In theory, sushi can be enjoyed just about any way you like.
However, if you want to eat sushi like a Tokyo local, the etiquette changes according to the setting.
Sushi’s origins date back to the 10th century. Narezushi, the most primitive version of the dish, was made with fermented fish preserved with salt and raw rice.
Edomae—or Tokyo-style—sushi, which is what most diners are familiar with today, is thought to have originated in the 1800s. It typically revolves around nigiri — fish with pressed rice — which can be topped with several dozen types of seafood and other ingredients, not only fish.
The tips below are intended to separate the uninitiated from those in the know, whether you’re dining at a simple chain restaurant (which in many ways are closer to the dish’s street-food roots in Japan) or the rarefied establishments of Tokyo’s upscale Ginza neighborhood.
With two Michelin stars and only seven seats, Sushi Sawada, located behind Tokyo’s most prestigious intersection of Ginza 4-chome, is a cathedral to sushi – and to owner Koji Sawada’s continuous quest for perfection of the art form.
Sawada seasons his ingredients with his own soy sauce blend or a sprinkle of sea salt before combining them on the rice, so there’s no need for additional soy sauce to dip.
But as the customer is always right, additional sauce is available on request. Sawada suggests the best way to use it is first to take the sushi and then turn it upside down and dip the fish side.
There’s a practical reason for inverting your sushi: there’s a good chance the rice will fall apart if it’s dipped directly. It will also soak up too much sauce, ruining the flavor balance.
Every sushi-ya—or sushi master—will give you a personal o-shibori or hand towel to wipe your fingers with before eating and between bites. Alongside the soy sauce will likely be a tub of sweet pickled ginger, known as gari, to refresh the palate.
Use chopsticks to pick some up and place it on your individual sushi board, called a geta for its resemblance to a wooden clog of the same name.
The chef will normally add grated wasabi, hot Japanese horseradish, to the block of rice as the sushi is pressed.
Again, the customer can choose his or her preferred way to eat the dish, though be aware that slathers of wasabi are a fair giveaway of a novice, as it will overpower the flavor of the fish.
Chopsticks: Pros and cons
There’s something practical about eating with your hands, and in the case of people who eat sushi, the practice may also suggest a casual and carefree persona. Sawada understands this, and would rather not see his sushi handled with chopsticks — although he does provide them on request.
However, at another prized sushi stop, Magurobito—”The Tuna Guys”—in Asakusa, chef Goh Saito says, “Almost everyone these days uses chopsticks. It’s for hygiene.”
A further reason to skip chopsticks is that the rice block in the best sushi is often molded quite loosely. Sawada describes his method as packing “a lot of air between the grains.”
Avoiding faux pas
Many of the best sushi-ya have no menus, but will instead offer different price ranges for fixed courses. You can still order individual items, though this will be more expensive.
Rather than lining up a range of sushi, the master will offer each piece as it’s made.
Feel free to ask for a repeat of anything you especially liked. A common faux pas is when a customer fails to inform the master in advance of dislikes or allergies.
Ingredients that commonly provoke reactions are shrimp (ebi); shellfish (kai) and sometimes uni (pronounced oohni), sea urchin. Some people dislike the “fishiness” of items such as mackerel, sardines and herring, collectively known as “glistening things,” or hikari mono.
Most mid-range sushi-ya offer courses. If the course you choose includes anything you can’t eat, say the name followed by nashi kudasai, “exclude, please”. If you’re unconcerned about budget and only want the best the master has to offer, tell him o-makase shimasu – which basically means ‘I’ll leave it up to you.’
Of course, chain sushi restaurants make things easier — most offer photographic menus and you can simply serve yourself.
Finishing the meal
Sushi restaurants in Japan serve green or brown roasted tea at the end of a meal before the check arrives. The tea is called agari.
At many high-grade and traditional establishments, the check may come as no more than a handwritten number on a tiny piece of paper. This is often a shock.
Though the new generation of sushi chefs makes a point of being customer-friendly, a top class sushi-ya can still be daunting, even for locals.
In fact, very few ordinary Japanese get to enjoy sushi at the absolute highest level, so if you’re able to take a local friend along, don’t be surprised to learn it’s their first time, and they are as much in awe of the experience as you.