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Sushi Etiquette

Sushi Etiquette at a Sushi Bar

Japanese food, especially sushi, has evolved here in the United States and has gained its own style.  New ingredients that would be unheard of in Japan 10-15 years ago are very common at our sushi bars now.  With this new age of evolved foods and styles, it can be difficult to grasp the rules of sushi etiquette, however as long as you respect the people around you, you should not worry about what to do and what not to do. You should enjoy yourself at a sushi bar and NOT feel intimidated. I have found that if you respect normal western dinning etiquette there should be no problem. Just remember relax, ask questions, and enjoy the food!

Below is a list of the most important etiquette at a sushi bar.

1. Never "whittle" your chopsticks.  If you have to, do it under the table so the chef can't see you!  Doing so implies that the chef is cheap. 

2. If you use your chopsticks to pick at a communal dish, use the back end of your chopsticks.  Never pass a piece of food with your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks, as this maneuver is reserved for handling cremated bones.

3. No soup spoons. Lift your soup bowl to your mouth, and use chopsticks to push the solids towards you. "Slurping" is for noodles but be respectful of others at the restaurant.

4. Eat the sliced pickled ginger with chopsticks as a palate refresher not as a salad.  The taste is quite strong, and these are only meant to be taken in small doses between dishes.

5. Dipping sauce mixing: You are adding a touch of flavor, NOT immersing every grain of rice. Mix just enough soy to use; leaving a pool of soy mix is both wasteful and insulting.  It is also good manners to only use sauce on the fish part of your sushi, not the rice.

6. Eat all you take.  Try to eat all the food that is ordered, as it is considered bad manners to waste food.

7. It is generally considered best form to eat sushi in one bite. In Japan, sushi is served in small, bite-sized pieces. In the U.S., the size of sushi pieces tends to be a little larger, but most should still be edible in one piece.

8. Depending on how traditional the sushi bar is: Ordering anything more than sushi and sashimi from the chef behind the bar is considered rude. Order everything else from the waiter/waitress. You can tell the sushi chef when you are done, but ask the waiter/waitress for the check. In Japan the people who handle food do not handle the money.

9. DO NOT ASK YOUR SUSHI CHEF "Is that fish fresh?"  Of course it’s fresh or the chef should not be serving it.  Try the fish; if it is not fresh, don't go back!

10. You are not expected to offer a drink to your sushi chef. If you do have a drink with him, he will likely toast to your health (Kampai). Sometimes buying a drink for your sushi chef will get you a free special sushi roll or something similar, but don’t rely on it!

11. Use the wasabi sparingly.  Used originally in the 19th century to kill parasites in the sushi fish, it is a common misconception that wasabi is a Japanese horseradish.  It is true, however, that many restaurants outside of Japan use dyed horseradish to imitate it.  Whichever version you have in front of you, beware, it is hot!

12. Clean your hands before visiting the sushi bar.  When your waiter or waitress brings you a hot towel before the meal, remember that it is for wiping your hands.

13. Sushi is finger food.  You may use chopsticks to pick up the sushi pieces, but they may be clumsy tools.  Using your fingers in this case is perfectly acceptable. 

14. Leave a tip.  Although in Japan the service charge is included with the total cost of the meal, American sushi bars are different and work on the same tipping principle that every other restaurant does.

15. Learn a few Japanese phrases.  As with any culture, it is polite to learn a little bit of the language, if only to show your respect. Arigato gozaimasu means ‘thank you’; and sumimasen can be used as ‘excuse me’ when you want to call the waiter or waitress.  Traditionally the Japanese will say Itadakimasu! at the beginning of a meal, and Gochisousama deshita! at the end.  Although not every sushi bar is managed by Japanese-speaking people, many of them are and it is very good manners to be prepared.

16. Don’t pour sake for yourself.  If you are at a sushi bar with someone you respect you should show proper respect by filling their sake cup when empty.  Not showing this respect can be considered rude. Usually the younger person, or junior person in the company will pour for the older person or more senior in the company.

17. Don’t ask for a knife.  Sushi is not a tough food; your fingers or chopsticks are all the tools you will need.

18. Ask the chef for a fish recommendation.  Fish is a seasonal animal, and the catch of the day will vary throughout the year.  Asking the chef for his opinion not only shows that you respect him, but will likely get you top-quality sushi.

19. Know a little bit about the sushi.  Nigiri sushi is fish or roe over balls of rice; Maki sushi are rolls of sushi; Temaki is a hand roll of sushi; Sashimi is raw fish with no rice. Read our sushi guides for more information!

20.  Do not smoke at the sushi bar! Heavy smells, including perfume and aftershave will cover up any subtleties in the food and will disturb any other people sitting next to you at the sushi bar.

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