“Chris!” my friend Michelle exclaims, “I’m not Japanese!”
It’s Friday night and Michelle and I are sharing in a fabulous dinner of sushi and sake. Throughout the course of the meal, I had to stop several times and ask what was she doing? My eyes popped and my head tilted in confusion. “Why are you doing that?” I asked repeatedly. She gave me her answer with laughter.
It took me a second to realize she had a legitimate excuse. She told me if there were rules to eating sushi, if there are certain mannerisms and expected etiquette, it needs to be stated somewhere. Anywhere. So, I’m posting it here.
Before I post “the rules” allow me to state that I realize sushi, like many popular world cuisines, has changed and evolved in order to fashion itself around the American palate. You can get sushi anywhere, from grocery stores to lunch counters to food trucks. Many Asian restauranteurs find it profitable to sell sushi, so it’s offered in Thai, Chinese and even Vietnamese restaurants.
If you enjoy your sushi from any of these places, you don’t need to read further. Sushi etiquette does not apply to any of these outlets. But if you find yourself in the company of a traditional sushi chef, if you can recognize the difference between Edo, Osaka and Kyoto styles of sushi as well as modernized or hybrid sushi, and if you are dining in an authentic Japanese restaurant or in the company of a Japanese friend, then I hope you’ll pay close attention.
1. Easy with the soy sauce.
The little cups for soy sauce are given to you as a courtesy. Please do not fill them more than a scant third of the way up. Typically, that equals about one or two teaspoons. To fill your dish with more soy sauce indicates you do not trust the chef to flavor your sushi correctly. Less is better.
2. No wasabi in the soy.
Please do not mix your wasabi paste in your soy sauce, nor add the pickled ginger. There are other Japanese dishes where soy is mixed with other ingredients (like dashi stock or sesame oil) but in the case of sushi, please keep these items separate.
3. Dip the fish, not the rice.
If you choose to dip your sushi into soy sauce, please do it fish side first. The rice has been carefully seasoned and flavored by your sushi chef, who has spent many years developing the recipe. Please do not disrespect the rice nor your chef. Dip your sushi fish side first, please, and try to eat it in one bite.
4. Do not ask for extra ginger or wasabi.
Your sushi chef has created your meal with balance in mind. Your chef will give you what they determine is the correct amount of wasabi and ginger. Please do not ask for more as this disrupts the balance. When it comes to ginger, one leaf is all that is needed to cleanse the palate in between tastings. For wasabi, a true sushi chef will add the right amount of wasabi to your sushi — you won’t need to add more.
If you ordered a modern or creative sushi roll, it is typically okay to add a small amount of wasabi to the roll as you eat each piece. But if you have ordered nigri sushi, hand formed sushi where the fish or other seafood sits atop a bed of rice, there is already an adequate and balanced amount of wasabi added. When in doubt, talk to your sushi chef before hand and tell them if you like more or less wasabi. This is much more polite than adding at the table.
5. Do not try to start a campfire.
Please don’t rub your chopsticks together at the table. If you think you need to smooth down your chopsticks, bring your own sandpaper. I know it sounds silly, but watching you rub your chopsticks together looks just as silly. Just don’t do it. Split your chopsticks and place them on the rest if provided. If your chopsticks come in paper, you can fold the paper to create a chopstick rest.
6. No brutality.
Please do not stab, peel, split or dis-assemble your sushi. Certain sushi is acceptable to be eaten with the assistance of your hands. But under no circumstances should you ever try to stab or poke a piece of sashimi.
I know many of my friends have broken these rules from time to time. It happens. But again, if you’re having sushi with a traditional sushi chef, or if you’re in the company of a Japanese friend, you may want to practice your sushi etiquette. It’s just common courtesy!