Classic. Originally Published: Report, July 2003.
Until you’ve logged many hours at the sushi bar, you may feel a bit uncomfortable with etiquette and ordering. So here are the most important things sushi neophytes need to know:
*First of all, when I go to a restaurant that has sushi–I make damned sure to sit at the sushi bar itself! Some diners like to sit at tables, away from the sushi bar…but this arrangement puts you at a distance from your sushi chef. I love to watch the chef from very close range, to see what he’s making for other people, and to discover, through conversation, what he thinks is best at the sushi bar tonight.
*Those sushi-chef conversations powerfully affect my ordering. I NEVER order the “sushi platter” or the “sashimi platter;” those items usually don’t reflect the best raw material of the day. Instead, I order piece-by-piece from the sushi chef; we collectively plan my next bite or array of bites. It’s so much more exciting this way! A possible alternative is to put yourself completely in the chef’s hands; this is the now-famous omakase style of ordering, in which the chef picks everything for you. If you want to do it, just say the magic word to the sushi chef (oh-muh-KAH-see). I’ve tried omakase at all the sushi bars I frequent–and when a sushi chef picks well for me, I’ll go back and do it again. Otherwise, it’ll be a piece-by-piece future.
* If I’m ordering piece-by-piece, there are big decisions to be made. In what order should I consume my tasty treats? I like to start with sashimi, which is sliced raw fish without any rice (“sashimi” implies slicing, so a whole raw oyster would not be considered “sashimi”). I begin with the simplest and lightest of sashimi (like red snapper or fluke), move on to richer fish (like regular tuna), and then to the richest fish (like yellowtail). Keep in mind that some particularly carbo-adverse diners–and others!–far prefer sashimi to sushi, and may make a whole sushi-bar meal from sashimi alone. It’s kind of funny that the name for fish-with-rice, “sushi,” became the name that people invoke whenever they refer to the whole category of Japanese raw fish. “Sashimi” doesn’t even get get second billing; no one says “let’s go to the sushi and sashimi bar!”
* About halfway through my meal, I like to switch to sushi; “sushi” is usually defined as vinegared rice combined with raw fish, but sometimes features cooked fish, and sometimes features, with the rice, things other than fish (like egg, or plum paste). The most common type of sushi is called nigiri-sushi: molded fingers of sushi rice with a slice of fish draped across the top. It’s what most diners think of as “sushi.” But there’s more to sushi. If the chef uses a bamboo mat and rolls up the rice and fish inside a sheet of dried seaweed called nori, you have a sushi roll, or maki. Sometimes the chef will roll it so that the rice is on the outside; this is called yukiwa-maki, and is known in American sushi bars as an“inside-out roll.” Sometimes the chef will prepare maki that’s very large; this is called futomaki. Sometimes the chef will roll the maki by hand, creating a cone of less-tightly-wrapped nori; this is known as a “hand roll,” or te-maki. There are endless sushi variations; my usual strategy is to start with the simplest (like nigiri-sushi) and move up to the most complex. I save cooked sushi items, and the sweetest sushi items–like broiled eel, usually served with a sweet glaze–for last.
* Of course, everything these days has gotten mucked up by the unprecedented amount of creativity going on in sushi bars; there are no rules for the proper order of post-Matsuhisa sushi. My personal rule: I generally like tomy traditional sushi before I let the chef go wild.
* Along with your sashimi and sushi, you will get a small dish into which you pour shoyu, or soy sauce. Remember: this is not for out-and-out dunking! The Japanese like to dip the fish very lightly into soy sauce, just enough to give the fish a minor accent. And sometimes a sushi chef will say to you “no soy” as he hands you something he has created. I always obey.
* The “restraint” rule goes double for wasabi, the famous green horseradish condiment always served with sashimi and sushi. Sushi chefs are usually amused by the amount of wasabi that some non-Japanese people apply to their sushi; the chefs wonder how it’s possible for diners to taste the fish with all that wasabi. The traditional way to apply wasabi is to mix a little bit into your dish of soy sauce. I actually flout tradition in this regard; I like some of my fish without wasabi, some with a tiny dot, some with a little more–so I always apply a dab directly to the fish in just the right amount. But never a lot! Remember: it’s likely that your sushi–nigiri-sushi, maki-sushi, temaki-sushi, etc.–will already have some wasabi smeared on the rice. Special wasabi note: most sushi bars prepare their “wasabi” from powder, which often does not contain true wasabi. Try to find fresh grated true wasabi; what a difference!
* The other constant companion to basic sashimi and sushi is gari, or pickled ginger. Most sushi bars buy this stuff pre-made, but some obsessive sushi chefs like to make their own. Traditionally, it is NOT intended as a topping for sashimi or sushi; it’s purpose, they say, is to clean your palate between your consumption of two different kinds of fish. Once again: just a little does the trick!
* A very important point: how exactly do you get the sashimi and sushi from the plate to your mouth? Sashimi is easy; it’s always eaten, piece-by-piece, with chopsticks. But nigiri-sushi–the most common item in a sushi bar–does not require chopsticks. Most sushi bar vets pick up nigiri-sushi with their fingers, flip it over (so the fish is on the bottom), dip the fish into the soy (not very much), then pop the whole piece of sushi into their mouths; it is not considered good form toa piece of nigiri-sushi in multiple bites. Regular rolls, cut by the chef into 6 or 8 pieces, are normally eaten with chopsticks, and hand rolls are always eaten by hand.
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