Let’s face it: sushi has evolved (or arguably, devolved) far from its traditional Japanese roots. Offerings with cream cheese, pineapple, and barbecued meats all purport to be sushi, but aren’t exactly authentic. There’s a reason it’s called a California roll and not a Tokyo roll.
This doesn’t mean that it’s bad to like these menu choices, or for restaurants to offer them. All chefs, including sushi chefs, should feel free to experiment and offer anything they think will delight their guests. But with sushi so far from its origins, how closely to traditional sushi etiquette should we hold ourselves? Will you look like a dork if you bow to the sushi chef? (Answer: probably, even though this would be expected in Japan).
I look at it this way: most of us know it’s considered rude to place your elbows on the table. But Emily Post herself wrote in 1922 that there are exceptions:
…the tolerated elbow-on-table is used only on occasion and for a reason… Elbows are universally seen on tables in restaurants, especially when … it is impossible to make oneself heard above the music by one’s table companions, and at the same time not be heard at other tables nearby, without leaning far forward.
You’re my girl, Emily. Elbows are fine in my book, too.
Rigidity in dining does not lend itself to an enjoyable meal; however, certain customs are designed to help you enjoy your sushi more fully. These rules are worth following, not because you’ll please those around you with your impeccable manners (which I assume you already do), but because these guidelines will help you taste sushi the way it was intended and have an enjoyable experience while you do.
Upon entering a sushi restaurant, the chef and staff will often loudly greet you with “irasshaimase!” As Sterling Ridings, chef de cuisine at Uchiko explains, “It’s to welcome you and show that they’re enthusiastic about you coming into the restaurant.”
A greeting in any restaurant is a first impression, a signifier of what’s to come. Respond with a smile and a happy hello, and think of this exchange as opening a dialogue with the chef. You may want to ask questions or look for recommendations, and your salutation will begin that conversation in a positive way.
Order Is Everything
Just like wine tasting, it’s a good idea to start off light and end with heavy. Order sashimi first, then follow with nigiri and maki. You might even want to buck the trend and hold off on your miso soup. Its saltiness is a good palate cleanser, but not the best way to kick things off.
Eat your sushi in the order the chef presents it to you. He wants you to experience the sushi at its optimal temperature, taking into consideration the coldness of the fish and the warmth of the rice. For this reason, try to sit at the sushi bar rather than at a table, and don’t order sushi to go.
To Chopstick or Not to Chopstick
Some people say you should eat sashimi with your fingers and nigiri with chopsticks. Some say the exact opposite. So what should you do?
One benefit of eating sushi with your fingers is it enables you to feel the texture, enhancing your sensory understanding of what you’re about to eat. In the case of nigiri, holding the piece delicately between your thumb and forefinger also helps keep the fish and rice together, whereas chopsticks might break them apart. And, if you’re not confident in your chopstick skills, using your fingers removes that frustration altogether.
I think either chopsticks or hands are acceptable. If you’re in a more formal or traditional setting, don’t be embarrassed to ask. The chef should be honored that you want to know how he thinks his food is best enjoyed.
Wasabi, Soy Sauce, and Ginger, Oh My!
When raw fish and sushi are put together to make nigiri, the chef dabs a little wasabi between them. If you’d like a little extra, use your chopsticks to place a bit of wasabi on top of the nigiri. But don’t overdo it; sushi is meant to be delicate, and the strong pungency of the horseradish will overpower the flavor.
When it comes to soy sauce, don’t overfill your cup. Wasting soy sauce is taboo in Japan, and you can always add more if you need it. When you go to high-end restaurants, you know how there are no salt shakers on the table because the chef wants his seasoning levels just so? Well, drowning your fish in soy sauce falls into the same realm. A touch of shoyu is okay, but turn your sushi on its side to lift it, and then dip it fish-side down. This way, the rice, which is an artful sushi chef’s true pride, doesn’t soak up all the soy sauce.
And if you’re prone to mix your wasabi and soy sauce into a greenish mud, don’t. You’ll be forgiven for mixing if you’re only eating sashimi (and if you’re really discreet), but remember over-flavoring your food could be interpreted by the chef as an insult. For the same reason, if a piece comes with sauce already on it, as unagi (eel) and saba (mackerel) usually do, don’t use soy sauce or any other condiment.
Finally, don’t place ginger on top of your sushi. Pickled ginger is meant as a palate cleanser, and should be enjoyed between pieces.
Traditionally, you should eat your sushi in a single bite. This goes for sashimi, nigiri sushi, and maki rolls. But let’s be honest. Super-sized creations you’ll find here in the States will cause you to choke if you try eating them in one bite. And taking small bites is certainly better than stuffing your face full with futomaki. If you do bite into your sushi, just do your best to keep it all together and appreciate each of the ingredients at once.
In Japan, tipping is rare, but here in America, tipping is a common way to express gratitude for good service. When you tip, never hand money directly to the sushi chef; he’s working with raw fish and doesn’t want his hands to touch money. Another way to show your appreciation is to offer to buy the chef a shot of sake, and if he accepts, have one with him.
Got more tips? Leave them in the comments!