to detail, and skill to do it professionally. Some people who have access to sashimi-grade fish do make it at home, however. 

An overhead photo of a Hawaiian poke bowl with ahi tuna, cucumber, greens, avocado, and massago.

A poke bowl with raw ahi tuna.

The Fresh Fish Myth

Eating raw fish may worry some people who are unfamiliar with Japanese food. At the same time, many sushi lovers proclaim their love for the “freshest fish”!

The traditional way to serve nigiri and sashimi isn’t fresh but rather prepared in the kombujime way. Kombujime comes from Kombu, which is a type of kelp often found, and eaten, in Asia.

The Kombujime process starts with a fresh fish that is first soaked in salt water or sake. After that, the sushi chef wraps the fish between two Kombu leaves and presses it for several days.

This method accomplishes two things. First, it removes extra moisture, making it firmer and giving it a better texture.

Second, the Kombu adds a nice salty flavor, increasing the umami taste of the fish. And who doesn’t love umami?

Of course, not every sushi place in America follows this traditional Japanese method. Many sushi places will serve fresh fish, giving it a slightly different taste.

A sushi platter with sushi rolls, salmon, ahi, and shrimp sashimi (raw fish) in the middle, and nigiri (raw fish on sushi rice) at the bottom. White text overlay reads "sushi" "sashimi" and "nigiri" over each.

Nigiri vs Sashimi

Now that I’ve covered what sashimi and nigiri are, let’s discuss the main differences between the two.

First, nigiri is a type of sushi while sashimi is not. This is the most obvious difference between the two. This also affects the plating of the dish. Nigiri is often lined up in a row while sashimi is spread out flat on a serving dish.

Second, since nigiri consists of a small mound of rice, you can easily pick it up with your hands. It’s completely acceptable to eat with your fingers, or even a fork if you want. Again, great for kids! Meanwhile, sashimi is more delicate and thin, so you should eat it with chopsticks.

Last, each dish comes with its own sides and condiments. Nigiri is sometimes considered a more “traditional” sushi roll. Therefore, it’s usually only accompanied by a small ramekin of soy sauce and a dab of wasabi.

On the other hand, sashimi is often served with seaweed, pickled ginger, and daikon radish. This gives it a more complex and varied taste.

Regardless of their differences, sashimi and nigiri are both delicious and healthy. Fatty fish used in sushi is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and has many health benefits.

A close up photo of avocado sushi to show of perfect sushi rice made at home in the Instant Pot.

Homemade avocado sushi rolls are an excellent plant-based option.

Making the Best Choice

It’s impossible to say which one is the better choice. After all, it comes down to preference but there are a few things to consider.

For first-time sushi consumers, nigiri may be the safer choice. Sushi newbies might be scared of raw fish. In fact, 43% of Americans who haven’t tried sushi said they would be willing to if they could ease into it slowly.

Because nigiri comes with rice, it looks less intimidating than sashimi. Additionally, if you’re eating with little ones like I usually do, they may be more comfortable eating with their fingers.

But sashimi is a great choice if you’re looking to reduce your calorie intake. The lack of rice makes this dish an excellent choice for lower calories compared to nigiri. Although I personally love sushi rice!

Sashimi is also an exciting way to expand your Japanese cuisine horizons. Since many sashimi menus feature other types of seafood and meat, you have more choices.

A white platter topped with vegan nigiri including avocado, cucumber, and oyster mushrooms over rice.

Vegetable Nigiri. Image: Shutterstock

Ready to Order?

Now that we’ve covered the difference between nigiri and sashimi, you’re ready to hit your local sushi place!

Since I prefer my plate without meat, I love making vegan sushi , Oshinko Rolls, or Avocado Rolls. It’s easy to put together, my kids love it, and it will blow your taste buds away. 

If you’re looking for more ways to include vegan food in your diet, you can buy my new cookbook here. It’s full of delicious, plant-based, mostly meatless meals, including one of my favorite sushi recipes!

A beautiful platter with sushi rolls at top, nigiri at bottom, and sashimi in the middle.

Ingredients

Nigiri

  • Prepared Sushi Rice
  • 1 avocado, cut into thin slices
  • 1 Persian cucumbers, cut into ribbons with a peeler
  • Any other toppings (see below)
  • wasabi, for serving
  • soy sauce, for serving

Instructions

  1. Cook the sushi rice according to the linked recipe. Once it’s cool enough to handle, for into 1×3 inch mounds, pressing together with your hands or a spoon.
  2. Lay whatever toppings you’d like over the rice. You can place a small (pea-sized) dot of wasabi between the rice and the topping if you’d like. Vegetable nigiri rice topped with eggplant, asparagus, and peppers.
  3. Serve right away with soy sauce.

Notes

Vegan Nigiri Topping Ideas

  • Cooked eggplant slices
  • Asparagus
  • Roasted bell peppers
  • Sauteed Mushrooms
  • Sliced Avocado
  • Shaved cucumber
  • Spinach
  • Thinly sliced tofu

Nutrition Information:

Serving Size: 4 pieces

Amount Per Serving:

Calories: 250



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