Iwashi Nigiri (Sardine Nigirizushi)

One of my favorite sushi has to be a simple iwashi nigiri. This is popular in Japan but you do not find it much on menus internationally as many people do not like the idea of raw sardines. However when properly prepared an iwashi nigiri is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Iwashi nigiri is a traditional Edomae style sushi, which means it traces its roots all the way back to the origins of sushi. However you might have noticed in the photo above I used standard sushi rice instead of the proper akazu seasoning.

Sardines are part of the hikarimono family of fishes used in sushi, which means they have silver skin.

What Is Iwashi Nigiri

Iwashi is the Japanese word for sardine so an iwashi nigiri is a small ball of sushi rice (shari) topped with a filet of sardine. Unlike large fish such as salmon or tuna, iwashi is commonly served as an entire filet (one sardine can make two nigiri).

In traditional Edomae style preparation, the filets are salted and then marinated in vinegar, but these days thanks to refrigeration abilities you can make fresh sardine sushi without any marinating or aging.

Iwashi Nigiri Recipe

Since this recipe will be for a single nigiri I will assume you already know how to make sushi rice. If not you can see my complete guide here, but if you only plan on making a singular nigiri you will have a lot of rice left over.

Sardine Preparation Technique

A fresh sardine is a great pleasure, but they can be intimidating to prepare if it is your first time. The first step is to remove the scales. Because iwashi are so delicate you should not use a fish scaler device, but rather the tip of a sharp knife. The scales will come off nice and easily.

After you de-scale the fish, cut off the head and tail.

Then cut off the belly to remove the bottom fins and open up the cavity to clean out the fish innards.

The next step is my favorite. Use your thumb to pry away the spine from the meat. Then gently pull the spine of the fish away leaving a perfectly intact sardine.

If the sardine is large you should also remove the bones around the belly. Use a knife to gently cut away these bones on an angle, taking care not to remove too much meat. Then slice the meat in half so you have two sardine filets prepped for nigiri.

I also recommend a technique called kazari bocho, which is the art of decorative cuts. Use a sharp knife to make a very thin slice down the skin side of the fish revealing the inside flesh.

Edomae Style Iwashi Curing

If you want to do the traditional Edomae style, and you have made your proper rice then you can easily prepare the filets this way.

Lay the filets on a colander and generously sprinkle with salt. Let sit for 15 minutes, then rinse off with cold water. Dry completely and submerge the filets in a small dish of rice vinegar for a couple minutes, this is called suarai (酢洗い). You can do a full sujime if you like, but I prefer a quick rinse for iwashi, personally.


  1. Place the piece of prepared iwashi (sardine) in your left hand with the cut side touching your skin.
  2. Form the shari (rice) with your right hand.
  3. Use your right pointer finger to smear some wasabi on the fish and press the shari into the fish.
  4. Use your hand and fingers to form the nigiri, creating a nice seal between the rice and fish, and expanding the beautiful cut work.
  5. Top with some sliced negi (green onion), optional.

Sushi Terms Used In This Article

nigiri: a type of sushi made of a small ball of rice with a topping(s)

iwashi: the Japanese word for sardine

edomae: a Japanese word that means ‘in front of Edo’ and references sushi made in the traditional Edo period style.

akazu: a Japanese red vinegar made from sake lees

kazari bocho: the act of making fine, thin cuts on a protein or vegetable for culinary or artistic purposes

shari: sushi rice

suarai: preparing fish (or other food) by quickly rinsing with vinegar

sujime: the method of gently marinating fish in rice vinegar to be used in sushi

wasabi: a Japanese root similar to horseradish with a slight spice and pungent, floral notes

negi: green or spring onions.

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