Learn how to eat sushi the Japanese way

Otoro sushi fatty tuna (photo by Justin Choi)

Otoro or fatty tuna sushi (photo by Justin Choi)

In recent years, sushi has gained tremendous popularity around the World. As a result of this global success, sushi has come to mean different things depending on where it is eaten. For example, sushi in Japan is different from sushi in California. At its most basic definition, sushi is seasoned rice with raw fish, yet, to better understand sushi we need to take a closer look at its history. The precursor of sushi, nare-zushi, was first developed in East Asia to preserve fish. The fish would ferment between layers of cooked rice. The rice would be then discarded giving the fish a characteristic sour taste. With the elaboration of better forms of transportation and refrigeration, Edo period food stalls replaced fermented fish with raw fish served on vinegary rice called edo-mae sushi.

Edo-mae sushi was in fact an early form of fast food. The fare was simple: a piece of fish on a ball of rice called nigiri sushi. To this day, seafood and rice is still at the center of the sushi eating experience with sushi rolls seldom served in Japanese restaurants in Japan. However, simple sushi rolls with tuna or cucumber are sometimes ordered to signify the end of a meal. These seaweed wrapped rolls were originally created in gambling halls to prevent cheaters from marking cards with rice starch. Nigiri sushi must be eaten as soon as it arrives in front of you to prevent the fish from drying. Sushi chefs that take great pride in their trade will be offended if you do not eat it immediately. Moreover, nigiri sushi must be eaten in one bite as every piece is shaped to enhance the flavor of the fish.

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Don’t just look at him! eat the sushi (photo by Greg Williams)

Condiments are an important part of the sushi eating experience. Nigiri sushi already has wasabi added between fish and rice. Mixing additional wasabi to one’s shoyu would be considered rude to the sushi chef that has already added the appropriate amount. In addition, gari or pickled ginger should never be put on top of sushi or else it might ruin the delicate flavor of the fish. Instead, it is eaten between courses as a palate cleanser. Also, shoyu should be used sparingly because in top establishments it is homemade using a special recipe. Only the fish should be lightly dipped in shoyu. The rice is already seasoned and dipping the rice would break it up into pieces. Occasionally, shoyu is unnecessary when sushi chefs brush a seasoning called tare on their sushi.

A bit of Japanese humor with this spoof on how to eat sushi

During the Edo period, the best shops would have the dirtiest awning. Hurried customers would eat sushi with their fingers, then dip their fingers in their tea and wipe them on the outside shop awning. To this day, eating sushi with your hands is considered better etiquette although many people choose to use chopsticks. Using chopsticks can be a real challenge as the fish must be dipped in shoyu and be placed on the tongue first. Most high range restaurants will only served omakase, the chef’s selection, which goes to great length to balance the freshest fish with the flow of the meal. If you choose to order a la carte, remember that, just like wine, sequencing is important. The typical order is by gradient starting with white fish, silver skinned fish, red meat fish, other seafood, fatty fish and ending with tamagoyaki, or Japanese sweet omelette. These rules like all rules can be bent or even broken. Yet, following these simple instructions will not only enhance your dinning experience, it will denote respect to the people that took great care in preparing your food.

Edo period sushi stall (photo by Kikuko)

Edo period sushi stalls (photo by Kikuko)

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One thought on “Learn how to eat sushi the Japanese way

  1. Abigail Watson

    The history of Sushi is incredible! I love the fact the there’s some much history behind what seems to be a fairly simplistic but delicious dish. This is a fantastic piece. I love it!

    Reply

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