Japanese dining is all about aesthetics, atmosphere and the texture of food. But more important than any of these, the etiquette of eating is supremely important for the very uniquely-cultured Japanese. Like the various other delicacies of Japanese cuisine, there is a well-defined etiquette for eating sushi too. The etiquette of eating sushi is something that even non-Japanese, sushi-loving people, will be curious about. This is because, while eating sushi, many are not aware of the basics of eating it or the essentiality of following such etiquette. The fact that these etiquettes led to the origin of various sub-cultures, mostly outside Japan, also makes them special. Also, keep in mind that while eating certain variations of sushi is very easy, eating others can be daunting especially if a person is untrained in using chopsticks. There are certain taboos while eating sushi, such as peeling off the sushi bane from the rice to dip it in soy sauce; it is regarded impolite. It is seen as an absolute contradiction of the chef’s job and the great effort he put in making sushi a visual and culinary delight. However, do not get intimidated by all these rules. What is more important in eating sushi is to appreciate and try to preserve the beauty of this scrumptious delight while eating it.
What Is Sushi?
Sushi is a fast food in Japan. It can be served as a finger food to be eaten with hands or it can also be served with chopsticks and/or other elaborate utensils. This famous Japanese delight is made of almost-raw fish and is considered the flagship food of Japanese cuisine worldwide.
Sushi Eating Etiquette
- Ask the chef what is best if you are a first time sushi eater. This shows your respect for what he does and will also increase your chances of getting a good snack.
- Wash your hands or clean them with a wet towel (called “Oshibori”) if it is provided. Pour soy sauce into a plate for dipping. It is advisable not to add too much of soy sauce into the plate. You can add more if you require it.
- Keep the chopsticks in a proper way. If you are at a sushi bar, keep the chopsticks in front of you, parallel to the rim of the bar, with its narrow ends resting on “Has-hi-oki” (or the chopstick rest). It is not considered polite to keep them on the plate. If you do, keep them across the plate instead of keeping them leaning on it.
- You can use the broad end of chopsticks to pick the sushi from the communal platter. Taking sushi from the platter with the same ends you used to put the sushi in your mouth is considered impolite. It is as same as serving yourself food from a buffet using the cutlery from your plate or drinking from another person’s glass. You can use the broad end of chopstick to pass sushi from your plate to the plate of another person.
- Ensure you do not pass food from one end of chopstick to another as it resembles a ritual during Japanese funeral where the family members pass the bones of the departed to each other using chopsticks. Thus passing food using one chopstick to another is regarded impolite and offensive as it imitates a prominent funeral rite.
- While passing something to another person, pick it up and keep it on their dish. It is only between either parents and children or lovers that passing chopsticks is regarded as a sign of intimacy.
- It is important that you understand the difference between Nigiri Sushi (pieces of shellfish, fish or fish roe over rice balls); Makizushi (sushi rolled in sea weed, also known as ‘Maki’); Temaki (sushi hand rolls); Sashimi (chilled or sliced raw fish without rice); and Chirashi sushi (chilled or sliced fish served as “Sashimi” over a bed of rice). They may not appear different to you but the eating etiquette is different for each of these dishes.
- Immerse the topping side of the sushi into the soy sauce and eat it rice-side up. Make sure you do not pinch it too hard and keep it so that fish touches the tongue. If you dip the whole piece of sushi into the soy sauce, the rice in it tends to fall apart.
- Sushi must be eaten in one bite if possible, though two bites are generally acceptable. But whatever you do, do not place the sushi back into the plate if you have already taken a bite of it. Once you pick the whole sushi, eat the whole piece in one bite.
- If one whole of sushi is too heavy for you, it is acceptable to cut it into pieces. You can ask the chef to do it for you. Since in Japan, only samurais and chefs use knives, it is highly improbable that you would be provided with one at your meal table.
- Once you are done, lay your chopsticks on soy sauce, parallel to the sushi bar. This will let the chef know that you are done.
- Sushi can also be eaten with hands; no chopsticks required. It is actually more common than using chopsticks for Sushi. When you eat ‘Nigiri-zushi’ (hand-pressed sushi), pick one piece of sushi with your thumb and middle finger, placing the index finger onto the sushi, and delicate place the sushi in your mouth at one go. Do not take a bite and place the remaining half on the plate; it is considered impolite.
- Sushi must be eaten as fresh as possible after it is served. You should not eat other things while you eat sushi.
- The condiments that are served with sushi are wasabi, a mustard-like light green sauce, and soy sauce.
- Wasabi does not have a flavour of its own but when added to sushi, it brings about the flavour of the dish while reducing the fishiness of sushi which is made of fresh or raw fish.
- Remember not to eat sushi with pickled ginger though you might see a lot of people doing just that. Ginger is meant to clean the appetite while you change from one type of sushi to another or after eating another dish. Ginger also prevents the queasy feeling one gets after eating fish as fish sometimes can upset one’s stomach. Therefore, have ginger once you are done with sushi.
Sushi is a traditional food and it is only natural that you eat it in proper traditional ways. The failure to do so might upset or humiliate the chefs. Irrespective of whether you are a first time sushi-eater or a culinary enthusiast, keeping track of all the etiquettes and rules is not always easy. With the ever-evolving food etiquette around the world, even the sushi etiquette has changed from what it used to be. You might find it hard to keep track of these rules all the time but as long as you admire this dish wholeheartedly, nothing can bar you from enjoying it to the core. So, take it easy and go digging into that lip-smacking plate of sushi you’ve been drooling for.