So you’ve read our travel guide, packed your bags, and arrived in Japan – and now it’s time for sushi. Can’t blame you there. Japan is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, so it’s no surprise that the sushi establishments are spectacular.
What you don’t want to do however is be that tourist. The one who mixes up local customs, offends the chef and other diners, and altogether fails to observe the etiquette. Nowhere is this more important than when going for sushi, so we’ve put together a list of do’s and don’ts. Follow these, and you’ll be eating this Japanese delicacy like a pro and impressing (or irritating) your date, friends, and coworkers with your in depth knowledge of how to eat sushi properly.
1. Don’t: act like you’re in a bar
Even if you’re sitting at the literal bar (as most sushi restaurants have), that’s no excuse to start downing sake and making a scene. Generally you want to judge the mood in the room. Is it quiet? You should be quiet. Is it more relaxed? Feel free to make normal conversation (within reason). Some of the top chefs might look down on persistent noise as it distracts from the work and presentation, while others might prefer a friendly conversation. Just do what everyone else is doing, and you’ll be fine.
2. Do: order omakase
What does that mean? The literal translation is “I leave it to you”. In other words, you’ll be letting the chef choose a selection of the day’s best sushi for you – usually about 7-10 pieces. With daily fresh catches, this is often the best way to get a good sampling of the freshest fish and the one’s the chef believes are the best. Sushi chefs are some of the most highly trained in the world, with rigorous apprenticeships and reverence for tradition, so dine easy knowing you’ll be in good hands. You can usually order seconds of anything you liked, or try a variety that wasn’t included – so no sweat.
3. Don’t: rub chopsticks together or mess around
They’re not toys, swords, lightsabers, or whatever else you might think. What you should be doing is picking up food with them and putting them back down on a rest. Don’t wave them around, don’t point them at people, and don’t rub them together.
4. Do: use your hands
While chopsticks have their own etiquette, the other option is to simply eat with your hands. Sushi began as finger food, and this is often the accepted method in high-end establishments. With sashimi (just the fish), you’ll likely want to stick with chopsticks but with nigiri (fish topping over rice), don’t be shy about reaching in with your hands. Just be sure to dip the neta (topping) side in the soy sauce, not the rice.
5. Don’t: smother everything in wasabi
Taking wasabi and putting huge globs of it over everything – this is a mistake a lot of people make, and even one this writer has been guilty of before. Even worse, there’s taking the wasabi and making your own soup by dumping it in the soy sauce. With relatively less tasty supermarket sushi, sure go nuts on the wasabi – but with top-notch cuisine, masking the flavour is an insult to the chef and deprives you of a real sushi experience.
6. Do: chat with the chef (if they’re not too busy)
If you’re seated at the bar, it’s often nice to make some conversation with the chef. Obviously, if they’re rushing around constantly, it’s probably not the best time to discuss the latest events in both your lives. If the chef does have a bit of time however, feel free to ask some questions about the fish, such as where the it’s from, how it’s prepared, etc. (although never ask if it’s fresh – it always is!)
7. Don’t: mix ginger and sushi
So you’ve just ordered some sushi and you have soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger on the side. Unlike the first two, the ginger is not meant to be mixed with the sushi. If you’ve ever tried it before, you know it’s likely to mask any other taste. Instead, use it to cleanse your palate after you eat a piece, so you can experience the flavours on the next one.
8. Do: eat sushi and sashimi in one bite
No matter how you’re eating (hand or chopstick), sushi and sashimi is supposed to be consumed in one bite. High-end sushi chefs will craft each and every piece to suit the customers mouth. You also don’t want to leave an ugly mix of half eaten sushi on the plate, seeing as a nice presentation part of the experience.
9. Don’t: leave food on your plate
Whether it’s a whole piece or just a grain of rice – be sure to finish it! It’s considered impolite to leave any food on the plate, so you really need to plan ahead. Make sure you’re hungry enough to eat everything, don’t over-order, and, if you’re going to be adventurous, you better be prepared to try everything no matter what.
10. Do: enjoy yourself
All these rules might make eating sushi seem like a trial – but it’s really not. Just adjust to your surroundings and eat (all) your food, and you’ll be fine. As long as you’re respectful and you like the cuisine, you should walk away from the table or bar satisfied, and pleased with your dinner choice.
Check out our list of the top restaurants in the world (particularly number 2) if you’re still hungry! Beyond that, you can read our Country of the Week profile on more on Japanese history and culture, as well as our Travel Guide for the country’s top destinations.
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