By Erin McQuilkin

Sushi is one of the world’s most popular foods and Japan’s most refined dish. From the essential materials of rice, the freshest fish a human can find, vinegar, zesty wasabi, the umami slap of soy sauce and the deft hands of the sushi chef, comes a revelatory experience. The tastes of sushi are pristine, delicate and subtle. Through the simplicity of flavour, purity of ingredients and flawless technique, this once rustic fisherman’s food, has been elevated to an art form. Sushi has a hazy beginning, somewhere between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC on the banks of the Mekong river when a poor fisherman discovered that glutinous rice preserves fish through fermentation. 

From its humble beginnings, it is now available on almost every corner of the globe. Whether you’re eating sushi off a conveyer belt or from the counter in front of the renowned Jiro Ono in Tokyo, there are a few fundamental rules you need to follow so you don’t embarrass yourself in front of your date or upset the sushi chef! 

The Rules Of The Game

Before you enter the sanctuary of the sushi temple, make sure you don’t wear strong perfume. Sushi restaurants are often small spaces where every sense is engaged, and you must not overpower diners’ sense of smell. Once ready to begin your seafood odyssey, choose a seat at the bar where you can communicate directly with the chef and watch him perform his craft. 

Order the omakase, or chef’s choice tasting menu,  guaranteeing you receive only the freshest fish from that day’s market. As your delightful nigiri, maki and sashimi begin to arrive, keep in mind there is an order to how you should devour these bite-sized briny treasures. In general, start with light coloured fish and move to the higher fat, oily fish like toro and grilled eel, then you can eat the maki, which has more rice, later in the meal.

Get Your Hands Dirty 

Before you dig into your dishes, make sure you clean your hands with the wet towel your server delivers, and eat the sushi with your hands, though chopsticks are also accepted, especially if you don’t like the smell of seafood to linger. Maki and nigiri should be eaten with clean fingers, while sashimi, pickled ginger and wasabi are consumed by way of chopsticks. 

Diners often make the mistake of dousing their sushi in soy sauce, but sushi chefs recommend to pour only a small amount of soy sauce into the dish, adding more as you need throughout the meal. When it comes to the iconic dip of your nigiri, flip each piece over so only the fish goes in the soy sauce, never the rice, which could break apart. The sushi needs to be delivered to your tongue face down for peak flavour. 

As you’re gorging on these slices of heaven, make sure to remember you should eat each in a single bite without breaking them. If you would like to season your selection with wasabi, don’t mix it into the soy sauce, but use your chopsticks to put a dab on the middle of the fish and remember throughout the meal to use the delicious pickled ginger in between bites to cleanse the palette. 

Beyond the way you eat your sushi, there are a few other faux pas to avoid. Don’t rub your chopsticks together or use them to pass food to another person’s chopsticks, as this is seen as impolite, not to mention similar to a Japanese funeral ritual! Whatever you do, don’t suck extra wasabi or soy off your chopsticks or point with them, both are considered extremely rude.

Finishing Notes

Japanese etiquette dictates that it is disrespectful to leave behind any sushi, so snap up every last morsel to please the chef who works with love and devotion to the craft. They have carefully watched your dining pace, and preferences and will be delighted to see you finish your meal, especially if you praise the quality of the rice as it is one of the most precious elements of the meal. Instead of tipping, send something a little extra special to the chef—a sake and toast their hard work together with a Kanpai

As the meal comes to a close don’t linger too far beyond the timing of your meal, it is generally best to stay for 1 to 1.5 hours or slightly longer if you’re enjoying beer and sake. Finally, acknowledge your exit with a nod and bow to the chef to cap off an evening of beauty and luxury. 

Now, as a master of this treasured Japanese cuisine, you are ready to embark on your next lip-smacking omakase dining adventure with your partner, or alone in admiration of the talented chef.