Spicy Tuna Roll: What You Should Know Before Ordering

Spicy tuna roll is a sushi staple. As the name implies, it combines fresh tuna with a spicy sauce, rolled up with rice and nori for a perfect, bite-sized piece of sushi heaven. The Spruce Eats notes that this roll should contain the freshest possible sushi-grade or sashimi-grade tuna — typically bluefin, but yellowfin and albacore tuna are also common. A spicy sauce containing ichimi togarashi, which translates to "one flavor chili pepper," gives the tuna roll the kick it has become so well known for. This "one flavor" is actually just ground red chili pepper.

Like any dish that has achieved popularity all over the globe, there are many variations. The Village Voice consulted sushi chefs and found that they used everything from sambal chile paste, aji panca chile pepper, hot pepper paste, Sriracha, and gochujang to add the signature kick to this roll. As for the mayo, the newspaper reported that spicy tuna rolls were as likely to include Hellmann's as they were Kewpie — a Japanese egg yolk-based condiment. 

History of the spicy tuna roll

If you ever seek out spicy tuna roll as part of an authentic sushi experience overseas, you may have difficulty finding it. Jack Grace, executive chef of H20 Seafood & Sushi in Smithtown, New York, told Mashed that spicy tuna is an "Americanized" roll invented in the 1980s as a way to make use of the extra scraps of tuna from a filet. "It is a good way to not waste the part of the fish," Grace said. "It contains a good amount of tissue that can be scraped away, mixed with spicy mayo, and rolled with some nori and sushi rice," he added.

Grace's account of the history of spicy tuna roll was confirmed by Jean Nakayama, caretaker of Seattle's 117-year-old Maneki restaurant. She saw the origins of this sushi variety firsthand, telling the story in a 2017 Thrillist video. "My husband loves things that were spicy, and 34 years ago, spicy wasn't the thing for Japanese food," Nakayama said. The spicy tuna roll was born out of her husband's experimentation with tuna scraps and his collection of chili sauces. "I want to say that he did invent the spicy tuna roll because of his love of chili sauce," she said.

The best way to eat spicy tuna roll

In one typical recipe, from The Spruce Eats, the tuna scraps are cubed, then mixed with mayonnaise and ichimi togarashi so the sauces thoroughly coat each bit. The mixture is then rolled into rice and nori and, voila! — spicy tuna roll. No Recipes notes that you should only eat spicy tuna rolls when you're familiar with the source of the tuna — especially when making it at home. There is no grading scale for tuna in the U.S., so it's essential that you get it from retailers and restaurants that label their fish. 

Roka Akor names the spicy tuna roll as one of the best options for newcomers to sushi, because of its approachable flavors. You may be tempted to dive right into your plate of spicy tuna roll with your hands, and that's totally acceptable. Chopsticks are okay, too, according to PureWow. First, however, you may want to make a dipping sauce — knowing, of course, that your sushi already contains mayo and the spicy ichimi togarashi. Add wasabi to soy sauce, or opt for eel sauce or more spicy mayo. You may use wasabi solo, dabbing into it with your chopsticks. Opting for these customizations, or perhaps some pickled ginger after each bite, is completely up to you and your palate.

You should eat each piece of sushi in one bite. Two bites for larger rolls is acceptable. Either way, the sushi should be chewed slowly and savored.

What alcohol pairs best with spicy tuna roll?

What's a spicy tuna roll without the perfect drink to accompany it? Michelin Guide California says sushi is traditionally paired with sake, but the fermented rice beverage doesn't always agree with American palates. Champagne is surprisingly good with sushi, according to the guide. In an interview with Mashed, Paulo Villela, sommelier and beverage director for Bohlsen Restaurant Group on Long Island, New York, suggested one wine and one cocktail that would go particularly well with spicy tuna roll.  

"For wine lovers, a riesling with fruit flavors, great natural acidity, will bring out the flavors of the spicy roll, as well as taming the spicy flavors of the roll," Villela said. The Michelin Guide agreed, recommending any wine with a citrus acidity. "For someone who wants a cocktail, Villela added, "I recommend a jalapeño margarita. The spiciness and heat of the cocktail will accompany the spicy flavors of the roll."