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How to Eat Sushi

etiquette & technique

from The Story of Sushi, Appendix

by Trevor Corson

Text is copyright © 2007-2008 by Trevor Corson. All rights reserved.

Many Americans walk into a sushi restaurant and opt to sit at a table because they find the sushi bar intimidating. Sitting at a table feels familiar, as does ordering from a menu. California Rolls and other American-style sushi rolls are often the preferred items, simply because the diner knows what to expect.

Turning one’s back on familiarity and choosing to sit at the sushi bar requires courage, but the experience is far more interesting. For starters, most of the sushi that traditional chefs serve at the bar is not rolls,
but nigiri—hand-squeezed rectangles of rice topped with fish. Not knowing what to expect, either with the ingredients or the order in which they are served, is part of the fun.

For tips on how to eat at the sushi bar, start with this appetizer—a short video from ABC News called “Sushi 101: What You Know Is Wrong” that features Trevor at a sushi bar in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Then come back and check out Trevor’s more detailed comments and photos below. And then if you’re really hungry for the real deal, hire Trevor to be your own personal Sushi Concierge!

Many Japanese people also find the sushi bar intimidating

Americans can take solace in the knowledge that they are not alone. Many Japanese people also find the sushi bar intimidating. In 2005, a pair of Japanese comedians named Jin Katagiri and Kentaro Kobayashi, known for their irreverent cultural commentary, produced a video called “Sushi: The Japanese Tradition.” The video has become popular on the Internet, both in the U.S. and in Japan. (Click here to watch it.) “Sushi,” the narrator says, “is a snack that represents Japan.” When the narrator utters the next sentence, the astute viewer gets his first clue that something is up: “Most Japanese people eat at a sushi bar every day.” Japanese viewers chuckle, since quite the opposite is true. Many Japanese people—especially women—seldom eat at sushi bars because they are frightened of them, just as many Westerners are.

As the video progresses, it pokes fun at the insecurities of the average Japanese person about proper behavior in a sushi bar. The video provides instructions on how to act. In the process, it plays on the obsession the Japanese people have with social etiquette.

For example, the video explains that when entering a sushi bar, a patron must place his hand on the curtain over the entrance at a point 3.2 inches from the corner, at an angle of 48 degrees, before flipping the curtain out of the way.
Inside, he must demonstrate his fine manners, and his sensitivity to social obligation, by bowing to other patrons and asking if the empty seats at the bar are available. At the bar, he is instructed to pour exactly 20 cubic centimeters of soy sauce into his dish. He must address the chef only as “chief.” In addition, he must never ask the chef about himself, because all sushi chefs have a secret past. Here, the chef glowers menacingly at the camera while slowly polishing the long blade of his knife.

Japanese viewers recognize this as satire. But some have worried, in their comments on the Internet, that Westerners might take the video seriously. After all, Westerners are even less familiar with sushi-bar etiquette than the Japanese. For starters—as the video points out—there are no waiters, waitresses, or menus at a traditional sushi bar. So how do you even order?

How to order at the sushi bar

In reality, when a customer sits down at a sushi bar in Japan, he or she generally utters one of three words to begin: “okimari,” “okonomi,” or “omakase” (the latter is pronounced oh·mah·ka·say). The ordering will proceed differently depending on which of these three approaches the customer chooses. (Not all sushi chefs in the U.S. will be familiar with these terms, since many are not Japanese.)

1. The first option, okimari literally means “it’s been decided.” The customer uses this word to indicate that he has chosen to eat the shop’s standard “set meal,” a sushi sampler at a fixed price. The chef chooses the contents, and serves the sushi to the customer all at once.

2. The second option, okonomi, literally means “as I like it.” The customer uses this word to indicate that he knows what he wants. He asks the chef for different kinds of fish, one by one, as he eats. The order in
which the customer requests different types of fish is not crucial, but most sushi connoisseurs begin with leaner, lighter-tasting fish and progress towards fish with stronger flavors and higher fat content. At most sushi bars, when the customer asks for an order of a given sushi topping, the chef makes two nigiri. Japanese customers seldom eat more than two nigiri topped with any given fish, before moving on to a different topping. For most Japanese, the point of sushi is to enjoy the variety. Okonomi customers who order only high-end items such as fatty tuna, sea urchin, and rare clams can, of course, expect their bill at the end of the evening to be higher than average.

3. The third option, omakase literally means “I leave it up to you.” This is an invitation to the chef to impress the customer with his finest ingredients, served in the order the chef believes will best highlight the flavors of the toppings. The chef may include other small dishes to augment the sushi. Generally, when a customer orders omakase, this indicates that he is not overly concerned about the price of the meal and is prepared to accept a certain level of expense.

Regardless of how the customer orders, some sushi experts suggest that it is the customer’s responsibility to know the price range of a particular sushi bar before walking in the door. And because the selections of fish at a high-quality sushi bar vary by the day, the customer should be willing to trust the chef’s calculation of the cost of the meal; it’s bad form to quibble. Sometimes the customer comes out ahead. In Japan, traditional sushi chefs are famous for calculating each customer’s bill from memory. In an interview, one of Tokyo’s most respected sushi chefs, Jiro Ono, admitted that he frequently forgets to charge customers for very-fatty tuna, one of the most expensive items he serves. He laughed and told his interviewer that the amount of money he’d forgotten to charge customers over the years probably added up to eight or nine thousand dollars.

In the U.S., I encourage customers to politely inform the chef if they have a budget for the evening, so that they aren’t taken by surprise when they get the bill. Many sushi restaurants in the U.S. have, of course, introduced menus and clear pricing as well, because that is what Americans expect. But while menus may make American customers more comfortable, menus can also have the effect of discouraging customers from asking the chef about the other items currently available.

The truth about soy sauce and wasabi

Next come the mechanics of eating the sushi once it’s been ordered. A few inches above the counter at most sushi bars there is a narrow shelf, which the chef can easily reach. If a customer orders okonomi or omakase, the chef places a rectangular stand, usually made of wood, on the shelf. The stand will be empty, except for a mound of pickled ginger. (Most chefs in Japan do not add a mound of extra wasabi, as they do in the U.S.)
This rectangular stand is called a “geta,” because it looks like a traditional Japanese wooden sandal by the same name. The customer should leave the geta on the shelf, where the chef can reach it. The chef will place orders of nigiri on the geta. If he serves nigiri with more than a small dab of sauce, he will most likely serve them on a plate, so the geta will remain clean.

Most sushi bars put out bottles of soy sauce, as well as a small dish for soy sauce for each customer, and most Americans think they are supposed to dunk all their sushi in the soy sauce. But full-strength soy sauce overpowers the delicate flavors of raw fish.
A good sushi chef adds all the flavoring the sushi needs before he hands it to the customer. He mixes his own sauce and brushes it onto the sushi behind the bar. This sauce is called nikiri, and it consists of soy sauce augmented with bonito-and-kelp broth, sake, and the sweet rice liquor called mirin. A sushi chef who uses nikiri instructs the customer not to add extra soy sauce. Some serious sushi connoisseurs forgo soy sauce in any case, preferring to concentrate on the subtle flavors of the fish. (For instructions on making your own nikiri, click here.)

As for wasabi, most commercial wasabi served in sushi bars isn’t wasabi at all. It’s a mix of horseradish powder, mustard powder, mustard extract, citric acid, yellow dye No. 5, and blue dye No. 1.
Real wasabi is a rare and finicky plant. It’s hard to grow, nearly impossible to keep fresh, tricky to prepare, and absurdly expensive. It’s also much more delicious than its contrived counterpart. (For instructions on purchasing real wasabi, click here.)

Good chefs in Japan generally don’t serve extra wasabi on the side because they put what they consider the proper amount in the nigiri itself, between the topping and rice. Generally, the chef increases the amount of wasabi with toppings that have a high fat content. Many Americans have developed the habit of stirring extra wasabi into their soy sauce. Chefs and most Japanese diners frown on this practice. It’s better for the customer to ask the chef to adjust the amount of wasabi inside the nigiri to match the customer’s preference. Americans stir the wasabi into their soy sauce to increase the level of spiciness. Ironically, however, wasabi (and the green horseradish that usually passes for wasabi) rapidly looses its spiciness and flavor when immersed in liquid.

Picking up sushi and putting it in your mouth

A good nigiri ought to fall apart in the mouth, so chefs prefer not to pack the rice too firmly. Most connoisseurs pick up sushi with their fingers, since chopsticks are likely to break apart a loosely-packed nigiri. Some people claim that chopsticks are preferable because the flavors of the different fish linger on their hands, preventing full appreciation of each separate topping. But most sushi bars provide each customer with a damp cloth, and wiping one’s fingers between each type of nigiri should be sufficient to keep the flavors separate. Likewise, the purpose of the pickled ginger is to cleanse the palate between different types of fish. The ginger shouldn’t be eaten as an appetizer, but it is fine to ask for more if the supply on the geta runs out.

Methods for eating nigiri with one’s hands vary from person to person. One option is as follows. The diner presses his thumb and middle finger lightly against the sides of the nigiri, at the rectangle’s midpoint. He extends his index finger along the top of the nigiri, down its length. The grip is a bit like the grip he would use on a computer mouse. Holding the nigiri lightly, he lifts it off the geta. He curls his index finger, pulling the far end of the nigiri upwards and towards him with the tip of the finger. He allows the rectangle to rotate 180 degrees “head over heels,” while continuing to hold it between the thumb and middle finger, so that it is now upside down. This allows the diner to dip the fish side of the nigiri in the soy sauce, rather than the rice side. If the diner dips the rice side of a loosely-packed nigiri into the soy sauce, the nigiri will disintegrate in the soy-sauce dish.

Chefs who see customers using chopsticks or dipping the rice side in the soy sauce will pack the nigiri more tightly than is ideal. Even when a customer doesn’t dip the nigiri in soy sauce, many prefer to turn the nigiri upside down so that the fish touches the tongue first, but that is a matter of preference. If the customer isn’t using soy sauce, it’s perfectly acceptable to put the nigiri in the mouth fish side up.

Either way, a nigiri should be eaten in one bite, and a good chef will adjust the size of the nigiri to match each customer. Sushi should also be eaten as soon as the chef serves it, so that it can be enjoyed at the proper temperature, with the rice still slightly warm. Traditional sushi rolls—with the seaweed on the outside—should also be eaten right away
, before the seaweed gets soggy. If the chef serves a platter, the rolls with seaweed on the outside should be eaten before the nigiri.

The etiquette for eating sashimi—slices of raw fish without rice—is a bit different. Sashimi should always be eaten with chopsticks. Chefs serve a small mound of wasabi on the side with sashimi. To avoid losing the spiciness and flavor of the wasabi by mixing it with liquid, the customer should dab a bit of wasabi directly onto the slice of fish with his chopsticks, then dip a different corner of the fish in soy sauce. The garnishes that come with sashimi—usually a green perilla leaf and shredded radish—are meant to be eaten, and provide digestive benefits.

Talking with the chef

Opinions among sushi experts vary as to whether to ask the sushi chef about his “secret past,” as the video jokingly says. Most believe that what makes sushi unique is the intimacy that develops between the chef and his customers. Becoming acquainted with a particular chef, and returning to his sushi bar repeatedly, is one of the best ways for a customer to broaden his horizons. The chef is likely to serve his most-interesting and highest-quality ingredients to his regular customers. That said, a few sushi experts argue that the customer ought to keep a respectful distance from the chef.

Either way, most experts agree on one thing. Customers who show off their sushi knowledge at the sushi bar are tiresome. Chefs appreciate customers who would rather eat sushi than talk about it.

The foregoing text is excerpted from The Story of Sushi, copyright © 2007 by Trevor Corson (previously titled The Zen of Fish). All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

The Sushi Concierge

Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi and the best-known sushi expert in the United States, is available to bring you the most authentic sushi-dining experience you can imagine as your very own personal Sushi Concierge. To learn more about this extraordinary service, and to inquire about arranging a dinner or giving The Sushi Concierge as a gift, please visit


We Need a Better Way
to Eat Sushi in America

A couple of months after The Story of Sushi was published, The New York Times invited Trevor to comment on the worsening scarcity of high-grade tuna due to overfishing. Trevor wrote an article for the Times op-ed page, calling on sushi eaters and sushi chefs throughout the U.S. to change the way we eat. The article quickly rose to become the #3 most-emailed article on The New York Times website; you can read it here.

For even more sushi-eating tips:

For advice on more specific matters of etiquette, and how to enjoy an authentic, rewarding, and delicious experience at the sushi bar, check out the “Sushi Eating How-To” page, an extensive guide put together by writer, technology guru, and sushi aficionado Eugene Ciurana.

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