While you won't be ejected from the average Japanese restaurant for mistreating your fish, knowing how to eat sushi the correct way enhances the experience and even turns the meal into a cultural lesson.
Serious sushi chefs consider making those tasty bites an art that takes years to master. Eating sushi the proper way respects their effort. And who knows, you may have a little more fun when you see the chef grin!
Disclaimer: The following tips apply only for a real sushi experience in an authentic Japanese restaurant, not in any eatery that lists hamburgers and pizza elsewhere on the menu.
Interacting with the Chef
First, sitting at the counter is to the place to be if you want to take the experience seriously. You should address your sushi chef only when necessary, and ask immediately what he recommends. He most likely handpicked fish from the market, knows what looked good that day, and will reward your trust in him with extra special care. Just snatching a menu and choosing randomly shows that you aren't interested in his opinion.
If you want to be particularly respectful, see how to say hello in Japanese.
That being said, never distract the chef later with questions or small talk pertaining to the food, weather, or Japanese customs. The man is an artist -- and he wields a sharp knife -- let him work!
If the meal turns out to be an unforgettable experience, you can even offer to buy the chef a shot of sake. If he accepts, you should have one with him. Never attempt to hand money -- even a tip -- to the chef; they work with raw fish all day and should never touch money.
- Learn all about tipping in Japan.
In extremely expensive sushi restaurants, you may be directed to speak with a concierge before the session begins. This ensures that, in case the chef doesn't speak English, you get an opportunity to tell about selections you wish to avoid or any allergies.
Preparing to Eat Sushi
The wet towel is for cleaning your hands before you eat, mostly because the traditional way to eat sushi is with the fingers. Use the towel to clean your fingers, then put it aside; don't use it on your face to freshen up!
Pour only a minuscule amount of soy sauce into the bowl; you can always add more later if needed. Wasting soy sauce is taboo in serious Japanese dining etiquette.
When not eating, you chopsticks should be put on the holder beside of your plate, tidy and parallel to the table, rather than on the plate or your dipping bowl. Leaving your chopsticks anywhere else may indicate that you are finished eating.
- Learn the finer points of Japanese table manners.
Wasabi and Ginger
Believe it or not, no matter how much you enjoy the burn, turning your soy sauce into a cloudy mess by mixing in wasabi is not the proper way to eat sushi. The chef will have already added small amounts of wasabi to each piece, based upon the type of fish, to bring out flavors.
Japanese restaurants do provide additional wasabi to accommodate people with spicy interests, however, adding too much wasabi in front of the chef not only hides the natural taste of the fish he handpicked, it's akin to dumping ketchup all over a perfect cut of beef in an expensive steakhouse!
If you have to add wasabi, brush some onto the fish with either your chopstick or a piece of ginger. Don't leave the ginger on top of the sushi as an enhancement! Sucking the extra wasabi off of your chopsticks is also considered bad form.
Fresh ginger is provided to cleanse your pallet between bites and should never be eaten at the same time with a piece of sushi.
How to Eat Sushi the Right Way
Fortunately, there are no pretentious guidelines as to which type of sushi you should eat first, and no order follows. If you particularly enjoy something the chef made, tell him, and ask for another piece.
Sashimi -- a slice of raw fish with no rice -- is typically eaten with chopsticks, but the traditional way to eat sushi is by lifting a piece between your thumb and middle finger. Picking up the sushi with the fingers allows you to feel the texture and helps to keep it together, rather than damaging it with wooden sticks. Regardless, you'll be forgiven for using chopsticks.
Again, the only time that mixing wasabi into your soy sauce is acceptable is when you will only be eating sashimi.
Turn the piece upside down by rotating it counterclockwise, then dip only the fish into your soy sauce -- never the rice. Not only will the rice absorb too much soy sauce and change the texture of the bite, leaving rice behind in your bowl is amateur. Preparing the vinegared rice properly is also part of the sushi art.
Sushi pieces such as unagi (eel) and those with sauce already on top should not be dipped.
To be a real sushi pro, pieces should be placed in the mouth upside down so that the fish is against your tongue. Allow your tongue to take in the complex flavors before gulping down the bite.
The last and single most important rule of how to eat sushi properly is that you enjoy every single bite -- more than likely it will be the bill and not the wasabi that causes a little heartburn later!