How to Make Nigiri Sushi

Nigiri sushi is one of the simplest forms of sushi, and the most popular form of sushi served in Japan. It consists of a cylindrical ball of sushi rice topped with sliced raw fish or other toppings such as tamago (egg omelet), veggies, or cooked shrimp.

In America, nigiri take a back seat to rolls at most sushi restaurants. Many Americans who eat sushi have never even tried nigiri before, typically because they are perceived to be more expensive than rolls. At home, nigiri are simple to prepare and relatively inexpensive. Nigiri can be served plain (just the fish and sushi rice), or topped with a variety of toppings to add a little extra flavor. My favorite way to serve nigiri is with a light brush of flavored oil, which is discussed further below.

Red Snapper Nigiri
Seared Scallop with Japanese Mayo Nigiri
Salmon Nigiri with Chili Oil and Chili Crisp

The Basics


Here’s what you’ll need to get started:


Pretty much all you need to do to make nigiri is make the oblong rice ball and place the sliced fish on top. The traditional process is a little more complicated, which I discuss below, but here is my process:

  1. Run your hands under water in the sink and shake off any excess.
  2. Using wet hands, pick up about 1.5 tablespoons of sushi rice.
  3. Squeeze the rice together between your palms and form it into the oblong shape, about 2 inches long by 1 inch wide. (This step will take a little time and patience to master)
  4. Place the formed rice ball on a plate and continue on to the next one. Don’t worry if the rice ball seems a little too wet from the water on your hands, this will evaporate off as it sits.
  5. Between every 1 to 2 nigiri, rinse your hands in the sink. You’ll feel the residual rice starches on your hands (they’ll feel a bit slimy), rinse and rub your hands together until this is gone, then shake off the excess water and continue to the next nigiri.
  6. Once all the rice balls are formed, place one piece of sliced fish on each one. They’re now ready to serve, or be dressed up with some toppings as discussed below!
How to make nigiri sushi.
Note, it would be better if these fish slices were a bit wider, but sometimes you have to work with what you have.

Deviations From the Traditional Method

If you watch a sushi chef make nigiri they don’t just place the piece of fish on top of the rice. They hold the nigiri in their hand and use their fingers to shape the two together. This hasn’t made much of a difference for me when I’ve attempted it, so I skip this step at home. Additionally, in Japan, it’s common for a sushi chef to put a small dab of wasabi between the fish and the rice when making nigiri. In America this practice is less common, and since wasabi can be served on the side, I never add wasabi to my nigiri directly.


There is a generally expected size for nigiri, as well as a rice-to-fish ratio. This standard is useful in the restaurant industry, so guests get exactly what they’re expecting, but at home you should feel free to prepare them to your personal preference. Do you love when there’s way more fish than rice? Make a smaller rice ball for your nigiri! Do you like a bit more rice with your fish, or want to stretch your fish to cover more nigiri? Make the rice portion larger! You can also play with the overall size of the nigiri, making them smaller or larger to your preference!

“Ideal” Proportions

An “ideal” nigiri will have a rice ball about 2 inches long by 1 inch wide. The fish slice will be about 1.5 inches wide, 3-4 inches long, and ~1/4″ thick. When the fish is draped over the rice ball, the short ends should touch the plate, but some rice is visible along the side. For some non-fish nigiri, like sea scallops, the top is not expected to drape over the edges of the rice given the shape of the meat.

Salmon Nigiri


Nigiri are delicious plain, but can be dressed up with various toppings and flavors. Topping nigiri is a good way to add some variety to a set of nigiri made with only one or two kinds of fish.

Salmon nigiri, from top to bottom: Lemon olive oil, toasted sesame oil + black sesame seeds, spicy JBBQ sauce + green onion, avocado + spicy mayo + tempura crunch, smoked cream cheese + crispy onions, chili oil + chili crisp, blood orange olive oil.

Traditional Nikiri Sauce

It’s very common in Japan to see nigiri severed with a brush of nikiri sauce over the fish. This eliminates the need for dipping the nigiri in soy sauce. I don’t have a recipe for nikiri sauce on the site at the moment, but it is very similar to my Soy Sake Marinade, and typically contains soy sauce, sake, and mirin.

Flavored Oils

Flavored oils are absolutely my favorite way to top nigiri. They add a bit of flavor and complexity without overpowering the taste of the fish. Lemon infused olive oil and salmon is my favorite combination! I picked up the idea from one of my favorite sushi restaurants, and branched out from there.

To apply the oil to the fish, I pour a small amount (around 1 tbsp) into a small bowl, then brush the oil onto the fish using a silicone basting brush.

My 3 most used oils for sushi are lemon infused olive oil, toasted sesame oil, and chili oil. These all make appearances in my roll recipes as well, so I’ve added the ingredient write-ups for each below! Besides these three, it’s fun to play around with other flavored oils and test out different combinations.

Lemon Olive Oil

  • This is one of the best kept secrets to amazing salmon sushi! You get the lemon flavor that compliments salmon so well, but without the acid in lemon juice cooking the fish and ruining the texture.
  • To apply it to the fish I pour a small amount into a little bowl, then brush it onto the salmon using a basting brush (like this one). You only need about a teaspoon of oil, a little goes a long way!
  • My favorite is from a small olive oil producer from central California. It’s pricey, but one bottle lasts forever if you’re just using it for sushi (link)
  • Here’s another easily available and cheaper option to try (link)
  • You can substitute other citrus flavored olive oils such as lime or orange (this will affect the taste)

Toasted Sesame Oil

  • Toasted sesame oil (sometimes listed as roasted sesame oil) has a strong umami (savory) and nutty flavor. It is a must-have sauce for homemade sushi!
  • Toasted sesame oil is made from toasted sesame seeds, and has a stronger flavor than regular sesame oil. Typically it will be explicitly marked as “toasted” however not all brands make this distinction, including my recommended brand linked below.
  • You can find toasted sesame oil at most major US grocery stores, Asian grocery stores (wider selection), or online (link).

Chili Oil

  • Chili oil is oil that has been infused with dried chili peppers. It’s mildly spicy, and mostly adds flavor rather than heat.
  • You can likely find chili oil at a normal American grocery store in the Asian foods section, however an Asian grocery store may have better prices and a wider array of options. You can also find chili oil online (link)
  • Flavored oils brushed onto sushi fish are one of the easiest ways to elevate your sushi at home and turn it into something incredible!
  • You’ll only use a small amount of oil at a time, so one bottle will last through many batches. I brush this oil onto the fish using a silicon brush like this one. (link)

Other Sauces and Toppings

All kinds of ingredients may be delicious on top of nigiri, I’ve included the ingredient write-ups for a few of my favorites below, but you can see more ideas here. A word of caution, avoid anything with citrus juice in the sauce, such as ponzu. The citrus will “cook” the fish (think ceviche) leaving an undesirable texture.

Yakiniku Sauce (JBBQ Sauce)

  • This is also known as Japanese barbecue sauce, it’s commonly brushed onto grilled meats. It has a savory (umami) flavor that pairs very nicely with tuna.
  • You can find it at your local Japanese market, some regular US groceries stores, or online (link).


  • Tobiko is the name for flying fish roe, which are very small fish roe (eggs) that are naturally red/orange in color. They are about half the size of a sesame seed.
  • You can find tobiko at a Japanese grocery store or online from a specialty fish market (more info here).
  • Tobiko is naturally a red/orange color, however other varieties exist that are flavored and tinted different colors. The most common varieties are green (wasabi), yellow (yuzu/citrus), and black (squid ink). Any of these would be fine to substitute in this recipe!
  • Masago is a similar fish roe that comes from the capelin fish, it is slightly smaller than tobiko but serves a very similar purpose. Masago is typically cheaper than tobiko and generally slightly lower quality. If given a choice I prefer tobiko, however masago can be a great substitute.

Chili Crisp

  • This is a mixture of chili oil, crunchy garlic & peppers, and sometimes additional crunchy items such as sliced almonds. An incredible topping to have on hand for sushi!
  • You can pick up a jar at an Asian grocery store or online (link).

Yuzu Kosho

  • Yuzu Kosho is a very flavorful Japanese seasoning paste made from yuzu (a citrus fruit similar to a lemon) and peppers. It has the distinct taste of yuzu zest along with some spiciness from the pepper.
  • You can find yuzu kosho at a Japanese grocery store, or online (link)!
  • Yuzu kosho can be found somewhat frequently as a topping for sushi, and is also used to flavor grilled meats.
  • A little goes a long way, so one small container should last you through many batches.

Spicy Mayo

  • Spicy mayo is typically made with Japanese mayo and sriracha sauce.
  • Make a homemade mix or pick up a bottle at an Asian grocery store or online (link)
  • For the simplest homemade spicy mayo, combine 1 tbsp Japanese mayo with 1 tsp sriracha sauce.

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