They say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. When you opt for a foreign experience you need to pay attention to how people behave in a certain situation or circumstances. If you are going out with friends or colleagues to eat sushi, it is a good idea to educate yourself on sushi etiquette. This way not only will be comfortable at the sushi bar, and you are also likely to enjoy the experience fully.
Sushi- The Japanese Way
While today sushi is considered to be a Japanese delicacy, its roots lie in China. Centuries ago sushi was a way for the common folks to pickle and preserve their fish and meat for the long, harsh winters. Over time this method of preservation developed into a culinary art, one that creates a wonderful balance of flavor, texture and visual appeal.
The first thing you need to know about sushi, is that the itamae or the sushi chef is accorded respect and reverence. You should bow and wish him as you are seated at the bar or at a table. Most often sushi bars seat their patrons close to the itamae where they can see the chef prepare the sushi. If the chef doesn’t appear to be bus, it is okay to ask him questions about the food, but avoid making small talk about the weather or sports. It is a good idea to ask him for recommendations, rather than order any odd dish than catches your fancy.
The itamae is a culinary artist and everything he prepares for you requires precision, and understanding of the ingredients. Unlike most other restaurants where you may add ketchup or other sauces freely to your food, at a sushi bar and restaurant it is better to first taste what the chef has prepared for you. This is especially true of preparations that include a sauce. The itamae creates the sushi to achieve a fine balance of flavors and so, do avoid the temptation to dip it in soy sauce.
If you do feel the need to add a touch of soy sauce, do just that by gently touching the fish to the sauce and placing it delicately in your mouth. Only take a small serving of soy sauce, as it is considered rude to leave any in the small bowl when you are done with your meal.
Chopsticks or hands
It is perfectly fine to eat sushi with your hands. In fact, connoisseurs believe that it adds to the experience, as you are able to feel the texture of the food before you lay it in your mouth. Usually a moist hand towel is kept besides the table setting, and is to be used to wipe the fingers and hands clean. The towel is not to be used to freshen up. In recent times, more and more sushi bars also offer their guests chopsticks that are laid beside the palate. If you are uncomfortable using the chopsticks or are worried about your dexterity then you can use your fingers just as proficiently.
When you are using the chopsticks avoid playing with them or pointing them at anyone, especially when you are conversing with your dinner date. When you are not eating, place the chopsticks on their holder and parallel to the table, or to the right of the palate. Do not place them on the plate or on the small soy sauce bowl.
If the chopsticks are disposable and don’t come with a holder, you can use the paper wrapper to create a little holder for them. Chopsticks placed on the plate are a sign for the wait staff to clear away your palate. In addition, don’t place the chopsticks on the rice, as it is reminiscent to a Japanese funeral ritual. When not in use, the chopsticks should be kept parallel and not crossed.
The Omakase style of dining allows the itamae to choose the dishes for your meal. It is a way to honor the chef as he will offer you the very best fare. In case you have any allergies or preferences, it is polite to mention the same to your server.
If you are sitting at the sushi bar it is considered polite to interact with the chef as long as it doesn’t interfere with his work. Please don’t ask him if the fish is fresh, this is considered to be rude.
When it comes to your choice of beverage you should begin with sake, and later move on to green tea or beer. Food experts recommend that you avoid pairing wine with sushi as the flavor of the drink is overpowering and will not allow your palate the opportunity to enjoy the subtle flavors associated with sushi. Sodas and sweetened drinks should also be avoided for the same reason.
If you intend to order non-sushi items on the menu, please direct your request to the server and not the itamae. You can ask the chef for items such as pickles and sprouts that may be advertised at the bar.
Eating and drinking
It is best to eat sushi at the bar or counter rather than on a table. This way, you will enjoy seeing the chef at work and will also enjoy the sushi fresh, just the way it is meant to be enjoyed. This is especially true of the maki sushi which is prepared with seaweed, and is crisp when eaten fresh.
The correct way to eat sushi is by placing the fish portion on your tongue. In other words ensure that the rice side is held up. This ensures that your taste buds experience the subtle flavors of sushi. It is best to avoid adding any sauce to it, but if you want to, do ensure that you only dip the fish lightly in the sauce and not the rice. You don’t want to leave grains of rice in the soy sauce bowl. Also, if the rice is wet with the sauce, the complex presentation of the sushi is likely to disintegrate.
Sushi is essentially a finger food and usually meant to be eaten in a single bite. If you are unable to do so then, take a bite and hold the rest of the sushi with your chopsticks until you are ready to finish it. Do not place the uneaten part on the plate. It is disrespectful to break the sushi and cause it to disintegrate on the dish. Also do ensure you clear up stray grains of rice that may have fallen on the plate.
While some sushi lovers claim that there is no right order for eating sushi, you may like to start with sashimi, followed by nagiri and makizushi and then by the more complex rolls and tempura. Essentially you will begin your meal with sushi that has a subtle and delicate flavor, followed by those that have a stronger and bolder taste. It is customary to eat picked roots such as gari or ginger, edamame and oshinko to cleanse the palate. These are meant to be eaten before you switch to a different sort of sushi. Eating the pickle is a mark of respect to the chef as you clear your palate before eating a different sushi. Avoid eating the pickle with the sushi.
Sushi that has a glaze or a sauce should not be dipped in soy sauce. It has been prepared and should be eaten as it is offered. Similarly when you are eating nigiri, the chef would have probably added a touch of wasabi so first eat a piece before you decide if you want to add some more. If you are adding a touch of wasabi to your sushi, avoid mixing it with the soy sauce.
Tea is usually drunk with the meal. Hold your teacup in one hand and place the other underneath it for support. It is considered rude to fill your own cup with drink, so fill your friend’s cup and allow them to return the favor. If the chef offers you a drink, accept it graciously and say “kanpai” or cheers in Japanese and drink up. You may order dessert at the end of your meal. After which the server will probably ask you if you would like miso soup, which is enjoyed at the end of the meal.
If you wish to share your sushi with your date or a friend, don’t pass it from chopstick to chopstick. This too, is a crucial funeral ritual. Instead pick the sushi with the wider end of the chopstick and place it on their plate. Avoid using the thinner end of the chopstick as it would have come in contact with your mouth. If you are picking food from a shared platter then it is polite to use chopsticks for the purpose and not your hands.
End of the meal
At the end of the meal you may like to offer the itamae a drink as a sign of your appreciation and to give thanks for a wonderful meal. Do remember that you shouldn’t hand over cash to the sushi chef as he handles fresh ingredients all the time. Payment for the meal must be made to the cashier or the server.