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Basic Sushi Etiquette Lesson Three — Some Inside Information

For the past few months, we’ve explored some of the important areas of the typical sushi menu. As we’ve stated before, each restaurant and bar is different, usually taking on the persona of its chef and owners. But generally, you’re going to see a number of consistencies among all menus.

But beyond the menu items, there are some common cultural congruences that permeate most sushi concepts. Some of these are really not followed in many areas of the country, and often times, are rarely followed in very diverse cities throughout the world.

Japanese culture, which has been absorbed by sushi chefs of every nationality, can be seen in practice just as much as it is understood in taste. We’ll take a look at some of the basic practices by both customers and staff that harken back to centuries of Japanese history and culture.

It all starts when you enter the building

Your first time in a sushi bar probably was a startling experience — the chefs yell at you. Well, it’s actually a greeting, but still, where else does that happen? And often times, they greet you in a different language.

So what do you do? Well, simply put, you just need to acknowledge their greeting. No,you don’t need to brush up on your Japanese. But a simple wave, head nod, or simile certainly goes a long way — especially to the person who is about to prepare your food!

After walking through the door and greeting your chef, you have a decision to make — bar or table? There is only one good reason to sit at a table, and that is if you are with a party of four or more. That’s just for communication sake (I’m sure your remember that Seinfeld episode when they sat at the coffee shop bar!).

The bar, however, is absolutely where it’s at. Obviously, you get your food faster, which is very important and something we’ll discuss later. You also have a chance to speak to your chef and get their suggestions for what is freshest for the day. While a chef will never serve fish that is not of optimal freshness, there are different levels of “optimal.”

Not only that, but your chef wants to talk to you! That’s part of the fun for both customer and chef. And you get to watch them work, which is pretty impressive. You get to appreciate that amazing knife skills and the palate of colors from the ingredients directly in front of you.

And here’s one more thing — at the bar, you do not use chopsticks. In fact, most of the time, it is completely acceptable to use your fingers. But at the bar, it is expected that you don’t. Often times, you don’t receive chopsticks unless you order something that requires them.

The process is important

Much of the sushi experience involves stepping back into time and following customs that predate all of us. The staff will certainly continue to keep these customs alive, but patrons can take part as well. Here are some of some of the easily followed, but often forgotten customs you may be interested in utilizing.

The set up — When you sit down, you will receive a few common items. Pickled ginger, soy sauce, and wasabe can be expected anywhere you go. But what is all this for and how do you use it properly?

First, the wasabe. Hopefully you know what it is, but if not, it’s the green, clay-like substance that accompanies your sushi. It’s hot — super hot, so tread carefully. Probably want to try a little by itself before putting it on your expensive sushi.

The heat — Many people will pour out some soy sauce and mix up some wasabi into a small dish. This is acceptable, but not the “real” way people incorporate wasabe. For centuries, sushi chefs would put the wasabi atop the rice, underneath the fish. But as tastes changed and sushi became more popular in other countries, wasabi was literally pushed to the side and onto the plate.

Two decades ago, there was a movement to increase the volume of patrons and sushi output in restaurants. Chefs no longer made sushi to order, instead putting them on plates which were distributed on conveyor belts. This took the one-to-one interaction away from patrons and chefs, and customers could no longer tell the chef how spicy they’d want their order. Modern technology at it again!

The clear — The pickled ginger has always been an issue for sushi newbies. They are the pinkish, semi-translucent, and thinly-sliced offering usually next to the wasabe. This is strictly used as a palate cleaner and should last you the entire meal.

The dip — Lastly, and this is important, is the soy sauce. Yes, pour some out in the little provided dish. No, do not mix wasabi into it. You may order a spicy dish that will become overpowered by the wasabi, which is a waste of taste. And when dipping your sushi into the soy sauce, use the fish side, not the rice side. Rice is very absorbent and soy sauce is very salty. You will kill the taste of the fish with too much soy sauce!

Timing is everything

Sushi is not designed to be a full meal. It serves as a great snack among friends, especially over drinks after work. It is also a great appetizer or accompaniment to the actual meal. And depending on the fish, it can be an opportunity to try something rare and exciting.

In the United States, however, we tend to eat differently. We look for the most bang for our buck. Our portions tend to be huge. We eat very fast since we tend to be in a rush. We don’t always share, instead opting for our own orders. Because of this, we often eat sushi incorrectly.

So here’re some hints and suggestions.

Keep it real — Fish live in water. Their skin and flesh are designed to be wet at all times. This is the same when eating it. There is nothing worse than eating dry fish, even when cooked (aside from dried and smoked fish, of course). When you receive your sushi, it should be cool, wet, and glistening. You have approximately five minutes to eat it before you will really start to tell the difference in taste and texture. This is why we suggest sitting at the sushi bar — there is less time between the chef and your mouth.

Order in waves — Yes, when presented that little menu and golf pencils, it’s hard not to start checking off everything. Especially when you’re hungry! But think about it. If you order five dishes at one time between two people, the first prepared dish is going to sit while the others are prepared.

The clock starts ticking right when it is plated! By the time you get all of your items, they have already started to dry out. Order one, maybe two dishes first. When it arrives, order your next options, and so on. Not only will you be able to enjoy your sushi at optimal temperature, but you will also have time to chat. Also, you will be able to gauge your hunger. After all, nobody wants leftover sushi.

Appreciate the scene — From the decor of the restaurant, the uniforms of the staff, to the plating of your food, Japanese cuisine is all about appearance. This goes doubly for sushi. Chefs take great pride in how their food looks, nearly as much as how it tastes. It is part of the experience. So before you jump into your meal, take a second or two to appreciate the way the colors work together. Take note of how the fish is cut. Take in everything because, after all, it was all designed to hit all of your senses.

And make sure to give a nice wave to your chef on the way out. It means everything to them to know you are happy with your experience.