How to eat sushi without being laughed at by the chef.
Jun 11, 2000
Even though this isn't a how-to-make-sushi epinion, it's the closest category I could find for a how-to-EAT-sushi epinion.
I'll admit, I was a complete newbie when it came to my first sushi experiences. I was scared to try anything, I didn't know what anything was and I didn't know how to eat it. Luckily, my girlfriend and I went to an amazing sushi restaurant in Berkeley, CA (near where we live) and met Aki, the owner and chef of Sushi Sho.
That night, Aki set us straight on how to eat sushi...and not only have we become loyal repeat customers (we're putting his kid through college), we've also become "sushi snobs." We find it hard to eat anywhere else but Sushi Sho (it's just incredible) and when we go out, we invariably snicker at the poor misguided soul who doesn't know how to eat his or her nigiri.
So listen up...it's for your own good!
There are four basic types of sushi (which, incidentally, simply means with rice), although you'll probably start out with only one or two of them. The first is nigiri. This is a pad of rice topped with fish, sometimes wrapped with a thin strip of nori (dried, pressed seaweed). The second type is maki, commonly known as rolled sushi. The rice and fish (or whatever is inside) are placed on a sheet of seaweed which is then rolled up and sliced into cylindrical pieces. Sometimes the sushi is rolled with the rice on the outside (such as with a California Roll). The third type is temaki, a hand roll. My girlfriend and I call this a "sushi ice-cream cone" because of its shape -- a cone of nori containing rice and fish/vegetables/whatever. The last type is fairly uncommon...pressed sushi (one variant is called batteira though I'm not 100% sure of the spelling on that one). The chef places the rice into a mold, covers it with fish and presses it into a slab, which is then sliced into blocks.
Now, sushi is meant to be finger food, quick and tasty. So you don't have to fumble with chopsticks (they're really only necessary when dealing with certain types of sushi, such unagi...barbecued eel). Personally, I just use my fingers. The trick is how to pick up the nigiri, which most people don't understand. It's easy.
Using your fingers, tip the nigiri onto its side and pick it up with your fingers so that your thumb is holding the fish (or material, as Aki calls it) and your index and middle fingers are pressed against the rice. If the nigiri has garnish on it (like ginger, roe or green onion), it's okay to smush it down into a paste so that it doesn't fall off.
Now if you decide to use soy sauce, carefully "swab" the material across the surface of the soy sauce. If you want a bit more sauce, tilt the nigiri so that a corner of the rice touches the sauce. A lot of the time you'll see a diner plop the sushi rice-side-down into the soy sauce. This is a BAD THING because the rice acts like a sponge and will suck up the soy sauce. If you're using chopsticks, the same rules apply...just pretend the lower chopstick is your thumb and follow the same procedure.
Now the eating part: Place the sushi in your mouth so that the material is on your tongue (yes, you're eating it upside down). This is so you'll taste the fish first. Clever, eh? Either eat the whole piece at once or in two bites...but no more than two. Why? Simple. The chef will have placed a bit of wasabi on your nigiri. If you take three bites, then the first and last bites will have no wasabi and the middle one will have ALL the wasabi. Yowch. If you really like wasabi, feel free to ask for a bit more...but a good chef will balance the fish's taste with his use of wasabi (which is used mainly to cover up the taste of lower quality cuts of fish)...using a lot of wasabi is rather insulting to the chef (kinda like pouring ketchup on filet mignon).
Try and chew your sushi three to five times at the most...any more and the fish will become warm and unappealing. If the fish has a strong taste (like katsuo and saba (skipjack tuna and mackeral), eat some gari (pickled ginger) to cleanse your palate. If you got dosed with too much wasabi, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. I highly advise NOT to breathe out through your nose as the wasabi's mojo will travel up to your sinuses and produce a very unplesant burning sensation. Of course, if you're a masochist, feel free to do whatever you like.
Oh yeah...DON'T MIX YOUR SOY SAUCE AND WASABI TOGETHER! The only exception is when eating sashimi (slices of raw fish), which is not served with wasabi. To eat sashimi the Japanese way, pour a bit of soy sauce into the special tray (it's probably rectangular instead of the normal round soy sauce dish used for sushi) and place some wasabi in the corner of the tray so that it's anchored there between the tray and the soy sauce. Using your chopsticks, swirl the wasabi around a bit so that it mixes unevenly with the soy...it should be a thick paste near the side and thinner and more uniformly mixed toward the center of the dish. This is so you can choose to use more or less wasabi as you see fit. Order a bowl of rice as a side and as with all sushi, take some time to just LOOK at the food and admire its beauty and simplicity.
Aki-san tells me that sushi must be consumed by the eyes as well as on the tongue, otherwise you've wasted your time and the chefs. It's not just food...it's an art-form! And you can learn a lot about Japanese culture just by learning about sushi...for instance did you know that the reason why the shredded daikon in a sashimi arrangement is always sticking up into the air? That means temori -- a way of arranging things vertically to signify "to heaven"...a state of perfection.
Whew. So there you go. Follow the same rules for maki (temaki is always eaten by hand) and don't be afraid to try something new the next time your sit down at the sushi bar. And be sure to snicker at the guy next to you when he dunks his nigiri...