CNN shot up a video and story about eating sushi prepared by a chef with 70+ years of experience.
I enjoyed sushi before I went to the restaurant. I just didn’t understand it like a real Japanese gourmand does.
While CNN isn’t known best for producing great literature, all the important points were there. Introducing us to the owner, Jiro Ono, the author gives a brief explanation of what this sushi chef’s prime concerns are when striving to satisfy his customers – hygiene, skill, and even reading customers’ eating pace in order to make sure every piece of sushi is prepare and served perfectly. This story’s description of Ono was the best part in my opinion.
The weakest part of the article was the description of the eating experience, which was lacking in both vocabulary and enticing expression to convey the feeling of eating sushi from a master like Ono. Maybe the author should have brushed up on his sushi praising lingo by reading a few issues of “Shota no Sushi“, a manga based on sushi.
After reading the entire article, I felt I wanted to pay Ono’s sushi shop “Sukiyabashi Jiro” not to enjoy the sushi, but to enjoy watching him at work, which as hinted above, is quite rigorous and executed with the utmost care. I already know that delicious food like sushi, when made properly, inspires great thoughts of eating pleasure and joy which is much easier felt than said.
I recently read a sushi-related blog and it got me thinking about all the times I have eaten sushi and never done one or more things on the unwritten list of Sushi Do’s and Don’ts. This includes the treating of my sushi chef to a drink during my meal. I’ve been in Japan a while and eaten sushi many times but have actually never witnessed this custom except on TV –though I once did it in the US, I think, but my mom was paying so I din’t feel like I treated =|.
First let me introduce you to my sushi eating process.
Sit down and have a cup of green tea – if it’s not provided at first, I make sure it’s not self-serve then politely ask the hostess for one.
Wipe my hands with a wet towel, a.k.a. oshibori (handiwipe-types or real cotton) and put it somewhere out of the way.
Prepare my chopsticks – if wooden waribashi (breakable chopsticks) I remove them from the paper sleeve, break them, fold up the sleeve and turn it into a chopstick rest. When I don’t use them, I lay them horizontally and parallel (most of the time) on the rest always keeping the in-my-mouth end from touching the counter’s surface – eww for the next customer as they may not wipe my counter after I leave.
I prepare my soy sauce-wasabi mixture which comprises of no more than a tablespoon of soy sauce and a pea-sized helping of wasabi (refill as necessary) — too spicy a sauce in my opinion is rude to the chef as his efforts should result in sushi that really doesn’t need anything else.
Make my order from the least sweet-tasting sushi to the sweetest. This has been exaggerated quite a bit in fiction and urban legend whereby the sushi chef might take (great) offense if you don’t know how to order “correctly”. While that’s all fine and good, and for a while I followed my own style — it has gradually evolved into the “orthodox” ordering style above. I guess the idea is that one sushi should be better than the last and you should “climax” out at the sweetest one like Anago, Tai, Tamago or whatever is recommended.
I often ask the chef for his recommendation – what’s in season, what’s his best work, what’s a local favorite, where his ingredients were caught – and other things to form a rapport with him and make him feel appreciated. If you have the time and the cash, challenge your chef and let him show off!
When I’m eating, I may or may not use chopsticks — if I’m alone, I’ll use my fingers (it’s totally acceptable), and if I’m sharing with people, I’ll use the reverse end of my chopsticks unless told otherwise by my companion(s). Also, I dip the sushi fish-first into the soy sauce/wasabi mixture – while it might be rude or inappropriate to have the rice touch the sauce (not a taboo, mind you), a soy sauce soaked piece of rice gets in the way of the fish which I also think nullifies the chef’s skill and hard work. Eating in one bite is meant for nigirizushi and cuts of makimono but temaki, futomaki, and other big sushi will make you look weird trying to take it all in one shot.
When I’m done, I pay and leave. The end.
(If I use a toothpick, I place that on its own rest by snapping off the blunt end and using that – just making sure it doesn’t touch the counter – eww)
Wait a minute? What ever happened to the custom of treating your sushi chef to a drink? Well, I don’t remember doing this before but one reason I can come up with is because he’s too darn busy serving others.
There are some do-not’s that I could mention but most are common sense and not necessarily limited to sushi eating or Japan in general. However, one thing that goes not only for sushi restaurants, but izakayas (pubs) and other Japanese eateries is saying “Yasui!” (“Cheap!”) when you get your bill. Even if the bill is in fact cheap, saying so might come off as, “low quality” (food/ingredients) or “poor” (needs to use low prices to attract customers) and might be insulting to the proprietor. Instead just say, “Gochisousama deshita” (“it was a feast” or “thank you”) on your way out the door.
– Edit Nov 7 — Just confirmed that saying “Yasui” isn’t really that bad and it depends on the person you’re saying it to. Regardless, I’d use caution when saying anything that might be A-OK in your home country, but a borderline insult abroad. If at a sushi place or any other establishment, just say, “it was good” or “gochisousama deshita” and leave it at that.