Basic Sushi Etiquette, and more thoughts about sushi

Some sushi.

I have been back in Japan since August, and due to various circumstances I will be here for a while. So, since I'm back in the Land of Sushi again , I have been thinking a bit about sushi restaurant dos and don’ts. There aren’t that many really, because nigiri-zushi (the type of sushi you all know as “the” sushi) started out as an “everyman” street food in Edo/Tokyo. Here are a few though, some which may be obvious, others not. These apply to any sushi place, from the rotating conveyor belt type to the high starred end.

  • Don’t dunk the rice into the soy sauce. The trick is to turn the nigiri over and lightly dip the neta (topping) side. Some higher end places will sauce or season each nigiri for you, in which case there is no need to dip at all. If you can’t manage to flip the nigiri over, just dip the rice very briefly before it falls apart in the soy sauce.

  • If you have a hard time picking up sushi with your chopsticks, eating sushi with your hands is perfectly acceptable. I actually prefer this myself when eating at the counter (I often switch from chopsticks to hands depending on the type of neta, which is ok too). Some “tsuu” (aficionados) insist that hands are the only way to go. Sushi got its start as a street food served from stalls, and in those days the way to tell if a stall sold good sushi was to check out how dirty the noren (the cloth curtain like thing hanging outside the stall when it was open) was, because patrons would wipe their hands on it!
    If you use your hands be sure to wipe them with the oshibori (hot towel) provided beforehand. You can wipe your fingers periodically on it as you eat. Better places will provide a separate finger-wiper. Grab each piece gently, flip it over to dip in the soy sauce, and carry it to your mouth. Which brings me to....

  • Modern nigiri-zushi are meant to be eaten in one mouthful. Even dainty refined ladies in expensive suits do so in Japan. Don’t bite it in half or worse yet, try to cut it in half with your chopsticks. If your nigiri are too big because your mouth is that tiny, see if the chef can cut them in half for you (at the counter).

  • This is very important: Don’t go to a sushi restaurant wearing lots of perfume or cologne or aftershave etc., especially if you’re eating at the counter, where you’ll be sitting close to your neighbor. I’d even go so far as to check the clothes you put on to make sure they aren’t wafting fabric softener scent or something all over. Sushi is a very delicate and subtle thing, where you often enjoy seasonal fragrances and tastes. You do not want the smell of Eau de Downy or something getting in the way. It’s really off putting to sit next to someone with lots of perfume on at any restaurant in any case.

  • This is more of a pet peeve, but - if you’re just going to order a set and not a la carte, don’t hog a seat at the counter (this only applies to places that have both of course.) At a sushi restaurant the counter is the best seat, where you can watch the chef (itamae) perform his magic, converse with him, and either leave it up to him to choose the best neta of the day for you (omakase) and/or order what appeals to you. If you can’t or won’t do that, shut up and get a table seat.

Additional thoughts

The above list of basic sushi etiqutte originated as a post on Facebook, and got quite a few responses. One tangent that a couple of people went on was what types of sushi were "acceptable" and what weren't. (The particular object of ire in this case was mayonnaise on certain types of sushi.)* The thing is, sushi has become a worldwide phenomenon at this point, and there are many, many takes on it - even in Japan. There are some very high end places that charge 30 - 40,000 yen per person per seating, and there are inexpensive kaiten zushi (rotating conveyor belt sushi) places where you can fill your tummy for around 1,500 yen - and many in between. There are 'traditional' sushi varieties, and not so traditional ones. Some of the colorful, 'non-traditional' rolls and the like that originated elsewhere, such as the California roll, have made their way over the Pacific to Japan. Some neta (toppings) that were never used before are now commonplace and popular, such as raw salmon. Even some neta that a lot of people think of as having been around forever, like toro (the fatty parts of tuna) haven't been popular forever.

To my mind, nothing about food is ever 'bad' or 'evil', as long as people enjoy it and it tastes good. Sushi is a food that is, perhaps more than any other, really dependent on the quality of the original ingredients. And fresh fish, especially some types of it, are so expensive these days that they can only be served at the refined high end of the market. So are people who enjoy sushi, which (as I have written here and in other places several times) about the vinegar-salt-and-sugar flavored rice, not about raw fish, supposed to only enjoy the high end, or are they allowed (gasp) to enjoy the variations they can afford? I tend to think the latter; food is as vibrant as the culture that nurtures and consumes it. You could say similar things about all kinds of cuisine; French cuisine for instance has the image of being chi-chi and haute, but that's just one type of it, and the majority of French people just each you know, French food, on an everyday basis at all price levels, depending on what they can afford.

As it happens, I don't really enjoy canned tuna with mayo sushi personally, but I do like tuna mayo as an onigiri filling, and of course tuna mayo sandwiches. I've also been to some of the best sushi-ya around and enjoyed (someone else was paying, cough) some amazing neta and great service. In between, I often enjoy takeout sushi from depachika (department store food halls), occasionally go to enjoy sushi at middle of the road neighborhood sushi-ya, and go to kaiten zushi with my sister and her kids. It's all enjoyable, and tasty at their own price ranges when they're good quality - and, I want to emphasize that there is good quality sushi at all price ranges in Japan. (I can't really speak for the sushi elsewhere.)

The bottom line: Enjoy your food, no matter what price range it's in.

*A tangent about mayo started on the Facebook page too, if you want to check it out.

(I was reminded that I really should do these long type posts on my blogs rather than Facebook, even if it's easier to write there and stuff, so that everyone can see them without having to go on Facebook. So...I'm going to try my best to do so.)

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