Last updated: 09:00 PM ET, Tue November 17 2015

You May Have Been Eating Sushi All Wrong

Features & Advice | Greg Rodgers | November 17, 2015

You May Have Been Eating Sushi All Wrong

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Sushi is a costly addiction, one the uninitiated don’t fully appreciate. For those of us who rely on regular sushi fixes to stave off madness, we’ll practically pay anything for small quantities of severely undercooked food.

But wait — you may be eating your favorite food completely wrong! There is a chance you’ve been missing out on an enlightening experience that makes sushi even better. Thankfully, enjoying sushi the right way won’t add to the bill.

Step by step, here’s how to take your next sushi outing to another level.

Position Yourself Strategically

To get the most out of your sushi experience, sit front and center at the counter — where the action is — so you can watch an artist at work. Only amateurs sit away from the counter. Greet the chef respectfully when entering. If you’re feeling brave and decide to go for a bow, don’t maintain eye contact — in martial arts that’s a way of indicating that you’re ready to rumble.

Authentic restaurants will have a wet cloth nearby — it’s not there to freshen up! Use it to clean your fingers; you’ll be needing them later.

Interacting With the Chef

Keep your interactions with the chef limited and to the point. He’s wielding some dangerously sharp knives, so better to stay on his good side. Unnecessary questions will hang in the air like dirty little distractions. Do begin by asking what treasures were found in the market that day. No one in the room knows better which fish are still freshly quivering than the man behind the counter. Your questions may be deferred to an assistant whose job is to handle customers; don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal.

With a bit of luck and carefully applied sushi etiquette, the chef may take notice and increase interaction. Receiving free samples and experimental pieces are a real possibility — unless you make the same mistake that so many before you have made: the mixture.

What Never to Do in a Sushi Restaurant

Sushi is a form of impermanent art. Even the maki rolls are lovingly designed with colors in mind, not just taste and texture.

If you immediately concoct a bile-colored hellbroth of wasabi and soy sauce for dunking sushi, don’t expect a pleasant response — or quality fish, for that matter. Of course the chef is going to feed the worst bits to customers he’d rather send away to the nearest burger joint. You’ll receive stuff he wouldn’t sling to the seals.

Save the muck bath for supermarket sushi; it needs to be drowned out of its misery anyway.

The Real Way to Eat Sushi

Sushi wasn’t always a delicious way to blow budgets. What we call sushi today was created in the 1800s as a fast food, mostly to be eaten with the fingers while walking or watching theater. Historians generally agree fast food from the Edo period beats the hell out of our modern fast food. Although sushi itself has evolved, the manner in which it should be eaten is still the same.

Maki (what we call a sushi roll) and nigiri (long strips of fish pressed onto rice) should be eaten with the fingers. Only sashimi (a slice of raw meat or fish without rice) should be eaten with chopsticks. The expert way to eat a piece of nigiri is to turn it upside down so that the fish touches the tongue. The same applies when dipping nigiri into soy sauce: rotate it so that only the fish touches.

Between bites of sashimi, place your chopsticks to the right of your plate. Leaving them atop your plate signifies that you are finished eating already. Having them out of your hands also prevents the temptation to commit an incredibly rude faux pas, perhaps second only to belching: pointing with your chopsticks.

The ginger is for clearing the palate between types of sushi. Never eat it together with sushi at the same time.

Fortunately, there is no real order in which you should order types of sushi. Enjoy the frenzy! And if you really enjoyed something, there is no shame in ordering it again.

How to Properly Apply Soy Sauce and Wasabi

First, assume at all times that the chef knows best. Sushi may be an addictive indulgence to the customers, but the chefs devote their lives to the mastery. The chef will have already applied the correct amount of wasabi to pieces that require attitude. Some choices such as unagi (freshwater eel) already have their own sauces applied — you shouldn’t add soy sauce. Instead, enjoy the piece the way it was meant to be experienced.

Begin by pouring a minuscule amount of soy sauce into the little bowl. You can always pour more as needed. Painstakingly preparing the vinegared rice used in sushi is considered as important as slicing the fish; don’t leave little bits of culinary art floating around your dipping bowl.

If, despite Herculean efforts, there is some rice left in the bowl, don’t peck at it with your chopsticks — sucking sauces from your sticks is bad form. If polluting the dipping bowl seems inevitable, use your chopsticks or even a piece of ginger to delicately brush soy sauce onto the fish. The same applies to wasabi, but beware of the nuclear sinus purge caused by using too much.

Authentic wasabi root — a rarity outside of Japan — is much more potent than the green-dyed horseradish frequently used as a substitute.

On the Way Out

When omega-3 poisoning is imminent and neither you nor your wallet can handle another bite, it’s time to exit gracefully. Place your chopsticks on the plate and indicate that you need to pay the bill. Try not to gasp when it arrives.

Someone who doesn’t handle food will take care of the transaction. Tipping in Japan isn’t customary — use discretion if you wish to do so.

After a truly remarkable experience, the traditional way to thank the chef is by offering to buy him a shot of sake. Bonus points for pronouncing it correctly as “sah-keh” rather than “sah-kee.”

If he accepts, you will need to drink one with him. Raise your glass and offer an enthusiastic kanpai!, effectively sealing the bond between artist and admirer.


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