Japanese food has garnered a considerable amount of attention in recent years due to its amazingly healthy properties and clean, balanced flavors. Though Americans have grown familiar with sushi and other cornerstones of Japanese cuisine, many still find it difficult to break through all the barriers, protocols, and – yes – cases of mistaken identity that continue to surround the dishes to this day. With these quick tips, those interested in learning more about sushi have a solid place to start before moving on to the advanced courses.
- 1. Not all sushi is raw fish!The presence of vinegared rice is what constitutes a sushi dish. No matter what toppings – raw or cooked – are added into the mix, so long as the specially prepared rice is there, whatever is being consumed can be considered sushi.
Wasabi is a fluorescent green condiment that kicks like a bronco. There are multiple ways to apply it to a piece of sushi, but try it in tiny doses at first to gauge tolerance. Many a prankster has taken advantage of a naïve friend and found pleasure in their reactions to this pungent horseradish paste.
Almost all Japanese dishes come accompanied by both a wad of wasabi and a small pile of lively pink or ecru gari. Eat a slice between sushi pieces to keep the palate feeling fresh and clean. Doing so imbues diners with the ability to taste the full complex flavor of every different roll, wrap, nigiri, or other sushi style.
4. Never eat the purple tuna (toro).
Tuna at its freshest and healthiest should be a vibrant dark red color. If served a slice with a purplish tinge, do not even try to eat it. The coloring indicates compromised freshness and quality and could result in violent illness.
5. Want raw fish with no rice? Order the sashimi instead.
Many people unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine usually think of sashimi when the subject of sushi gets brought up. Anyone curious about the simple taste of raw fish without the vinegared rice that qualifies a dish as sushi should order slices of sashimi. Salmon (sake, pronounced the same as the beverage) and tuna are two of the most popular fish in both the United States and Japan.
6. Take advantage of lunch specials when trying new things.
Most sushi bars and restaurants host lunch specials or happy hour deals with discounted food of the same quality served during dinner time. Novices to Japanese cuisine will want to give it a chance when they spend less money on dishes they may not entirely enjoy.
7. Feel free to ask the chef (itamae) for any recommendations.
Most sushi chefs are more than happy to help diners unfamiliar with Japanese food pick out dishes that sound appealing to their palates. Be sure to ask them about their specialties as well if hoping to sample the best sushi the restaurant or bar has to offer.
8. Order sake with sashimi. Sushi tastes best with beer or tea.
Because sake is made from fermented rice, most sushi connoisseurs consider drinking it with sushi a redundancy. It complements sashimi fine, but those hoping for a beverage best suited to accompany nigiri, maki, or other sushi dishes would do best to drink hot tea or beer instead. Try to avoid rice beers, of course.
9. Never be afraid to ask questions of an itamae or waitron.
Beyond inquiries into food, it is never taboo to ask the staff about etiquette protocol or any taboos when it comes to dining at a sushi bar or restaurant. They are usually perfectly happy to help with anything from pronunciations to how to properly use chopsticks.
10. Chopsticks are optional when it comes to sushi.
Sashimi should be eaten with chopsticks, but it is not considered rude to consume nigiri or maki sushi without any utensils whatsoever. There are several different accepted techniques to hold the pieces and keep them together with the fingers.
11. Dip pieces of nigiri sushi into soy sauce (shoyu) topping side first.
Rice soaks up shoyu quickly, overpowering the delicate vinegar flavoring. While it may be awkward at first, turn nigiri pieces upside-down so that the sauce covers the topping instead. This allows diners better control of their condiments and does not compromise taste.
12. Eat nigiri pieces upside-down.
Doing so brings out the complex, carefully balanced flavors in the sushi best. Eating nigiri rice-first may cause palates to predominately taste the light, starchy vinegar over the topping.
13. Eat nigiri pieces in one or two bites.
Most nigiri comes with a subtle smear of wasabi between the topping and the pillow of rice. One to two bites ensures that the diner consumes the piece as it was meant to be tasted – with all ingredients painstakingly playing off one another. Three or more bites may mean missing out on all the itamae’s carefully constructed crafting.
14. Place several small orders instead of one large order.
Even with specials, sushi is not cheap or easy to make. Ordering too much early on could result in a very expensive waste of time and pricy ingredients. Some places even charge extra for uneaten food because of this. Ask for sushi pieces a few at a time and dine at a pace that works with both time and budget in order to prevent such squandering.
15. Pour shoyu sparingly.
Again, prudently utilizing condiments minimizes waste, but cultural implications are also at play here. Pouring too much soy sauce may be interpreted as an insult to the sushi chef’s abilities, implying that his skills at balancing flavor are sub-par and require masking with liberal amounts of shoyu.
16. There are several ways to use wasabi…
Some sushi fanatics swear by the smear, placing a little bit of wasabi on top of a piece before consumption. Others swirl it into a tiny puddle of soy sauce. There is no love lost between the two groups, who argue over which method is proper. In reality, both techniques work just fine.
17. …but please don’t go overboard.
As with the aforementioned shoyu example, an overuse of wasabi potentially signals a displeasure with theitamae’s culinary prowess.
18. Sit at the sushi bar.
Any newcomer to the sushi scene must sit at the bar itself. This allows for a firsthand glimpse of the chef at work, familiarizing them with the process and facilitating conversation with the itamae when he or she has a moment to talk. Watching the amazing artistry behind the food certainly nurtures an appreciation for Japanese cuisine and everything that goes into crafting it, regardless of whether or not a diner ultimately enjoys sushi.
19. When sitting at the bar, only order sushi or sashimi from the itamae.
Every other request, whether for drinks, soup, tempura, noodles, or other dishes, should be directed to the waiter or waitress. Leave the chef to pay attention to doing what he or she does best.
Asking outright about the freshness is rather insulting to the hardworking men and women who must pick out the best fish, shellfish, and vegetables available on a daily basis. There are ways to inspect for freshness simply by observing the pieces served and the ingredients themselves on display at the bar. If ever there are doubts about the quality of the ingredients used at a sushi bar or restaurant, do not even bother eating there at all.
21. Do not take food off a dining companion’s plate with the eating end of chopsticks.
Pick up food of other people’s plates with the other end of the chopsticks, which does not touch the mouth. Doing otherwise compromises sanitation and cleanliness.
22. Never pass food with chopsticks.
Instead, pass the plate and allow dining companions to pick up the food themselves. Passing with chopsticks resembles the bone protocol during traditional Japanese funerals.
23. Buy the itamae a sake or beer to show appreciation.
Doing so does not take the place of a tip, of course, but many enjoy establishing a rapport with the sushi chef and treating him or her to a sake or beer as a way of showing appreciation for an exquisite meal.
24. If drinking from a carafe, dining companions should refill each other.
This typically holds for alcoholic beverages, but it also a nice, polite gesture when consuming tea from a shared container as well. Individuals must serve others before serving themselves, and wait patiently for their dining companions to follow suit when in need of more drink. Alternately, if serving oneself, be sure to offer others a refill first.
25. Never stick chopsticks straight up in a rice bowl.
Instead, place them over the shallow shoyu dish or a provided chopstick rest. Making them stand upright in a bowl of rice recalls the incense sticks burned at funerals.
26. Be sure to tip both the waitron and the itamae.
At sushi establishments, it is advisable to leave tips for the waiter or waitress as well as the chef. If there is not a tip jar available at the bar, simply add it to the bill and indicate the split.
27. Make sure the fish does not have an overly pungent odor.
Though some seafood does naturally admit a slightly fishy smell, a pronounced bouquet of rancidity indicates compromised freshness. It is not considered rude or wasteful to skip over a piece of sushi due to safety concerns.
28. Fish flesh must be firm.
This can be tested by pressing it with a finger. If the flesh feels mushy or does not spring back (as it were) from denting, then it is not fresh and should not be eaten. The only exception to this rule is sea urchin, which has a naturally soft, buttery texture.
29. Do not eat raw fish if pregnant.
In spite of all the health benefits of raw fish, pregnant women are discouraged from indulging. Slices of sashimi, nigiri topped with sake or toro, and other dishes still pose a risk – however slight – of causing damage to unborn children.
30. Do not eat raw freshwater fish.
Far more parasites are present in freshwater fish than those residing in saltwater because the majority cannot handle the high salinity of the latter’s environment. In fact, certain breeds of tapeworms explicitly thrive in the muscles of some freshwater species. Because of this very high risk of infection, it is never safe to eat raw fish from freshwater habitats.
31. Never eat fugu from an unlicensed chef.
Gastrointestinal daredevils hoping to indulge in the controversial and highly dangerous blowfish fugu must never – under any circumstances – consume the creature from a chef without the license and ten years of training necessary to serve it as safely as possible. Unless diners somehow wish to nosh on neurotoxins, recklessness when it comes to fugu literally means the difference between life and death. There is a very good reason it is the only delicacy explicitly denied to the Emperor.
32. If offered a hot towel (oshibori), practice proper protocol.
Some sushi bars and restaurants proffer hot towels to patrons before or after a meal. Clean hands, perhaps lightly and subtly pat around the mouth, then fold the towel neatly before returning it to the waitron.
33. Chopsticks should be set down in the preferred manner when not in use.
There are generally a few different ways to put chopsticks down when going unused. Some may elect to set them on their small saucer for shoyu, though sometimes special chopstick rests are available as well. At some bars or restaurants, the waiter, waitress, or sushi chef will create lovely origami knots from the paper chopstick holders for use as a rest.
34. Do not be afraid to ask for anything off-menu.
As with many restaurants, sushi establishments may very well have the ingredients on hand to create a multitude of dishes not explicitly on the menu. If curious, ask and see if the itamae enjoys slicing up anything special that he or she does not get a chance to make very often. This makes for an excellent method of learning more about Japanese cuisine as well as striking up a familiarity with the chef.
When ordering sake, diners have the option of enjoying it either hot or cold. Neither temperature particularly affects the flavor of the accompanying food in a positive or negative manner – it is purely a matter of preference. Those new to Japanese food ought to try both temperatures to figure out which they like more.
36. Never eat day-old sushi.
Many sushi bars and restaurants – even grocery stores – have take-out options. While it is okay to leave nigiri, maki, or other dishes in the refrigerator for a few hours, doing so does alter the flavor and freshness a bit. However, keeping it overnight severely compromises the overall quality and poses a much higher risk of food poisoning than eating it immediately.
37. Frozen sushi tastes as awful as it sounds.
As one should never eat sushi of questionable freshness, likewise it is inadvisable to eat frozen sushi. Although the freezing process remains far safer than refrigeration, doing so with sushi inherently damages the carefully orchestrated balance of flavors – rendering it a cold, watery, and almost tasteless shell of its former self.
38. If leery about raw fish, start off with cooked pieces.
Everyone has their comfort levels when it comes to food, and those eager enough to dive into trying raw fish without hesitation ought not be stopped. So long as they are practicing good judgment when it comes to quality and freshness, of course. However, diners with hesitations regarding the consumption of uncooked fish should start off sampling the myriad cooked sushi pieces available – or, alternately, a piece featuring vegetable or egg toppings. Many people do not realize this, but there is sushi out there to appeal to any palate, just as long as it does not mind the vinegared rice.
39. Feel free to slurp noodles.
Some diners may appreciate a side of soba or udon noodles to accompany their sushi meal. Slurping them is not considered taboo in Japanese etiquette protocol – in fact, it helpfully sucks in air to cool off the usually piping hot dishes. Soup, however, is generally enjoyed in a far quieter fashion.
40. Miso soup may be eaten without a spoon.
Occasionally, sushi bars and Japanese restaurants will serve their soups without a spoon. This may seem unfamiliar to American diners, but it is actually not a mistake on the part of the waitron. If handed a bowl of soup that lacks any sort of utensil, simply lift it up and drink it directly from the bowl. This is not considered an etiquette violation in Japan, nor will it in an explicitly Japanese environment.
41. Start off with familiar foods.
Another good rule of thumb for hesitant novices is to order sushi pieces with ingredients they already enjoy. Calimari fans could order squid (ika, which is served raw); people who enjoy shrimp would find interest in sweet shrimp (ama ebi, served raw) or regular shrimp (ebi, served cooked), and so on. This will help foster comfort with Japanese cuisine and pave the way for more adventurous dining.
42. Make a few trips to the sushi bar with a seasoned veteran.
Individuals interested in learning more about sushi should take advantage of any friends or acquaintances with knowledge of the food and etiquette protocol at Japanese restaurants. Considering how popular it has become due to its health benefits and overall pleasant, simple flavors, this should not be too difficult to do.
43. Learn to use chopsticks beforehand.
Every “Westerner” is understandably awkward with chopsticks the first few times they use them due to their unfamiliarity. But regular practice gradually makes it much easier to grasp food and eat it with chopsticks. Though most sushi bars and restaurants provide diners with the knives, forks, and spoons to which they are accustomed, some do not. Because of this, it is advantageous to learn how to use chopsticks prior to sampling Japanese food. A number of tutorials abound online, and those learning do not even need to purchase their own pair to take advantage of them – even pencils and pens may be used in place for practice.
44. It is safe to eat most of the garnishes.
Unlike many restaurants, the garnishes at Japanese restaurants are perfectly fit for consumption. They frequently employ radishes (the red and the daikon varieties), shiso leaves, oranges, and other vegetables as edible aesthetic elements that offer a number of health benefits.
45. If making sushi at home – DO THE RESEARCH…
Making sushi at home is an excellent way to eat healthy on a tighter budget. However, anyone wishing to bring raw fish into the equation ought not embark upon this undertaking without extensive and thorough research on how to pick the freshest, safest specimens for consumption. Not taking advantage of the books and websites with valuable advice on the equipment and ingredients necessary for homemade sushi could very well compromise a diner’s health and safety.
46. …and be sure to set aside a few hours.
Part of what drives up the cost of sushi is the intensive labor involved in its creation. The rice especially takes at least one hour to make properly. When making sushi at home, it is always best to do so on a day without a time crunch to account for this.
47. Order pieces of nigiri in pairs.
The tradition of serving sushi two at once comes from a time when diners would have to cut their pieces in half to eat them without choking. Beyond that, ordering one piece of nigiri or ordering four of something have unfortunate etymologies attached to them in Japanese. It is generally recommended to order in pairs to avoid awkwardness.
48. Try and become familiar with the terminology beforehand.
Most menus at sushi bars offer up explanations of what word translates to what particular topping or filling. However, it is advisable to try and learn the difference between dishes that have no direct translation, such as nigiri and maki. This will help save time and migraines when it comes to finally ordering those first pieces of sushi.
49. Be sure to read reviews of restaurants.
As raw fish does pose a health risk, it is integral that novices know exactly where to patronize in order to avoid any potential hazards. Scout online at websites that allow customer reviews or peruse the local newspapers to see what the professional food critics have to say. This should offer up a clear idea about where to try and where to ignore.
50. The only steadfast rule is practice common courtesy and politeness.
In the end, though, just about the only thing that truly matters in the sushi experience is whether or not patrons treat themselves and everyone around them with respect and courtesy. Being awkward with chopsticks or using too much soy sauce or flubbing pronunciations are window dressing, really – it will not carry any truly inescapable or demonizing stigmas. Relaxing, being polite, being nice, and having a great time is truly the spirit of eating sushi and eating it well.
Taking all of these tips and tricks into consideration will hopefully help maximize the sushi, sushi bar, and Japanese restaurant experience. In doing so, one can appreciate the true art that goes into every healthy piece – even if it does not ultimately prove a gustatory fit – and the ancient culture from which it came.