What To Expect When You Are Expecting Sushi
Is there sushi dining etiquette?
I’ve heard it all myself when discussing the sushi experience. That putting wasabi in your shoyu (soy sauce) insults the chef since he put the “correct” amount on your sushi when he made it. Or when you finish your meal, you must put the tips of your chopsticks inside the bow made with the paper they came in. While it may be fun to try and follow every bit of sushi etiquette you hear, it is certainly not necessary to enjoy your sushi dining experience. Opinions vary widely when it comes to etiquette, but I think Eliot Deutsch summed it up fairly well in the Usenet group alt.food.sushi when he said:
“The only rule at a sushi bar is to eat what you like, how you like it, and as much as you like. Anyone who tells you differently is full of it. The Japanese have traditions and traditional ways of eating. [Their] method of eating over the years has grown such that presentation of food is nearly as important as how the food tastes.”
For those who wish to learn the extensive traditions developed as ‘sushi etiquette’ over the years that the Japanese have been eating sushi, I have moved this section to a page of it’s own. Originally a post in Sushi Otaku, the comprehensive list of rules for eating sushi by traditional manners continues to expand and develop. You are encouraged to visit the How to Eat Sushi (Sushi Etiquette) Page for specific information on this topic.
Who is this person preparing the food and can I pester them with questions?
The terms “Itamae” and “Shokunin” are used as a title for the chef. “Itamae” refers to a skilled sushi chef, while Shokunin means simply someone skilled at a profession. If the Itamae is not too busy and you have a question, ask away! I often talk to the chef as he is working, both because I am always interested in learning new things and because when I drink enough sake, I may talk even more than usual!.
One good question to ask, if you don’t know what you are eating, is `kore wa nan desu ka?’ If he doesn’t laugh at you for your atrocious pronunciation, he just may tell you! And at any decent restaurant they often have items that are not on the menu (e.g. monkfish liver, a personal favorite). By all means ask for unusual items if you want to, or even if they have something that you may have never tried, you may be in for a pleasant surprise.
How can I impress the Itamae? Do you know any expressions?
The best way to impress an itamae is to be inquisitive, honest, and interested in the food and dining experience. Ask him what he would recommend. You can throw him a few Japanese expressions that he may appreciate. A few are:
Arigato – Thank you.
Domo – Thank you, not as polite as arigato. Domo and arigato can be combined (“domo arigato”) and then become a more polite form of thank you.
Domo arigato gozaimasu – A very polite form of thank you, said while engaged in an activity. One can also say “domo sumimasen.”
Domo arigato gozaimasta – Another very polite form of thank you, said after the meal or activity has concluded.
Dozo – “Please.”
Hai – “Yes.”
Konichiwa – Literally “this day” but colloquially meaning “hello” or “good day.”
Oishii – “Yummy” or “Delicious.”
Okonomi – Ordering sushi a few pieces at a time.
Omakase – Colloquially meaning “Chef’s choice” and pronounced “oh-mah-kah-seh,” this style of dining essentially offers the itamae the choice of what to serve you based on what he feels best represents his skills and what is available at that time.
Gochisou-sama deshita – “It was a feast!” (more commonly used)
Oishikatta desu – which means “it was delicious.” (less commonly used)
What kinds of preparation techniques are there for sushi?
Food is often cut or prepared in certain ways to make it more interesting and attractive. For a detailed list of the different styles, browse the sushi basics page where you will find the styles explained and images to help you identify any particular ones you are looking for but may not know what it is called.
Are the grooves in my Ika (squid) natural? It looks like a hand grenade.
Squid (ika) can be exceptionally chewy at times. For this reason. the chef cuts the grooves in the Ika to help thin it a bit and make it easier to chew. Norm Delson chimes in with “BTW, a decent roll you may find is a pine cone roll where the squid is cross hatched and used in place of nori. The filling can be just about anything.” Sound interesting? You bet.
Are there other fanatics like me? Can I meet them?
Yes there are. Some have even formed clubs that organize gatherings and descend on local establishments. I’ve heard them called locusts at times. This list is an evolving one and we add and remove groups as we learn about the changes and welcome any suggestions. Some of which we know are:
The Austin Sushi Society is currently on hiatus but should be back in the near future
The Chicago Sushi Club. The contact for the group is Lisa Flores and she can be reached at Lisa at chicagosushiclub.com if necessary.
The New York Sushi Society. While they have no website, they have a digest. To subscribe send email to majordomo at magpie.com and put `subscribe sushi-digest’ without the quotes in the body of the message.