How to eat sushi
So, how do you eat sushi, the quintessential Japanese delicacy of vinegared rice topped with raw fish and other ingredients? With your fingers? With chopsticks? Dipped into soy sauce; daubed with wasabi? One mouthful or two?
The only certainty, it seems, is that its proper consumption demands both etiquette and practicality. To put the matter to rest, we enquired at the top: Sushi Sawada, on Tokyo’s most prestigious intersection of Ginza 4-chome.
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With two Michelin stars and only seven seats, Sawada is a shrine to this single wondrous dish -- and to straight-talking master Koji Sawada’s constant quest for perfection.
How to eat sushi: The hands
Sawada's technique for the perfect sushi experience:
There’s a simple reason for inverting your sushi: the molded rice base will disintegrate if dipped directly into soy sauce. The rice will also soak up too much sauce, ruining the flavor balance.
However, if you’re lucky enough to score a seat at Sawada, you won’t be concerned with the dipping step. Like many top sushi masters, Sawada seasons each piece with his own soy sauce blend or a sprinkle of sea salt before serving, hence no need to dip.
“But the rest is the same,” says Sawada. “The fish should touch the tongue first.” Most mainstream sushi-ya (sushi restaurants) expect customers to dip, and you’ll find soy sauce dishes on the counter. Soy sauce is called “murasaki,” meaning “purple,” in sushi-speak.
How to eat sushi: Oshibori, gari and wasabi
Every sushi-ya will give you a damp oshibori hand towel to wipe your fingers before eating and between bites. Use your chopsticks to pick up some gari -- sweet pickled ginger to refresh the palate.
The tea is called 'agari.' The check is often called a shock.
Grated wasabi, the pungent Japanese horseradish, is usually smeared on the block of rice, known as “shari,” as the sushi is pressed. The typical old-school sushi master will frown if you ask for more (his creation is of course perfect).
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Wasabi may be mixed with soy sauce to dip sashimi -- raw fish without sushi rice -- but never, in polite circles, for sushi.
However, more modern establishments will generally accommodate requests for extra wasabi. At Sawada, possibly Tokyo’s most expensive sushi-ya, the customer is king, so ask away (if you must -- some would say excessive wasabi use exposes the novice.)
How to eat sushi: The chopsticks
Sawada would rather not see his sushi eaten with chopsticks, although he provides them, and a quick scan of any average sushi-ya will show chopsticks rank above fingers as the preferred utensils for most Japanese.
Tokyo cookery teacher Yumi Sone likes them for their elegance -- her husband does too -- and finds eating with the hands a little affected when practiced by anyone but a true aficionado.
“But chopsticks can be tricky when dipping sushi upside down,” she says.
Sawada agrees. “Dipping fish-side first after picking up the sushi is not easy with chopsticks,” he says. “Many Japanese, even famous celebrities, hold their chopsticks like this ...” He bunches his hand into a kind of fist around the chopsticks, and scissors them awkwardly.
It might get the job done, but it ain’t pretty. Sawada believes only the hands-on experience delivers the true sensuality of sushi.
“Like eating curry in India,” he says. “It just tastes better with the hands.”
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One final 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.” It’s what helps create the divine melt-in-the-mouth feel. Chopsticks can squash the rice grains together, or lose their grip.
How to eat sushi: Ordering
Many of the best sushi-ya have no menus; the meal is closer to a degustation parade of what’s best on the day -- so sit back and enjoy.
It’s not polite to leave a freshly presented piece of sushi for too long in front of you, as temperature, texture and moisture all change.
In this respect the sushi-ya makes more demands of the customer than a typical restaurant -- the diner has a role to play too.
Feel free to ask for a repeat of anything you especially liked. One of the clumsier faux pas is when a customer fails to inform the master in advance of dislikes or allergies.
That’s why when it comes to customers not fluent in Japanese, restaurants like Sawada may ask to speak to your concierge or a Japanese speaker before taking a reservation.
When ordering at a mid-range sushi-ya, your best bet, if you don’t speak Japanese, may be to ask for a course within a set budget -- if the restaurant doesn’t offer one, write down on a piece of paper what you’re prepared to spend per person and simply ask for “o-makase” -- a way of asking the chef to look after you.
Drinks are not usually included in this figure -- the phrase for this is “nomimono betsu desu” (drinks separate).
The chain sushi restaurant makes things easier -- most of them offer photographic menus and you can simply serve yourself from the mini conveyor belt.
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Better still, take a stool at the counter and this tip from cookery teacher Sone: “Never take a plate that’s going around,” she says. “I always order freshly made, direct from the chefs. Also this way, I can ask for a smaller amount of shari.”
This is a common practice among Japanese women who want to keep pace with their more voracious male companions -- the number of pieces they eat is the same, but the volume is less.
Follow the fish name with raised fingers for the number of pieces you're ordering. There is no specific order in which to eat the different kinds of sushi.
How to eat sushi: Agari tea
You’ll receive green or brown roasted tea at the end of your meal (and throughout, if you prefer it to sake or beer), before you receive the check. The tea is called “agari.” The check is often called a shock.
At many high-grade establishments, your bill will be only a number written on a slip of paper. Obviously at sushi-ya offering prix fixe courses you’ll know the amount, minus drinks, in advance.
The new generation of sushi chefs make a point of being customer-friendly, though there’s no denying that a top class sushi-ya can still be daunting, even for natives.
In fact, very few typical Japanese get to enjoy sushi at the highest level, so if you happen to take a Japanese friend along with you, don’t be surprised to find them almost as in awe of the experience as you.
MC Blg, 3/F, 5-9-19 Ginza
Monday: closed. Tuesday - Friday: noon-2 p.m.; 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
Saturday, Sunday, holidays: noon-3 p.m.; 5 p.m.-8 p.m.
Courses from ¥21,000 (lunch); ¥32,000 (dinner, incl sashimi course), not including drinks
Reservations essential: +81 (0) 3 3571 4711