You’ve been eating sushi forever, but do you know how to behave at a sushi bar? It’s not just that good manners count; your sushi chef wants you to enjoy your meal to the fullest. Here are some sushi etiquette tips from a few of the country’s top sushi chefs.
Chef Masaharu Morimoto, Morimoto, New York, New York:
* Do not put wasabi directly into your soy sauce. The sushi chef has already placed the proper amount of wasabi for the fish in nigiri.
* Do dip your nigiri into soy sauce fish-side down — otherwise, the rice may fall apart.
* Do eat nigiri in one bite to enjoy the perfect harmony of fish, rice, and wasabi. If you bite halfway, the balance will be lost.
* Do enjoy the pickled ginger as a palate cleanser. Eat it between different kinds of nigiri. Don’t eat the ginger in the same bite as nigiri.
Chef-owner Tim Archuleta, Ichi Sushi & Ni Bar, San Francisco, California:
* Don’t expect a quick meal at the sushi bar. Don’t rush a meal or a chef. The sushi bar is the place for people to enjoy sushi —where else can you watch the chef make your meal and talk to them at the same time? Do take your time and enjoy interacting with the chef.
* Don’t ask what’s fresh today. Some fish freeze well. If fish is coming from Japan, it goes through a broker and the FDA and is shipped to a supplier. It could be two to three days since it was caught, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fresh. Do ask what’s in season and where ingredients come from.
* Don’t ask where or how a chef trained. Don’t assume because the chef isn’t Japanese they don’t know sushi. No one would ask that in a French or Italian restaurant.
* Do eat with fingers. Chopsticks are okay, but you have to be careful with how you use them. You’re not going to appreciate the temperature or the texture if you don’t use your hands.
Chef-owner Jackson Yu, Omakase, San Francisco, California:
* Do buy the sushi chef a drink. Any time you like you can offer them beer, wine, or sake. It’s a way to show appreciation and build rapport. Don’t try and make the chef drunk! A couple glasses are fine.
* Do tip your chef. In Japan, the service fee is included, but not in the U.S. A standard 20% tip is acceptable.
* Do make a special request. At Omakase Chef Yu always has some a la carte stuff, and on the weekend there is more available, such as dragonfish from Hokkaido, something he introduces that at the end of the meal. Don’t ask for a California roll.
* Do pay attention to the rice. Sushi is about the rice. We make it super soft; my style is to make it with air inside, so if you use your hands you have better control. It’s less likely to drop or break; it will open in your mouth. It’s designed to be picked up with your hands.
* Do opt for the omakase menu. Omakase basically means “chef’s choice.” You will get the most personalized experience. The menu, and, therefore, the experience will be different every single time and will largely be based on whatever fish was available on that given day. It’s the best way to let the chefs prepare a special menu for you.
* Do drink sake. Of course, sake is a natural option. Tominaga prefers to pair sushi with a dry sake and says if you’re more interested in wine, something with high acidity is good, like a sauvignon blanc.
* Do sit at the sushi bar if you’re dining alone, or with just one guest. Don’t sit at the sushi bar If you’re dining with a larger group, choose a table instead.
Regional Corporate Chef John Um, Sushisamba, Las Vegas, Nevada
* Don’t be afraid. Dining at a sushi bar is a great opportunity to try new things and learn more about sushi. Do ask questions, the chef will be happy to talk to you.
* Don’t rub your chopsticks together. It’s considered an insult, suggesting the quality of the chopsticks is poor. Do ask for a new pair of chopsticks if you see a splinter in the wood.
* Don’t just focus on the fish. There are so many core ingredients that you should be aware of: Rice, vinegar, seaweed, soy sauce, wasabi, ginger, and so on. Any good sushi restaurant can purchase an expensive fish, but to know how to make great sushi rice to create a perfect connection between the rice and sushi ingredients is the key.
* Do appreciate the rice. It is really crazy how much time and energy chefs put into the rice. In Japan, chefs spend up to 10 years learning just how to make the rice – it’s an art form. The biggest compliment for the chef is when someone shows appreciation for the rice.
Executive Sushi Chef Jiro Kobayashi, Roku, West Hollywood
* Don’t douse the sushi in soy sauce. It overpowers the flavor of the fish. Make sure you are just dipping, rather than soaking, the fish. Also, people often make the mistake of adding too much wasabi to their soy sauce and it becomes a paste. To avoid this, chef Kobayashi recommends putting a little wasabi directly on the sushi, then dipping it in the soy sauce.
* Do drink something traditional with sushi. That means sake, beer, or green tea.
* Do try the Toro Tartare and the Ume Matsu at Roku. The Ume Matsu is a selection of five different fish served sashimi style over rice with different accompaniments or sauces and is especially great for guests who are not sushi aficionados. It is not too adventurous that they won’t enjoy it, but it is much more creative than traditional sushi. This gives a unique experience without having to know what to order because it allows them to try a few different things on the same plate.
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, blogger, and cookbook author. She is the publisher of the food blog Cooking with Amy. She currently contributes to numerous online publications including Food Network, Fodor’s and Refinery 29 and never says no to a warm donut. Follow her @cookingwithamy.