Archive for November, 2012

Sushi Dining Etiquettes?

By Daisuke Utagawa

Nov. 11, 2012

Over the years, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked by friends and diners at Sushiko is; “what is the correct way to eat sushi?” or some specific questions related to “How to eat sushi properly” I usually respond to this with a preface; “the best way is the way it tastes best to you”, and then explain some sushi dinning customs in Japan. Some are based on practical reasons and others more philosophical. Here are some answers I’ve given in the past.

Order Tamago (Sweet Omelet) first?



In the olden days, people used to say “if you want to test the skill level of a sushi chef, and the quality of the restaurant, try the tamago”. To some extent this was true for those days. Eggs were expensive items back then so one could tell the intent of the restaurant if it was made with 100% eggs or some other stuff added, and tamago requires some skills to make. So this led to some dinners starting his/ her meal with tamago. From the point of enjoying sushi, this is not the best starter as tamago is sweet. The sweetness will numb the palate, making it very difficult to enjoy the umami or natural sweetness of the fish. You would not eat chocolate mousse before sampling lightly and expertly salted beluga caviar would you?

No drinking sake or other alcohol beverages when eating sushi?


Ether way is fine. This is more of a philosophical question.

In Japan, we often start with a little sashimi to go with the drinks. Sake, beer, etc. Some people will then stop drinking alcohol when the sushi course starts. For some they say its because sake is made from rice and sushi contains rice, and for others it’s the respect for the rice as its very labor intensive to make Japanese rice.


Hand or Chopsticks?


Both are OK for Sushi. But use chopsticks for other food such as sashimi.

In strictest sense, it’s always better to use chopsticks. The custom of eating sushi with hands came from the days when current style of sushi originated in Edo period some 300 years ago. The first sushi “joints” were sushi carts that would be parked outside the public bath. They did not carry chopsticks since most customers already came with clean hands.


Mixing wasabi with soy-sauce?

No, especially if you have been served fresh grated wasabi.

Fresh grated wasabi has a very delicate floral scent and mixing with soy-sauce will eliminate this beautiful flavor. With sashimi, the best way is to put some wasabi on the fish, then dip the non wasabi side in to soy-sauce before eating. With sushi, there should be wasabi already in between the rice and the fish but if you prefer more, do the same as sashimi.

Don’t soak the sushi in the soy-sauce before eating.

Not only will it ruin the delicate flavor and rice will fall apart, but too much sodium is not good for you! Soy-sauce is a flavor enhancer, not a gravy.

What’s the proper order in which to eat sushi?

I like to start with lighter delicate fish such as flounder, then try some shellfish, moving on to more bold flavored and oily fish, finishing with some temaki or sushi rolls. But if you have good relationship with your sushi chef, let him take you on a journey. After all that’s the whole point of sitting at the sushi bar.

When do we eat the pickled ginger?

The pickled ginger is a palate cleanser; eat them between different kinds of sushi. Don’t put them on the sushi and eat it together, or soak them in the soy dish to add flavor to the soy  sauce.

Don’t use the sushi industry lingo.

This happens more in Japan but some customers learn our industry lingo such as Agari (meaning finish or goal) for Tea, Gari for pickled ginger, Namida for wasabi Oaiso for the bill. Some even learn the lingo for numbers and use them to communicate with the sushi chefs and staff. This is a big turnoff for most sushi chefs. At best, they will think one is showing off, and worst, they will feel invaded… Ether way, its not the best way to forge a relationship with your sushi chef.

And for those who care to know, the proper way to eat at the sushibar.

In a strict sense, all nigiri should be made one or two pieces at a time. And when they are served, eat them straightaway. A properly sharpened yanagi knifes should slice through the cells of the fish rather than tearing them apart. If you pay attention, your palate can tell the difference, and its more flavorful when the fish is cut this way. But if you leave the sushi on the plate, the sliced cells will start to dry. Also leaving the sushi on the plate will make rice too cold and it will loose that delicate balance of looseness and form in short time. If the nigiri is made properly, the rice should be formed just right, not too tight, and not too loose, it should naturally break down to individual grins of rice once it’s in your mouth.

Either with chopsticks or by hand, dip the fish, fish side down (just the corner will do) in to the soy sauce and then put the soy side down on to your palate. This way you will not have to use excess soy sauce and enjoy a full flavor of soy as well. If you are using chopsticks, its easier to roll the nigiri on the side then hold it with chopsticks so one stick will be holding the rice, and another the fish, this way its much easier to dip and bring the dipped side to the palate.

Since you are sitting at the sushibar, you can ask if you want more or less wasabi in your sushi eliminating the need to add wasabi yourself.

Very few edible things are as satisfying and intoxicating as expertly made nigiri sushi. Lukewarm perfectly cooked and seasoned glossy sushi-rice unfolding in your palate while the vinegar from the sushi rice agitates the slightly cooler fish meat bringing out its full umami potential, while the sweetness of the rice plays well with floral quality of fresh wasabi, all held together by faint flavor of well made soy sauce.

And that is real sushi!

Daisuke Utagawa


In the 90’s, I started pairing Burgundy red wines with Japanese food. I thought that the delicate tannins in burgundy reds helped define the elusive umami in Japanese food. And by tannins leaving the wine to pair off with umami, it unlocked the hidden flavors of the wine. The result was like a savory flavor of fish coming back on your palate holding a bouquet of fresh and exotic flowers. Philosophically speaking, I think wine making in Burgundy region and Japanese cuisine is essentially the same. Both practice the idea of refining what nature has to offer to show its true and best quality, rather than to “create the taste”. In Burgundy, they say the “expression of the terroir” in Japan, we say “to give life to the ingredients”.

Back then, I was just having fun with my wine friends but one day an article came out on Wall Street Journal about my efforts. The article itself was fairly written quoting those who have tried it (and liked it) and those who did not. But the article ended with a quote from some wine guy in Boston saying “I’ve never tried it but I think it would be a waste of a good burgundy bottle”. I was a bit ticked off by it and so I decided to bring Sushiko staff to France and cook for the winemakers themselves. Let them tell me themselves if its waste of their wines! Needing guidance of how to go about inviting the wine makers, I spoke with my friend Becky Wasserman, who is a bit like an Ambassador of burgundy wines and who also lives in Burgundy. Becky, without even trying the pairing herself, embraced the idea and told me that normally no one will come to such event but if she hosted it, the winemakers would have to come. So we decided to do it on one Sunday in November for lunch. I believe it was 1999.

When the day came, I thought to my self, “what the hell did I get myself in to?” The wine makers came with their own wines of course, but they were all visibly uncomfortable, some were down right angry. Burgundian wine makers are not the sort who masks their feelings when it comes to wines or food. Most of them came to me and actually told me that this is going to be a disaster! Of course it helped that I did not understand French back then. To make matters worse, since I did not know which wines from their portfolio each of the 6 wine makers would bring for the event, I had to taste them on the spot and pair them with our food. When I was done choosing the order in which these wines will be served, Becky came to me and politely asked me if I might had miss communicated the order of wines with the staff. I told her I did not. Well that did not go well with the guests as I have put some Grand Cru wines before 1er Cru wines. That is never done in France! “What a savage!” must have thought the guests. But I was more interested in the emergence of the third character the sum of wine and the food pairing, and its progression as the story unfolds rather than just the progression of wines or food alone. Of course the fact they all brought fabulous wines helped. (I knew they were not going to bring wines that did not show well to the event, after all, there are other wine makers there!)

By the time Becky introduced me and I gave my simple explanation of what my idea is about, we began. By this time, the crowd was super skeptical and rather upset. As a result when the first course was served, no one uttered a word or even a sound. Second course, a little murmur was heard in the dinning room. People were looking at each-other as if to say “do you taste what I’m tasting?” Third course, an explosion of complimentary adjectives! After the sixth course was all mopped up, all the winemakers got up and sang a burgundian harvest song in our honor! I had to hold back my tears…

Because of the overwhelming response, we did the same event for few years in a row after that. Always inviting different wine makers. Then the word spread and our team was invited to Japan to do the same event for Berry Brothers & Rudd, a prominent wine merchant from London, we even did a gig at the James Beard House as well. The funny thing is one day in NYC, I was having a dinner at a restaurant and the proprietor spotted the wine I was having and started to tell me about this “Old Chef in Washington DC who started the pairing of burgundy wine and Japanese cuisine, I had to tell him that the person in question is not old!

Daisuke Utagawa

Some fish, even if they are to be served raw like for Sushi or Sashimi, can benefit from aging. “What, aging fish?!” That’s what I thought when I first started as an apprentice sushi cook. Like everyone, I thought all the fish are best eaten right out of the water, fresher it is, the tastier. Turns out that is not true…

Madai for instance, is best around the third day from the catch. A large Tuna (we are talking about 200lb and bigger) is most delicious after about a week or 10 days from the catch. I am not suggesting leaving the fish laying about for days after the catch, and of course one must properly treat the fish right out of the water in order to age them.

Lets take Hirame for example, one of the lightest and most delicate tasting fish. A typical routine for chefs in Japan is to go to the fish market every morning and choose the fish according to the quality and price. The fish at the market are all caught the night before, and have been killed swiftly and bled properly on the boat right after the catch. One can easily tell that by the clearness of the eyes, stiffness of the fish and the condition of its skin. Once the Hirame is brought back to the kitchen, they are cleaned before aging. The degree of cleaning depends on the chefs’ preference. Some only clean the gut and de-scale them. Some will de-bone. Once cleaned, they are normally kept in fridge for 3 days before showing up in the Terashi (Sushi display case) for customers. In three days Hirame will be much “sweeter” and have more umami. Most respected sushi restaurants will not even serve Hirame caught the same day even if they run out of the aged ones.

With tuna, the aging process takes even longer. When tuna is well aged, the meat becomes very tender and fragile, this is the reason many chefs use Takohiki, a special thin blade knife to cut aged tuna for sushi or sashimi. A dab of fresh wasabi on the aged tuna with a bit of Shoyu (soy sauce) on the corner and you have a most satisfying complex savory fish swimming in a flower garden (fresh wasabi that is) in your palate.

The proprietor of one of my favorite fish restaurant Le Tiboulen de Maire in Marseille France goes even further. He instructs the fishermen where to fish –as he knows the local water very well- and even how to catch the fish. All his fish are line caught, no nets. He says when fish are caught by net, there are other fish in the net and some fish eat one another resulting in fish with full stomachs. He prefers his fish to have empty stomachs because when he ages his fish, he leaves the fish intact without even cleaning the inside. He tells me that he will not even let the fish touch fresh water or ice. Just right out of sea water, properly killed and bled, and kept in the fridge for 2 to 3 days before grilling. The result is amazingly flavorful grilled St. Pierre, and one can even eat the grilled liver after 3 days! That liver of Grilled St. Pierre alone is worth the trip to France.

On the other hand, not all fish should be aged. Generally speaking, shellfish and small sized high oil content fish such as Iwashi and Aji are best when it’s super fresh. A squid is actually clear as a crystal right out of the sea. Transparent squid like that are so sweet and crunchy as sashimi, but within 20 minutes the flesh will become milky in color and start loosing its flavor and texture. Uni right out of its shell is much sweeter and delicate then the ones we normally see in the boxes. Fresh Aji Tataki with ginger and green onion is to die for. And some Japanese fishermen will de-bone fresh caught sardines by hand, chop them up and mix them with miso, ginger, and green onions, then place the mix over hot steamed rice and make Iwashi Tataki Donburi!!! I’ve had the same dish, but on land, and it was by far the best sardine dish I’ve had in my life. I can only imagine how it will taste on the fishing boat…

Daisuke Utagawa

Madai = Red Seabream

Hirame = Large-tooth flounder or Left eyed fluke.

St Pierre = John Dory

Iwashi = Sardine

Iwashi Tataki = roughly de-boned and chopped Sardine tossed with fresh graded ginger and chopped green onion.

Aji = Horse Mackerel

Uni = Sea Urchin


Le Tiboulen de Maire

Chemin des Goudes – 13008 Marseille

Phone +33 4 91 25 26 30