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What Is Nigiri?

Sushi a Japanese delicacy – has taken the world by storm, and you’ll now find sushi restaurants all over the globe. Sushi is a traditional Japanese dish consisting of vinegared rice, usually with some sugar and salt, as well as seafood, often raw, and vegetables. 

Styles of sushi and its presentation can vary widely, but “sushi rice” is a key ingredient, also referred to as shari, or sumeshi. It’s traditionally made with medium-grain white rice, though brown rice or short-grain rice can also be used. 

Clsoe up of nigiri sushi on plate

Sushi dishes are usually made with seafood, such as squid, eel, yellowtail, salmon, or tuna, though you can also find vegetarian varieties.

You’ll usually find sushi served with pickled ginger (gari), wasabi, and soy sauce, or daikon radish or pickled daikon (takuan), which are popular garnishes.

However, when you’re reaching for your favorite sushi dishes on a conveyor belt, you may not actually know the name of what you’re eating. 

From Sashimi to Uramaki, there are many different types of sushi out there, and we often just go for what looks good – or what we’ve tried before. One of the most popular types of sushi, at least in Japan, is Nigiri…

Nigiri Sushi

nigiri sushi

Nigiri is derived from the Japanese word Nigirizushi, which basically means “hand-pressed sushi.” This familiar type of sushi consists of an oval-shaped mound of rice which is topped with raw fish. 

As the English translation suggests, the rice is molded by hand and the fish topping pressed on top. The stickiness of the rice, and the moisture of the topping, allows the raw fish to stick to the rice. 

Sometimes, Nigiri is served with a squirt of wasabi between the rice and fish, as well as garnish such as ginger or minced scallions.

The fish on top is usually tuna, fatty tuna (from the belly of bluefin tuna), salmon, yellowtail or albacore, and this fish topping is almost always raw. 

That’s right – almost always raw – unless it’s shrimp nigiri – whereby the shrimp is boiled and butterflied, or eel nigiri, which consists of a mound of sushi rice with a delicate strip of grilled eel on top. 

As with all types of sushi, the fish – regardless of whether it’s cooked or raw – must be fresh and handled with great care by the sushi chef. 

Eating Nigiri 

Sushi etiquette is a vast subject, and we don’t have the space to delve into it in this article. However sushi is usually picked up with the fingers and each piece is consumed in a single bite.

Nigiri is usually dipped in soy sauce so that the fish, not the rice, is immersed, and it’s then eaten upside down, with the fish against your tongue.

This method of eating Nigiri prevents the rice from absorbing too much soy sauce, and ensures you don’t get any rice grains in the soy sauce! 

Varieties of Nigiri 

Varieties of Nigiri

Nigiri sushi has many varieties, alongside the main type of Nigiri, there’s also a variation called Gunkan-maki.

Gunkan-maki is a type of Nigiri sushi which has a soft or semi-liquid topping – usually minced tuna, fish roe, or sea urchin. It is also usually distinguishable by a strip of nori seaweed wrapped around the perimeter of the rice mound which holds the topping in place. 

There’s also a type of Nigiri called Nori-ribbon Nigiri. Nori-ribbon Nigiri is distinguished by a thin strip of nori that is tied vertically around the Nigiri. It’s usually done when the topping lacks moisture and needs extra help to adhere to the rice. 

Nigiri toppings/ingredients 

The most common raw toppings found on Nigiri sushi include a thin or thick slice of sashimi such as salmon, tuna, yellowtail, squid, clams, whelk, red snapper or butterflied scallop. 

The key to the perfect nigiri is not only getting the flavors right, but ensuring the rice mound is bite-sized while the raw fish topping is thick enough to provide enough flavor.

Sushi chefs spend years attempting to master the cutting technique and learning the variety of flavors and textures found in each species of sushi, and Nigiri is no exception. 

Sushi set of nigiri from salmon, tuna, sea bass, shrimp, smoked eel, scallop
Sushi set of nigiri from salmon, tuna, sea bass, shrimp, smoked eel, scallop

The ingredients will sometimes be primed in different ways to provide a distinct flavor before they’re placed atop the sushi rice. Common priming techniques include searing, smoking, curing, and light cooking with various dressings or seasoning.  

Wagyu or Kobe is usually seared to achieve their distinctive flavor, while salted mackerel, smoked salmon and boiled sweet shrimps are also commonly used in Nigiri sushi.

You’ll also find toppings such as broiled freshwater eels, surf clam, sea eel, imitation crab, and sweet egg which are usually bound to the rice by a thin nori strip. 

Nigiri vs. Maki

A plate with both nigiri and maki styles of sushi
A plate with both nigiri and maki styles of sushi

Maki is one of the most popular types of sushi, especially in the U.S., and it is usually the variety that springs to mind when we think of sushi.

Maki is shaped like a roll or tube, and consists of a layer of rice and a layer of fillings which can include raw fish, vegetables, cooked shellfish and even cream cheese. The layers are rolled up in a sheet of dried seaweed called ‘nori’, which holds the layers together. 

Once rolled, the tube of sushi is then sliced up into bite-sized pieces, which are eaten with fingers rather than chopsticks. You’ll occasionally see Maki variations that are constructed inside out, so the rice or fish is on the outside. 

Nigiri vs. Sashimi

Sashimi is another common dish in sushi restaurants, though this is not technically a type of sushi, as it doesn’t feature rice.

sashimi style sushi
Sashimi style sushi (no rice)

Sashimi is simply strips of raw fish with no rice at all, though in some cases rice may be served as an accompaniment. 

Nigiri sushi kind of features a strip of sashimi on top, though it differs from the latter due to the hand-pressed mound of rice underneath the fish. Unlike nigiri and maki, sashimi is usually eaten with chopsticks.

Nigiri nutritional value 

In general, sushi is very healthy, and nigiri is one of the best varieties you can eat. 

It’s a good source of omega-3 fatty acids which is ideal for maintaining a healthy heart, and sushi is also low in calories, particularly if you avoid ones with any cream cheese or additional fats.

Nigiri usually features fingers of sticky rice topped with a small filet of fish or seafood and on average, a piece of nigiri sushi has about 70 calories. 

A typical order will usually consist of 6 pieces, which is around 310 to 420 calories, depending on the type of fish you opt for. If possible, you can also ask for brown rice instead of white rice – it’s more nutritious and has a lower glycemic index.

Nigiri is also healthy when compared to some other sushi varieties which can be higher in calories and fat, such as Dynamite rolls, which are made with tempura shrimp, meaning it’s been deep-fried. 

Spider rolls are a variety of sushi that have mayonnaise added to them, so these will also contain more calories, as will rolls with avocado, though avocado is a monounsaturated fat and is good for the heart. 

Written by Brian Nagele

Brian has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.