Sushi has been a traditional Japanese cuisine for several centuries, and several rules have developed that guide the process of eating this dish. Some of these rules are practical, while others are meant to enhance the flavors of the sushi or show respect to those around you. Follow these guidelines when eating at a sushi bar:
Consider omakase dining. Omakase is a style of dining where the itamae – the sushi chef – chooses dishes for the diner as well as the order in which these dishes will be served. In Japan, asking for omakase dining is a good way to compliment the itamae and ensure that you get only the freshest, choicest sushi. However, this gives the itamae free reign to serve you anything, including strange or exotic food items like live shrimp or octopus.
Elaborate sushi with glazes or sauce should never be dipped in soy sauce.
- Interact with the itamae. When sitting at the sushi bar, always order from the sushi chef. There is no stigma against speaking politely with the itamae. In fact, ignoring the chef and only talking to your server is considered unfriendly and disrespectful. If you must sit at a table because there is no room at the bar, it is still polite to greet the chef, although you should order through the server.
- Show respect to the itamae. You can compliment the itamae by asking for a recommendation before ordering. It is polite to ask the itamae, “What fish is the freshest?” However, do not ask if any given fish is “fresh,” since this is considered rude and implies that it might not be fresh. Thank the itamae after the meal by saying “arigato, and buying him or her a drink if it is evening.
- Follow customary drink order. Begin with sake, then move on to green tea or beer. Wine and soft drinks are not made to go with sushi, because their flavor overpowers the delicate seafood flavors. Ordering these drinks will make you look like a tourist, and in the worst case scenario it will offend the itamae.
- Order one sushi roll at a time. In Japan, it is polite to order one sushi roll at a time, but definitely no more than three at a time even if the sushi bar is busy. If you are in a hurry and cannot order one at a time, order chirashi sushi. It is faster to make and to eat.
- Eat sushi in the right order. Begin with sashimi, then move on to nagiri and makizushi, followed by any elaborate sushi rolls, temaki, tempura or tempura sushi, then dessert. The milder flavors come first, so they are not overpowered by the bold flavors. Edamame, gari and oshinko – pickled roots – can be eaten at any point during the meal, but miso soup is traditionally enjoyed at the very end of the dining experience.
- Sushi can be eaten with hands. Traditionally, nagiri and maki sushi of all kinds are eaten with the hands. It is customary for sushi bars to provide diners with a warm, moist towel that they can use to wipe their hands before eating. However, nowadays most Japanese people eat all sushi with chopsticks. Still, there is nothing wrong with eating maki rolls and nagiri with the hands, so do whatever is comfortable for you. Temaki in particular is still always eaten with the hands because it is too heavy and awkward to eat with chopsticks.
- Hold sushi rice-side up. Nagiri and oshi sushi should always be held with the rice-side up. Be sure to maintain this position when dipping it in soy sauce and eating it. This is because the soy sauce can cause the rice to lose its cohesion and break apart, and rice could fall in the sauce or on the counter if it does not have the topping under it as a support.
- Cleanse your palette with ginger. The pickled ginger – “gari” in Japanese – is not meant to be eaten in the same bite as the sushi. Eating the ginger between switching to a new piece of sushi is considered a respectful way to clear the palette and prepare for new flavors.
- Do not dip elaborate sushi. If the sushi has a teriyaki glaze or a sauce on top, do not dip it in the soy sauce, as this will go against the itamae’s intended flavor profile.
- Eat sushi in one bite. Traditionally, each piece of sushi should be eaten in one bite. It is considered rude to take a bite and then return a half-eaten piece to the plate. If you can’t eat the piece in one bite, hold it with your chopsticks until you are ready to finish.
- Be careful with the wasabi. Mixing wasabi in with the soy sauce may offend the itamae by implying that the sushi is flavorless. Instead, dab a small, controlled amount onto each piece of sushi, signifying that you respect the sushi and do not need to overpower it with wasabi. If you are eating nigiri, the itamae may have added wasabi between the fish and the rice. Try a piece first, and if there is already wasabi on it, do not insult the sushi chef by adding more.
- Rinse fingers in the canal. In Japan, some sushi bars have small streams of water running between the itamae and the diners. You can use this “canal” to rinse your fingers after they become dirty from soy sauce or rice.
- Order side items with a server. If you will be ordering soup, edamame or other side items, make the request to a server or other employee. Asking the itamae for non-sushi foods is considered bad etiquette. However, feel free to ask the sushi chef for pickled ginger, sprouts, or any other items that are advertised at the bar.
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