Imagine this. You come to Japan. You tour, you travel and you sight-see. You eat. You eat, soba, takoyaki, and okonomiyaki, but the one thing you really want to try is sushi. The famous Japanese sushi that you only have tasted a version of in your home country, and now you want to sample the real deal, so you go and find a sushi restaurant.
You are now sitting at the table in this sushi restaurant, with your plate of sushi in front of you. You start eating your sushi, and as you are looking around you notice that people are looking at you shocked, surprised, and maybe even a little bit disgusted. You can also see the sushi chef, who made your sushi looking at you. You may wonder why that is. What is it about you? Is it because you are foreign? That's very unlikely. In fact, it's because you are doing something that is not part of the sushi etiquette.
Yes, there is an etiquette. Most of us – myself included – have just eaten sushi in our home country without a thought for what we are doing. In Japan, we have to at least try a part of the sushi etiquette, if not all of it.
To understand the etiquette, we have to take a time trip back in the history of the creation of sushi.
Sushi is certainly a unique creation. It was the original onigiri (rice ball) and had a slightly different look. Before the Edo period, sushi was actually not designed to be eaten in its entirety. It's design was for preservation of fermented meat and fish. The rice was never supposed to be consumed.
During the Heian period, the Japanese gutted the fish and cleaned the insides with sake (Japanese rice wine), and then stuffed the insides with rice before the fermentation process started. This prevented the fish from becoming tainted and dirty. The rice also speeded up the fermentation process.
Photo: Harald Groven on Flickr
It wasn't until the Edo period that sushi began to appear as how we know it today. The Heian style sushi was a very pungent type of sushi, so the Japanese introduced vinegar.
The vinegar, being acidic, reduced the fermentation time, and kept the fish clean and the rice edible. It also removed the bad smell. It very quickly became much more pleasing to the Japanese.
As sushi was originally sold on the street - at a very large size that were eventually reduced to weigh about 17grams - the cleanliness was extremely important. The Japanese population are very health conscious. The sushi chefs even more so. So they introduced strong green tea and ginger slices, that had to be consumed with the sushi, on the street.
Sushi was the introduced into American culture. However, the Americans were very reluctant to eat raw fish, believing it to be poisonous. So the Americans invented the California roll.
The Japanese sushi chefs then saw an opportunity to make sushi like able for foreigners, so they too learnt how to make the American version of sushi. This proved to be very popular and sushi became a big hit for the tourist industry in Japan.
It became clear to me that it was important to learn the sushi etiquette. I was making mistakes and getting strange looks. So I did some research and conducted an interview with a very kind, popular, and amazingly bilingual sushi chef.
I asked him why the strong green tea and ginger slices were so significant in the art of eating sushi. He said, “Sushi chefs believe that it's very important to be clean. The strong green tea is to remove any bacteria that might be on your tongue, and the ginger does the same. We also put vinegar in the sushi rice. The vinegar is acidic, so it will also remove bacteria from the fish and your tongue. It's very important to be clean.”
So when you are served green tea and ginger, it is very polite to the sushi chef to make sure that you drink it and eat it. It will demonstrate to the sushi chef that you are clean of bacteria to eat their sushi. It makes them happy.
I then asked the sushi chef what is expected of us in the sushi etiquette of today's modern society. He said, “It's how you eat the sushi. The sushi chef wants you to eat it as it should be eaten.
He then gave me a break down on the do’s and don'ts when eating sushi.
When your sushi arrives it will be presented on a platter like this.
There is a ramekin in front of you. This is for soy sauce only. Pour only a small amount of soy sauce into the ramekin. The sushi chef believes that you should only place a small amount, so that the soy sauce does not taint the flavour of the fish.
“Do not add wasabi to the soy sauce.”. The only time you add wasabi to soy sauce is when you order sashimi.
All sushi is served with wasabi inside it. “You shouldn't order any more. The sushi chef wants you to taste the sushi that they have made. If you put extra wasabi inside the sushi, then it's insulting to the sushi chef.”
Some sushi chefs understand that foreigners may not like wasabi, so they leave it out and put some wasabi on the side for you to add, if you want it.
I asked the sushi chef, “How exactly do you eat sushi?” He said, “You must eat only eat one piece of sushi at a time. Don't pull it apart. The fish and rice are eaten together. When you dip the sushi into the soy sauce, don't dip the rice. You must dip the fish side in the soy sauce. The fish must go on the tongue, not the rice. You must taste the fish first, and always put the whole piece of sushi into your mouth. Don't bite it. Sushi chefs believe that you have to taste the whole flavour.”
“You may also use your chopsticks or your fingers. Both are fine.”
I wondered if there was a particular order to eating the sushi. He replied, “Yes. The customer must start with the lightest flavoured fish. If you start with the strong fish, then you won't be able to taste the light fish. Start with ebi (shrimp) or white fish,any salad sushi or egg sushi, and then maguro (tuna) and ikura (salmon egg), and then onto fish like eel.”
As a side note, I always find that taking a sip of tea or eating a piece of ginger will remove the taste of the previous sushi. It's good to remember just in case you do get the order wrong.
Always finish with the strongest sushi and then drink the miso soup last.
You should always drink the soup last because it helps with digestion. This is a really useful tip. I suffer terrible hiccups when I eat rice. Drinking the soup last helps.
I asked our very kind sushi chef, “What do sushi chefs believe in the most?”
“They believe the most important thing is cleanliness. You must be clean, the fish must be clean, everything must be clean. That way you can enjoy the most perfect sushi experience.”
I left the sushi restaurant feeling very satisfied with the way I had eaten my sushi. Everything was easier, and eating it the way I was instructed by the expert made it taste a lot better. I also was able to avoid the weird looks.
So my advice to you is to think about the sushi etiquette the next time your eat sushi. It'll make your enjoyment of the carefully prepared sushi much more satisfying and fun!