Freshwater eel, spicy raw tuna and salty fish roe - who would have thought that these seemingly obscure dishes would eventually become a mainstream type of cuisine? A centuries-old food from Japan, sushi is a well-loved cuisine all over the world. It became popular in Western cultures over the past few decades and since then has been modified to please Western palettes. Even so, there is certainly nothing like the true experience of eating traditional sushi in Japan.
However, one must bear in mind the operative term in the former phrase - traditional. Japan is known for being a society that takes tradition and manners seriously, so you'll need to know more than just being able to hold chopsticks correctly when you dine at a sushi bar. Here are a few things to keep in mind about sushi etiquette.
Irasshaimase!: arriving at the sushi bar
It is polite to acknowledge the greeting of the host or hostess once you enter the establishment; this will also work in your favor as they can get you the best seat in the house. While you can opt for a table, the best place to sit is right at the sushi bar so you can interact with the itamae (sushi chef).
Preparing for the meal
Many restaurants will offer an oshibori (a hot, wet towel) for you to clean your hands with, as sushi is actually meant to be eaten with your hands rather than chopsticks. If you must use chopsticks, be sure not to rub them together. Another no-no of preparing for a traditional sushi meal is mixing wasabi in your soy sauce. This is a common practice but it actually detracts from the true taste of the sushi.
Omakase: how to order sushi
For those feeling open-minded, say "omakase". That is Japanese for "I leave it to you" and allows the itamae to take you on a culinary adventure by selecting dishes for you. If you'd rather choose yourself, start with the lighter tasting fish and work your way up to the fattier, stronger tasting fish.
Eating the sushi
The best part - eating the sushi. For nigiri-style sushi, take hold of the nigiri with your thumb and index finger. Turn it upside down and dip the fish (instead of the rice) into the soy sauce and eat it in one bite. If you are using chopsticks, do not use them to pass food to a person or stick them straight up in the rice - this draws too many symbolisms to Japanese funeral rituals.
Especially if you are eating at the sushi bar in front of the itamae, eat the sushi right away. This is a sign of respect to the itamae and also allows you to enjoy the sushi at the best time. To cleanse your palette in between pieces of sushi and aid digestion, have a refreshing piece of gari (ginger).
Domo arigato: after the meal
After your wonderful sushi experience, thank the itamae and the wait staff with a few words of thanks - "domo arigato" which means "thank you", or if you're feeling fancy you can say "gochisosama deshita" (thank you for the meal). In Japan, the tip is included in the bill.
With this tips in mind, there is no doubt that you will have a fantastic adventure in eating sushi the traditional way. Have a wonderful and delicious time! Buy sushi sets from Japanese Style for the ultimate Japanese experience.