Sushi etiquette in 10 easy steps

The do's and don't of eating sushi the Japanese way Comments

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1Kneeling while eating
The semi-kneeling position you see adopted in more traditional restaurant settings is called seiza. It’s when you kneel with your feet flat to the floor and rest your behind on your ankles. However, because it can numb your legs quite quickly, many Japanese people today choose to abstain. If you’re brave enough to adopt the seiza at a table full of Japanese people today, they’ll be extremely impressed. But remember, it only works at restaurants that offer traditional Japanese seating. Do this while sitting in a chair and you will look extremely silly.

2 Say ‘Itadaki masu’
There is no English equivalent for the phrase itadaki masu but it can be roughly translated as a mix of ‘looks great’ and ‘I humbly partake’. The Japanese say it before their first bite to express their gratitude for the food.

3 Never pour your own drink
Eating sushi is meant to be a social experience. Almost every aspect is aimed around sharing and being amongst friends and companions. Like the food, the drinks that accompany sushi are also delicious and refreshing. Pour everybody else’s drinks first and place the bottle on the table. Another attentive person at the table should then pounce at the opportunity to pour for you.

4 Order omakase-style
No matter how much you think you know about sushi, the chef knows more. He (women’s hands are considered to be too warm to prepare sushi) knows what’s fresh and what’s in season. Omakase is when you leave the decision in the chef’s capable hands to choose what you are served. Not only does this ensure the freshest fish possible, but sushi chefs take great pride in their omakase selections, so you know that you are getting the best the house has to offer.

5 Use both ends of the chopsticks
Here’s an opportunity to show that you really know what you’re doing with chopsticks. Use the thicker end to pick pieces of food from the tray or serving plate, then use the smaller end to put the piece into your mouth. Simple but such an effective way to demonstrate your advanced knowledge of Japanese dining.

6 Don’t pour soy sauce on your rice
You may be tempted, but don’t pour soy sauce on your rice. Japanese people take a ridiculous amount of pride in their rice. Just try serving them Chinese rice with their sushi and see how happy they look. It’s all about the texture and the subtle flavours of the grains, so if you add soy sauce to the mix, you will appear to be destroying something beautiful.

7 Don’t plant your chopsticks in your rice
In Japan, visiting the graves of ancestors is an important part of life. People sweep up around their family graves, leave flowers and also leave bowls of rice with chopsticks sticking out of them. Doing the same in a restaurant is a bad omen and disrespectful.

8 Don’t pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks
Passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks is another sushi etiquette faux pas. Partly due to the influences of Buddhism and partly due to space constraints, the standard way of laying the dead to rest in Japan is by cremation. However, cremation is not exactly a neat and tidy process. After the burning, it is then traditionally up to the core family members of the deceased to sift through the ashes and separate what remains of the charred bones from the rest of the matter by passing them from one person to another using chopsticks. Therefore, if somebody tries to pass you a piece of sushi with their chopsticks, hold out your plate in order to avoid the bringing up of painful memories and awkwardness.

9 Don’t leave bits of rice in your bowl
It’s easy to forget that 65 years ago Japan was a war-torn nation. Food was so scarce that many people had to resort to eating grasshoppers – or whatever else they could find. Since people would have killed for a bowl of rice, to have left even a single grain in a bowl would have seemed extremely bourgeois. Although today’s Japan would be pretty much unrecognisable to someone from that time and place, the aversion to wastefulness lives on. In addition, finishing the last grain of rice is also a way of paying homage to a worthy chef.

10 Finish your meal with ‘Gochiso sama deshi-ta’
Saying gochi so sama deshita is roughly equivalent to saying ‘thanks’ and ‘wow, what a delicous meal that was!’ Whether the food deserves the compliment is irrelevant. For the Japanese, it is standard protocol to say this phrase after every meal. Articulate it to your sushi chef and he will likely bow to you. But if he’s a bit more hardcore, he will respond by saying osomatsu deshita, which means ‘my apologies that I could not have provided a superior meal’ and is more an act of polite humbleness than anything else.

By Karl Baz
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

User reviews:

Posted by: Dan on 21 Apr ' 12 at 00:40

Omakase in the UAE? Where? Trying to order anything omakase at the usual joints around town is an exercise in futility! Not only are you immediately told its impossible to make substitutions to the menu, the Filipino sushi chef has no clue what omakase is! So where is there a sushi bar with a Japanese chef who will do omakase?

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