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What is Futomaki?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Futomaki is a type of rolled sushi that is known for its large size and careful balance of ingredients. People who think of sushi as just raw fish are often very surprised by the care and artistry that goes into these rolls. They are usually filled with different colored vegetables and may not even contain fish at all. Chefs design futomaki to be both delicious and pleasing to the eye, and they often choose ingredients for how well they balance with each other both in taste and looks.

Distinguishing Characteristics

The word “futomaki” is Japanese for “fat roll,” and this name couldn’t be more appropriate. Rolls are usually at least 1.5 inches (3.81 cm) in diameter if not larger, and are made up of three main parts. The outside “casing” or “shell” of the roll is traditionally a thin sheet of nori seaweed, which is basically seaweed that has been pressed and dried into a thin but flexible rectangle. Soy paper or thin cooked egg can be used in rare instances. The inside is made up of both sushi rice and chosen fillings.

Sushi rice is a special variety of short-grained, sticky rice. When it is used in rolls, it is usually seasoned with a bit of mirin, a rice vinegar, and may also be salted in order to help it stick together and adhere to the other ingredients. These “other ingredients” are where the sushi chefs have the most flexibility. Vegetables are common choices, particularly cucumber, carrot, and mushroom; cooked seafood such as crab or eel may also be used. Some rolls feature raw fish, but not often.

How It’s Made

The basic rolling process can take some time to master, but is not particularly difficult. Most sushi chefs begin with a sushi mat, a tool made up of bamboo slats woven together into a flexible surface. The chef will place the nori directly on the mat, and will then cover nearly the entire surface with prepared sushi rice. The other ingredients, cut into thin strips, are placed on top of the rice. Most of the time, these ingredients are stacked in the center and do not take up the entire surface area.

When everything is in place, the chef will create the roll by slowly folding the bamboo mat inwards. This movement causes the nori to fold over onto itself from one edge to the next. The end result is a thick log that should hold itself together. Chefs sometimes present the futomaki as a single whole like this, but more commonly will slice it into individual rounds. Each round contains a small taste of all of the ingredients that were stacked on top of the rice.

Artistic Elements

Many of the world’s best sushi chefs pride themselves on the artistry and care that goes into their rolls. Traditional Japanese cooking encourages chefs, whether professional or amateur, to carefully choose their ingredients to create meals with a balance of salty, sweet, tangy, and sour. In many ways, futomaki is a perfect way to showcase this balance. Cooks will choose vegetables and fish that both look good and taste good together.

Very serious cooks may prepare their rolls to create images in the final sliced products. Arranging vegetables carefully can lead to sliced pieces that seem to hold the picture of a flower or a sunrise, for instance. It is also common for mothers to make ones for their children that seem to contain smiling faces or cute animals. There is a lot of room for creativity with this particular type of sushi.

Where to Find It

Futomaki is most commonly found in sushi restaurants, both in and outside of Japan. It is almost always made to order, which means that customers may have some say over what the roll will contain — a vegetarian may want to request a roll with no seafood, for instance. Just because changes are easy to make does not mean that cooks will actually make them, however. Depending on the restaurant, substitutions or additions may be seen as an insult to the chef’s artistic eye. It is often best to choose a roll from the menu that can be enjoyed as-is.

Rolls may also be available pre-made in certain specialty shops or grocery stores. Those made with pickled vegetables or cooked fish will often last for a few days on the shelf, but most people agree that the taste is best when fresh. When they contain raw fish, they should usually be consumed within a few hours of their preparation to prevent food poisoning.

Many home cooks also have success making these sushi rolls. The actual rolling process tends to be somewhat forgiving of beginners, and there is a great deal of flexibility when it comes to ingredients. Pretty much anything a cook has on hand can be used, which can be a good way to use up leftovers or repurpose extra vegetables and fish.

How to Eat It

The most traditional way to eat futomaki is with chopsticks. The sliced rolls typically come arranged on a plate or platter, and people eat one slice at a time. Some like to dip the slices in soy sauce while others enjoy them plain. In order to really get an appreciation for the balanced flavors, it is usually a good idea to eat slowly, chewing each bite to fully taste all of the ingredients that are included.

It is not common for futomaki to be eaten as an entire unsliced log, but there are certain times when this may be appropriate. When the Japanese celebrate Setsuban, the day that precedes the beginning of a new season, many people eat whole rolls as something of a festival ritual. This practice began in the Kansai region of central Japan as a way to ensure good luck for the coming season, and has become standard throughout much of the country. Eating the whole roll is not as pleasing to the eye, but should nonetheless be undertaken with the same slowness and intentionality that comes with eating slices. The idea is to appreciate the contrasting and complementary flavors, whether or not they can actually be seen.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon336143 — On May 26, 2013

"I've been told that it takes a while to get used to eating seaweed."

Not really, since it doesn't taste like much (at least not as used in sushi). If it makes you sick, the problem is probably entirely in your head.

By anon310353 — On Dec 21, 2012

Kimbab is a copy of futomaki. The origin of kimbab is futomaki.

By anon308868 — On Dec 13, 2012

Futomaki is called "Gimbab" in South Korea. Koreans love it very much.

By orangey03 — On Nov 21, 2012

@kylee07drg – You hold it up to your mouth vertically, like you would hold a clarinet before playing it. I've read about people who eat futomaki whole for spiritual reasons, and you have to go by some guidelines.

You have to eat the roll in silence. Also, you have to face a certain way, depending on the day.

The roll has to have seven ingredients. It can't be sliced at all.

By kylee07drg — On Nov 20, 2012

How would someone go about eating a futomaki roll whole? Do you just hold it in your hands like a submarine sandwich and munch on one end while bits of food fall out, or is there a neater method?

By Kristee — On Nov 19, 2012

@cloudel – I like both crab and salmon, but I can't stand seaweed. I ordered futomaki once at a restaurant because someone told me it was so good, but it made me turn positively green with nausea later.

I've been told that it takes awhile to get used to eating seaweed. After feeling that ill from consuming it, I don't want to put forth the effort!

I like the type of sushi that either has a tempura batter coating or is wrapped in soy paper. That kind is filling and delicious, and it doesn't make me queasy.

By cloudel — On Nov 19, 2012

Futomaki is delicious. I love the kind with crab inside, because to me, crab is much more tasty than salmon. Also, crab goes great with the flavor of the seafood and other ingredients.

The rice is a nice binder and filler. It doesn't really have a taste of its own, but it doesn't interfere with the flavors of the other ingredients, either.

By Fa5t3r — On Nov 11, 2012

@bythewell - If you want some amazing and nutritious recipes for futomaki and other kinds of sushi, try looking in recipe books for bento boxes.

It's a Japanese custom to try and make the most beautiful and intricate little lunches to go into bento boxes, particularly for kids at school, for it's considered a sign of love from the mother.

They make all kinds of cute little characters and scenes and futomaki rolls are one of their recipes.

You aren't limited at all by colors because there are all kinds of tricks for dying the rice naturally, like using red cabbage and so forth. The goal is to make something that looks good and is nutritious as well, which is the general goal of people who are making futomaki, so they go well together.

By bythewell — On Nov 10, 2012

@Iluviaporos - There are some amazing pictures of futomaki online if you have a look. I've even seen pictures of futomaki slices with a picture of a flower in the middle, made from various ingredients. I imagine if you were creative you could make any kind of simple picture or pattern.

Being able to use the traditional seaweed as a way of outlining the picture can be really effective.

By lluviaporos — On Nov 09, 2012

Essentially, futomaki is the same as what some people would call a "California roll" although probably a bit bigger than that and certainly made with more care than the average California roll.

I just love this kind of food, the taste of futomaki is almost always divine, but unfortunately, I'm not supposed to eat such large amounts of starch for a meal, so I don't have it very often. When I do, I try to have either smoked salmon or chicken as the main part, along with pickled ginger, wasabe spread and soy sauce. Yum!

By aplenty — On Jul 23, 2010

Another type of nori roll is Temaki. Temaki is a nori roll rolled up into a cone shape. The nori is held in the hand, and rice and fillings are laid across one third of the nori. Next, you roll the nori, rice, and fillings up with the remaining nori into a cone shape. Dip the sushi in soy sauce and wasabi and enjoy.

By GlassAxe — On Jul 23, 2010

Similar to a Futomaki roll is an Uramaki roll. Uramaki rolls are sushi rolls where the rice is on the outside with nori on the inside.

To make Uramaki rolls, you spread the sushi rice over a sushi mat covered with saran wrap. Next, you lay the nori down and place the toppings on the nori. Finally, roll the sushi the same as a Futomaki roll.

Once rolled, the Uramaki can be sliced or eaten whole. You can also top the roll with sliced fish or vegetables, roll in black or white sesame seeds, or drizzle with sauce.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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