01 February 2013

Sushi 101: How to Eat Sushi Correctly

Americans who say they like sushi
really just like the taste of soy sauce and wasabi

I recently went on a food tour in Little Tokyo and learned some surprising things about sushi.

In case you're wondering:
As a Japanese-American, madhapa, why didn't you know this stuff already?
      - Mom made lots of delish Japanese food, but not sushi
      - Let's not forget I'm a vegetarian

To verify the authenticity of this Sushi 101 session, I emailed my friend who is married to a Japanese woman (the real kind), has lived in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese. He backed up everything I learned and also referred me to this colorful story of the (recently-retired) LA Sushi Nazi.

#1 Don't "smooth" your chopsticks
For one thing, scraping one crappy chopstick against another doesn't actually remove splinters.

The other reason not to is, in Japan and perhaps some high-end sushi joints in the US, they put some thought and expense into those disposable utensils. Rubbing them together is uncouth and the restauranteur may be offended. It's okay to ask for another set of chopsticks if the ones you receive actually have splinters.

#2 Sushi should be eaten with your fingers. Not chopsticks.

The hot towel or oshibori isn't something the Japanese copped from the airlines. So don't wipe your face and neck with it, the towel is only meant for your hands. Why?  Because sushi = finger-food!

(cue noise of record scratching).

Who knew? Sushi (as opposed to rice-less sashimi) was perhaps the world's first finger food. Imagine a Japanese villager in the days before Nintendo. He's looking for a quick snack,  approaches the local sushi stand and orders. He gets a slab or two of rice topped with fish, and buggers off.

People don't carry chopsticks around; sushi was and is a finger food. Would you carry around a knife and fork to eat a sandwich or a hot dog?

Okay, right now I am going to go make some curry and rice. Seriously, this is making me hungry....

...aaaaand, we're back.

#3 Don't mix your wasabi and soy sauce together.

sushi dish for soy sauceI don't know about you, but as soon as that tray o' sushi arrives I scoop up the wasabi splut, douse it in soy sauce and mix until I have a greeny-brown paste. As it turns out - for veg sushi this is okay. You can also mix 'em together if you're eating sashimi (fish sans rice). But generally speaking, mixing wasabi and soy sauce together IS NOT OKAY, ROUND-EYE!

How is it supposed to work? Okay, picture one of those small soy sauce dishes. Sometimes it has a little engraving in it, right? The purpose of that drawing or engraving is to tell you when to stop pouring. You're not supposed to cover up the entire image and limit your overall soy sauce usage to about one tablespoon. This leaves room on the edge of your dish for a swipe of wasabi.

elaborate sushi rollDon't use soy sauce at all if the name of the sushi roll you ordered corresponds to:
  • A creature (dragon, spider)
  • A place (Alaska, California)
  • or includes the word "crunchy."

If you dunk one of the aforementioned rolls in sushi, you're masking the delicious taste of avocado, mayonnaise, tempura bits, or whatever you paid extra for to mask the taste of the fish - with soy sauce and wasabi.

Speaking of which.

#4 Sushi Tastes Better Upside Down

Eat sushi so the fish touches your tongue first. If you like the taste of fish, this ensures you get to really taste the flavor of it. Dousing the sushi in soy sauce or eating it rice first will cause you to lose some or all of the taste of the fish.

After eating the first piece, if you feel the next bit needs some soy sauce, give it a light brush, not a dip, through your soy sauce dish / swipe of wasabi. Fun fact: sometimes the sushi chef puts wasabi under the fish. Who knew that was there?

#5 Eat Your Sushi in the Right Order

Some fish is fattier than others and the leaner cuts should be eaten first. The fattier fish will compromise your palate for the lighter one. How do you know which is which, lean vs fat? On some sushi menus they clue you in by listing a leaner fish such as tuna above a about a fattier one like salmon.

crazy sushi chef

If you order multiple items, the chef may serve the leaner item first. If you accidentally order a fattier one first, eat some of that pickled ginger they give you.

#6 Do These Rules Really Matter?

If you're a vegetarian or you only eat sashimi, the above rules don't matter (except perhaps the chopsticks rule). In fact, if you only eat sushi in North America, you can probably ignore all of the above. But isn't it nice to know that the right way to eat something is with your fingers? It's not rude, it's culturally correct!

In closing...

I got nothin' else. So, how about this: who else remembers the horrifically awesome Kikkoman flash video from the 90's? I don't know which bit of randomness I like best: the cat in the shame room (1min 26) or Kikkoman in bed with a lady (1min 35).

Now sing it with me! Show Me! Show You! Ki-ko-Man! Ki-ko-Man!


Rice King said...

Love the KiKoman Song - where do u find this shit?
You don't know what you're missing by not eating Sushi :-) . but you got the rules right. I'm still a Soy & Wasabi Mixer though...

Unknown said...

I loooove sushi. However, I've seen many of these rules before and take a couple issues with them (which you've more or less mentioned already). 1) I like a lot of wasabi. I know it's wrong, but you know what? I don't really care. 2) I will probably drop my fish if I try to turn that sucker upside down, so I'm just going to dunk my rice in and take one big old bite.

It IS good to know it's a finger food as, mentioned above, I would probably lose that hunk of fish in my soy sauce trying to dunk it upside down. I'm pretty good with my chopsticks, but after 16 years working in an office, my grip strength sucks. Anyway, if I ever make it to Japan, I will of course abide by the rules because it would be rude not to. Until then, I'm going to enjoy it the way I always have been...all American and shit.