Dear BA Foodist,
Whenever I go out for sushi, I feel self-conscious. Is it okay to use your hands? Is dipping the sushi in soy sauce frowned upon? How do I use wasabi? All my friends have different rules, but what’s right?
–Clement Skillman, Seattle
Every time I have sushi, some self-proclaimed sushi expert schools me on new etiquette. The latest was a friend who told me I shouldn’t be drinking sake with my sushi. Something about eating rice (from which sake is made) with rice. He said it was considered bad form in Japan. I later found out that he was full of it. So what are the rules when it comes to eating sushi? I thought it best to consult Hiroko Shimbo, cookbook author, teacher, and Japanese food guru.
1. Always sit at the sushi bar. Make eye contact with the head sushi chef (traditionally the one closest to the entrance), or with the junior chef nearest to you. Ask what’s fresh: This shows you’re serious about your sushi and makes it more likely you’ll get the freshest fish.
2. When eating nigiri sushi (rice topped with fish) or sushi rolls, use your hands, not your chopsticks (since the loosely packed rice in well-made sushi will fall apart if pinched). For sashimi, use chopsticks.
3. Don’t drown the fish. You know how some people immediately dump salt on their food? Among sushi fans, the equivalent is a person who immediately dunks into soy sauce. A little is fine, but don’t dip the sushi rice-side first–it will crumble. Instead, flip the piece over and let the fish barely touch the liquid. As for what to do with the wasabi: Nigiri sushi already contains a bit of wasabi between the rice and fish; when eating sashimi, a little wasabi mixed into your soy sauce is okay.
4. Bite once. Sashimi, nigiri sushi, and maki rolls should be consumed in one bite if possible. Having said that, the size of slices of fish and rolls in Japan tends to be much smaller than the super-sized stuff we get in the States. Let’s just say that if you can’t eat your sushi or roll in two bites, you probably shouldn’t be eating it at all.
5. Eat in order. Appreciating sushi means detecting subtle flavor, temperature, and texture. Start with sashimi, then sushi with rice, then miso soup. Pickled ginger should be eaten only as a palate cleanser between bites. And if what you’re eating contains cream cheese, pineapple, barbecued pork, or fried chicken, it’s not really sushi.