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?

 

No.

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

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