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A Lesson in Sushi

By Rebecca Gardon

Sushi plate 3Here’s something you might be surprised to learn: the notion of sushi did not originate in Japan.

It is believed that sushi has its roots Southeast Asia where, for centuries, people packed fish in fermented rice to preserve it. Once the fish was properly preserved, the rice would be discarded and only the fish itself would be eaten.

Records of similar methods of fermented fish are first seen in Chinese scriptures in the 2nd century. However the Japanese are credited with first preparing sushi as a complete dish, eating fermented rice together with the preserved fish. During the 1800s the concept of eating fish with vinegared rice took off as a popular food cart item in Japan’s bustling Edo district.

Edo style is what is universally known today as sushi. Its simplest form – a slice of fish on sushi rice, or nigiri – is favored among purists throughout the U.S. However cut rolls and hand rolls have gained popularity in recent decades. Baked and deep fried versions are now commonplace, as are non-traditional ingredients such as spicy mayonnaise, cream cheese, thinly sliced jalapenos and fruits like mango, and even red meat. Yet even as sushi evolves into a more relaxed experience, many diners still fret over the etiquette of eating it. The following list is not meant to be a hard set of rules, but implementing even a few tips should help ward off any stern looks from chefs in the most traditional of sushi bars.

  • Know the basics. Sushi is vinegared rice combined with other ingredients. Nigiri is a slice of fish atop a small mound of pressed rice and one order is two pieces. Maki is fish, rice and other ingredients rolled with nori, or seaweed, and cut into circles. Temaki is a hand roll where seaweed is wrapped around ingredients in a cone shape. Sashimi refers to sliced fish, no rice.
  • Don’t ask for a knife or a fork. Traditionally, Japanese food was eaten with the thumb, index and middle finger. You should use chopsticks for sashimi, but sushi is perfectly acceptable finger food.
  • Speaking of chopsticks, avoid rubbing them together. Doing so implies to the chef that the chopsticks are cheap. If you must, work in your lap to discreetly pull of any wood fibers. When not using your chopsticks, lay them on a dish. Never stick them in your food or rice bowl.
  • It is generally considered best form to eat sushi in one bite. Because sushi pieces in the U.S. tend to be larger than in Japan, more than one bite may be required. It’s okay, but try to not make it a habit.
  • Don’t go overboard with soy sauce, wasabi, ponzu, etc. With traditional sushi, the idea is to add a subtle and accentuating flavor, not overpower the delicate taste of the fish. Dip lightly, and don’t pour sauce on your rice. If you really want to honor the old ways, the proper way to dip sushi into soy sauce is to dip the fish side only.
  • The ginger on your plate is meant to cleanse your palate between dishes. Sushi chefs tend to frown upon diners who eat their ginger as a separate course or in the same bite as food.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the chef for his recommendation. Because fish is seasonal, the catch of the day will vary. Asking the chef for his opinion not only shows respect, it will likely get you top-quality sushi. Note: do NOT ask if the fish is fresh. If you’re at a sushi bar, freshness is implied. To ask this question shows disrespect. If the sushi turns out not to be fresh, don’t go back!
  • Learn a few Japanese phrases. In old school sushi bars it’s just polite; in today’s trendier more casual bars, it will impress your friends. Arigato means ‘thank you’; kampai! means ‘cheers’.
  • Enjoy yourself. The most important thing in a sushi bar is to simply show respect to the sushi chef and to your fellow patrons. Don’t worry if you can’t remember any etiquette at all, just don’t act the fool!

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