So you want to know more about Sushi and Sashimi than the fact that it’s raw fish do you? Well read on and you’ll be able to scare off your friends with your vast knowledge. This material is taken from the Sushi Eating How-to by Eugene Ciurana.
Choosing a Sushi Restaurant
Many people I’ve met told me that they don’t like sushi; upon pressing the matter, I learned that the place where they ate it was far less from ideal. It’s sad to think that many people cannot enjoy sushi because of a bad first experience. The usual culprit for this is a combination of lack of tradition in the place where they ate and poorly prepared fish. All fish swim in the ocean, but not all fish are suitable for sushi because how the fish is handled, from the water to the sushi bar, greatly influences its quality.
The Japanese word for sushi restaurant is sushiya.
- Eat only at the best place you can find. Many sushi bars are a bit expensive, but quality usually sucks, so price is no indicator of quality. Ask Japanese people where they go to eat sushi and go there.
- Stick to one or two good places once you find them. Regulars get better sushi and better overall service than casual patrons.
- The best sushi places I’ve been to in San Francisco, Mexico City, Zürich, Manhattan, Beverly Hills, Waikiki, Guadalajara, Paris, Moscow, Boston, Columbus OH (yes, you read that correctly), London, Amsterdam, Dallas TX, Milano, Toronto, Chicago, and Oslo have one thing in common: They have a very small sushi bar, i.e. they seat fewer than 12 people at the bar.
- A good Japanese restaurant is most often not a good sushi place. A good sushi place is usually a good Japanese restaurant.
- Count the number of Japanese sitting at the sushi bar. The more Japanese people eating there, usually the better the sushi. Remember: Japanese people are manic about quality.
- Most often than not, avoid the restaurants with little boats of sushi parading along a large sushi bar. It’s a great gimmick, but remember that those restaurants are to sushi what McDonald’s is to prime rib.
- The only chain of sushi restaurants in the world worth visiting (in fact, I encourage you to) belongs to Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Nobu is arguably the best sushi chef in the world, and has opened a chain of small but high-quality (and pricey) restaurants in major cities in the US and in Europe.
- The fish and other seafood are not on display at the sushi bar
- The fish and other seafood on display look dry
- The sushi chef or (worse) a food server wants to take your order for all sushi items at once
- The sushi chef doesn’t give you a chance to order “one or two pieces at a time”, Japanese style
- The restaurant advertises “all you can eat sushi” for a fixed price
- The menu items are not listed in Japanese followed by a translation; they appear only in your native language
- The menu consists mostly of rolled sushi with names like California Roll or Oriental Delight
- More than half of the available ingredients are cooked
- The sushi chef hasn’t the vaguest idea of what you’re talking about if you ask for kazunoko, shiso, inago, chirashi, or yama gobo
- The morsels of fish atop nigiri pieces are so large that you can barely see the rice underneath (believe it or not, some people think that the sushi place is good because you get big pieces of fish). Big pieces of fish are good as long as the fish quality is good.
- The sushi rice is flavorless; sushi rice must have a delicate aroma and flavor
- The restaurant is part of a chain or franchise
If four or more of the conditions above are met, leave the place immediately and head to a different restaurant.
Eating sushi is not about filling yourself with raw fish. Eating sushi is an experience–some say a ritual–that involves all your senses. Serious sushi can only be eaten at the bar because that’s the only place where you’ll see the colors, inhale the aromas, share the laughter, and taste the food fully immersed in the environment. Plan on a one and a half to two hour meal.
- Eat at the sushi bar.
- Greet the other people at the bar and start conversation with them; sushi is about community.
- If you cannot eat at the bar, walk to it and check the quality of the fish before ordering.
- Greet the itamae (sushi chef) even if you don’t eat at the bar. He’ll recommend special stuff if he recognizes you as a regular and/or someone who truly knows how to eat sushi.
- Remember that itamae are not just “cooks”. They have traditions dating back to the time of the samurai. These same guys fed the meanest leanest macho hombre warriors of Japan. Be respectful and you shall enjoy the best sushi.
- Order all sushi items from the itamae, everything else from the food servers.
- Order sashimi (selection of fresh fish slices) first; ask the sushi chef for his choice of fish. He knows what’s fresh today better than you. “Please prepare what you think is freshest,” is the best way to order. Let him be creative.
- Order one kind of sushi at a time, maximum three if the bar is busy. That could be nigiri, maki or temaki. Big plates are for the table only.
- If you are a regular, let the itamae decide what you’re having and at what pace it is served.
- Don’t rush through your meal. Eat at McDonald’s if you want to eat fast.
- If you’re at the bar and in a bit of a hurry (i.e. have a half hour to eat or so), order a chirashi, a small lacquered box with a bed of sushi rice, a bit of sugar, some pickled veggies and a chef’s selection of fish and mollusks. This way you’ll get all your sushi at once in a single serving and then leave. Eat it with chopsticks.
- Pickled vegetables, sprouts, and some things like ankimo (monkfish liver) are OK to order from the sushi chef if you see them advertised at the bar.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for things not listed in the menu. Chances are the chef has them under the counter for those people (like you) who truly know what they’re doing. Kazunoko, inago, hebo and idtakko fall in this category.
- If the bar is busy and you feel like you can’t wait, order some edamame (boiled soy beans), suimono(clear broth) or misoshiru (fermented soy bean soup) to keep you busy until the sushi chef can take care of you.
- Eat sushi with moderation. More than 10 kinds of fish, crab, and clams is too much because your palate numbs.
- Drink green tea, beer, or sake with your sushi. Soft drinks spoil the taste and white wine is for snobs. Remember there are more than 300 kinds of sake, so at least one will be better than the cheap Chardonnay they offer by the glass.
- If you’re drinking sake, keep in mind that not all sake is heated for consumption. Nigori (unfiltered) sake looks like milk; drink it cold. For hot sake, ask for Sho Chiku Bai. Ask the itamae for more exotic drinks like gold sake (with real gold flakes in it!)
- If the sushi is excellent and you’re having a good time, offer to buy a drink for the itamae and his assistants. You will discover that most Japanese itamae drink Budweiser (as observed in San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago, New York, and Moscow). Don’t offer to buy drinks during lunch; this is an evening tradition.
- Don’t be surprised if your itamae pours you a glass of the special reserve sake he keeps under the bar if he realizes that you know your sushi and how to order it. Thank him, raise your glass and toast by saying “kampai!”.
- Tips: The itamae and rest of the staff are tipped separately unless you pay the bill with a credit card. The bulk of the tip must go to the itamae. Note that this applies only in the US! There is no tipping in Japan. Adhere to local customs in other countries.
- Sashimi: Raw seafood served chilled and sliced, and elegantly arranged. It’s usually prepared with fish fresh from the water, refrigerated but never frozen. How to slice the fish for sashimi is one of the most rigorous skills to learn during the itamae’s training. Fish cut too thick or too thin make a different impression on the taste buds, and different fish require applying different techniques. Depending on what was served, you will be handed soy sauce, ponzu, or red pepper to dress it.
- Nigirisushi: Nigiri means something like “hand pressed”. This type of sushi is the most common type at the sushi bar: A small oval made with rice, with an expertly cut slice of fish on top, and with a dab of wasabi on it. Most types of nigirisushi are meant to be dipped in soy sauce, and must be eaten in one bite, slowly. Close your eyes and feel the different textures in your mouth while you eat every piece.
- Gunkan: Battleship sushi. This looks like a nigiri piece wrapped once in seaweed. It’s called “battleship sushi” because it resembles the cylindrical sail of a submarine or battleship. Most caviar sushi (e.g. uni, tobiko, ikura, masago) are wrapped in the gunkan style.
- Makisushi: Maki means “rolled”. This kind of sushi consists of fish (or crab) and vegetables rolled in a sheet of nori (roasted seaweed) and rice. Makisushi is usually served sliced into bite-size portions. In some restaurants it will be listed as norimaki (seaweed roll) in the menu. Makisushi is an excellent choice for those venturing into the sushi bar for the first time, particularly if they are squimish about eating raw fish. The taste and crackling texture of the the seaweed, the visual delight from its appearance, and the combination of salty seaweed, sweet rice, and delicate fish and vegetables soon win even the most reluctant experimenters.
- Temaki: Te = hand. Temaki describes the hand rolls, something like a Japanese nori taco, that you bite into. Many of the ingredients you’ll find in makisushi also exist in temaki.
- Kansai-style sushi is not covered here because it’s not very common in western countries. Osaka-style sushi, made with more vinegar (or some times pickled fish), and set in a box. See the photo for details. Its history and tradition require a whole chapter contrasting it with Edo-sushi, the one you’re most likely familiar with.
- The waitress will bring you an oshibori(hot towel) as soon as you seat down. Wipe your hands with it before touching the food; some restaurants leave the towel throughout the meal for you to wipe your hands; others take it away before your sashimi arrives. Either way you’ll get a napkin for your lap.
- Your wooden chopsticks will come joined at one end; separate them and feel them lengthwise. Rub them together only if you feel splinters. Never rub high quality, smooth chopsticks; you will insult the restaurant if you do.
- You may eat sushi with your hands or with chopsticks, whatever is more comfortable
- Use chopsticks to grab morsels from a shared plate, holding the end that you put in your mouth with your fingers so that only the opposite end touches the food. You may use your fingers after depositing the sushi piece on your plate; turn your chopsticks around to grab it if you’re using them.
- Some sushi bars have a small canal with thin springs of running water between you and the itamae; use these to rinse your fingers.
- Never ask for a spoon to eat your soup; simply grab the bowl with one hand and dig the bits of tofu, seaweed, or mushrooms with your chopsticks as you bring it to your lips. It’s perfectly polite to slurp, specially if the soup is hot. Ignore the gaijin (non-Japanese guys) glaring at you from the other side of the bar; chances are they haven’t read this HOWTO nor been to Japan.
- If the spiciness in your sushi is not enough, lace some with soy sauce for dipping your sushi; this is done by dabbing a tiny bit of wasabi (the bright green dough on your plate) onto a small saucer provided to you next to your bigger plate. Add some soy sauce for dipping. Blend it with your chopsticks. The right ratio of wasabi to soy sauce is up to you. Wasabi is very strong, stronger than hot mustard, so be careful with the amounts. The Japanese way is to use soy sauce without adding wasabi to it and dabbing the wasabi onto the sushi morsel itself. Your call.
- Never dip the sushi rice in soy sauce; turn your piece so that only the fish or whatever you have on it touches the sauce.
- Never dip in soy sauce something that already has a sauce or decoration on it, like unagi (fresh water eel served with some Teriyaki sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds). If it looks elaborate or like it has some sauce on it, ask the itamae whether you should dip it.
- Always dip your sashimi or nigiri if they don’t appear to have anything on them.
- Your plate will have some gari, or pickled ginger, on it. Eat a little bit of it in between sushi pieces to clean your palate. Eating gobs of it is bad form.
- Ask for some oshinko (various pickled roots like radish) if you don’t like pickled ginger.
- Sashimi first
- Fresh fish and molluscs (nigiri or maki)
- Exotic stuff because it tends to have a stronger flavor
- Spicy anything like hand rolls (temaki) should be last
- Exception: Fugu (poisonous blowfish) should be your only course if you eat it – explanation in the section living dangerously
- Soup, edamame, and oshinko may be ordered and enjoyed at any time during the course of your meal
- Cooked stuff like unagi (grilled fresh water eel), and/or California rolls*, tempura, etc. go at the end because these things tend to coat the tongue and numb the taste of other things. If you must have it, wait until the end.
*People who know how to eat sushi don’t order California rolls. They’re for wimps who can’t handle raw fish. Rule of thumb: if it has mayonnaise or tomatoes, or if it’s cooked and lacks an exotic name like ankimo, it’s probably not real sushi.
What to Order
All ingredients are listed from the inside out.
- Dynamaki, dynamite roll, spicy roll: maguro or hamachi mixed with either a hot spicy sauce or with hot ground chilli peppers. If possible, try hamachi instead of maguro.
- Salmon skin roll: the name says it all. Eat it while it’s still hot.
- Negi toro: toro (fatty tuna) with green onion (negi) – a great way to end a sushi meal.
Eat temaki promptly after it’s served to you. The nori may absorb some of the moisture from the rice, loosing its crunchy texture.
Fugu sashimi is so special that it’s often eaten as a main course.
Fugu is a blowfish from Japan. In the United States, I found only one or two restaurants in New York City that serve it. All other states prohibit (as far as I know) its consumption. This blowfish is so poisonous that minimal amounts of venom are enough to kill a large, healthy adult, in less than a half hour. Its effects are similar to those of curare, a nerve poison used by the natives in the Amazonas. If fugu isn’t prepared correctly, chances are good that you’ll die of respiratory and cardiac failure.
Here are some tips on how to best enjoy fugu:
- Always call the restaurant in advance and make a reservation; a skilled itamae who knows how to prepare fugu is hard to find, and may come to the restaurant just to prepare the fugu for you.
- Beware of a restaurant that will prepare fugu for you without a reservation unless you’re a regular patron.
- Plan on eating fugu sashimi and little else for that meal; don’t worry, fugu sashimi is rather abundant, usually enough for two people.
- Never eat fugu if you’re sitting at a table. Order it only if sitting at the sushi bar where you can watch its preparation. Watching the preparation is part of the fun.
- The itamae will hand you a large plate with very thin slices of fish arranged like flower petals, and a small mound of fugu skin will be piled in the centre. It will be decorated with chopped scallions and spicy radish (not wasabi). A small halved sudachi (Japanese lime) will be somewhere on the plate or handed to you separately.
- When adding the Japanese lime, add only a few drops. This isn’t ceviche.
- Eat fugu s-l-o-w-l-y with your chopsticks. Enjoy its delicate flavor. Your lips and tongue should tingle, like after a sensuous kiss, making every bite taste better than the previous one. Drink smooth sake every two or three bites to cleanse your palate.
- Can you feel your tongue? No? Stop eating immediately and call the ambulance.
- Alternate between eating the flesh and the skin.
- Never dip fugu in soy sauce. If the sushi chef recommends a sauce, it will be a very mild ponzu sauce (sudachi and soy sauce dilluted with a bit of sweet sake and rice vinegar) and he will give it to you without asking.
- Take your time after eating fugu before ordering anything else. It’s better if you just let it settle. Skip dessert.
- Tip the itamae generously. You will notice that he is much older (and presumably experienced) than other sushi chefs you might have run into. In fact, avoid eating fugu from a itamae who looks younger than forty. Experience is a friend of caution in this case.
Vegetables have always been an important component of sushi, and many traditional varieties are mostly or completely vegetarian. There is no excuse for vegetarians or vegans to not join you at the sushi bar. From kappa maki (cucumber roll) to sophisticated nigiri ensembles, itamaes always figure out a way of creating some interesting and delicious vegetarian sushi. If you’re a vegan, join your fish-eating friends and just let the itamae know about what you like. Most itamaes will go out of their way to create custom vegetarian sushi to suit your taste and needs.
There is one more level to the sushi experience. This is where you find the most exotic sushi, the one that separates you from the rest. You can really tell others that you know how to eat sushi after you’ve experienced the delicacies in this section. Beware that most of these are also on the pricey column of the menu.
- Uni: sea urchin caviar (roe). It’s considered one of the most delicate pleasures at the sushi bar. Uni is a dark yellow mass served on nigiri, with a strong nutty flavor coming from the iodine found in the sea urchin. Always eat it fresh; the grossest thing you can eat is old or previously frozen uni.
- Fugu: Poisonous Japanese blowfish. It’s the most delicate and sensual of all sushi plates. Your lips and tongue literally tingle while you eat it–and for at least a half hour afterward. The fugu experience is like a long-lasting sensuous kiss.
- Kujira: rare whale, prepared and presented in a very similar fashion to the always delicious katsuo. Whale meat has a very tender consistency that amost melts in your mouth; somewhere between filet mignon and toro, with a strong beef-like flavour with hints of seafood, and a very delicate aroma. Notice that the center of the piece is raw, and only the thinnest edge shows signs of grilling.
Sashimi is another delicious way of enjoy kujira the whale meat is raw and fresh, and accompanied with an onion bulb and chopped green onion, miso paste, ginger, and sprouts. The shiso buds add a very nice flavour to it, and morsels are dipped in ponzu sauce. The white speckles in the meat are connective tissue, but they aren’t chewy or unsavory in any way.
- Hebo: Bee larvae. Roasted in honey, hebo will be served in a very small porcelain container. Pick one or two at a time, eating them in between other types of sushi. Their flavor explodes in your mouth, blending the hebo with the honey and flowers flavor.
- Amaebi: Fresh water shrimp. Raw fresh water shrimp nigiri. The head (and sometimes the shell) of the shrimp are fried and served separately. Squeeze some lemon juice on them and eat them.
- Odori: Dancing langoustine. Raw live baby langoustines. There is nothing quite like watching your food move its antennas as you eat it.
- Inago: Roasted grasshoppers. Served as nigiri. The taste like shrimp with a bit of lemon.
- Kazunoko: Herring caviar. Consummed as a traditional New Year’s sushi. Also known as “yellow diamonds” because of its texture and exorbitant price in Japan. If you live anywhere from the Bay Area to Mexico City, however, kazunoko is very reasonably priced: The best kazunoko comes from the waters around San Francisco.
- Idtakko: Baby octopus. Served atop nigiri, with each octopus (head and tentacles) fitting comfortably on top of the rice.
- Ankimo: Monkfish liver. Think foie gras and you’ll get the idea.
- Hamachi kama: Yellowtail shoulder. This consists of the area right behind the fish’s head, served grilled on a plate along with some shredded daikon radish and a bit of garlic. Squeeze a few lemon drops over the fish, then carefully separate the meat from the skin and the single bone. Pour some soy sauce (not too much) over the daikon. Garnish each bite of fish with daikon. You will enjoy the most delicate grilled fish you’ve ever eaten.
- Tai kabutoyaki: Red napper grilled head, a delicacy from Western Japan. Exactly what its name describes: a grilled red snapper head, served on a plate along with some shredded daikon and lemon. Kabuto is the archaic Japanese word for the helmet that the samurai wore. See the hamachi kama preparation. Eat all the meat around the head, and pay special attention to the eye: it’s delicious! To eat the eye: remove the round white thing. Dig the eye out of the socket; it’ll have the consistency of jelly. Add a couple of drops of lemon juice and pop it in your mouth… amazing!
- Matsutake tobimushi: Mushroom and seafood soup served in a teapot. The soup is prepared inside the teapot. It contains mushrooms, shrimp, fish cake, a ginko nut, and plenty of kaiware. The broth is very delicate to the palate. Open the teapot, add some sudachi (lime) juice, and stir lightly with your chopsticks. Let it rest for a minute or so, then pour the broth in the accompanying cup. Fetch some of the goodies from inside the pot at regular intervals. Be careful… this soup is very hot! You may see detailed photos featuring these instructions in the Sushi Eating HOWTO Companion.
- Namako: sea cucumber, prepared as sunomono (i.e. namako-su).
How to Eat Sushi in Japan
Japan is mecca for the sushi master. The experience of enjoying sushi there can be either disturbing or fantastic, depending on how you approach it. Have fun with your sushi outings and learn from the experience.
- Memorize the names of the sushi before you get there, or bring a copy of this HOWTO in your iPhone or PDA so that you can look them up; it’s unlikely that the itamae or wait staff speak English/Spanish/Russian/French/Whatever unless you are in a tourist trap. Try to learn some Japanese before your trip.
- Pace yourself and watch the itamae; order when he is not in the middle of doing something else.
- Order tea, miso soup, only from the wait staff, get your sushi from the itamae.
- The number one secret to have the best sushi ever: find an establishment at the Tokyo or Osaka fish market, and eat there! The Tokyo fish market is at the Tsukiji shijo metro stop; turn left as you exit the station and make another left at the entrance to the market (about 5 m / 15 ft).
- Find a busy sushi bar – the more people, the better. Some establishments are so good that they may have a line out the door 20 to 50 people long. Go to those! The lines move quickly and the sushi will be amazing
- Remember that there is no tipping in Japan; your bill’s total includes service charges.
- Ask for the bill from the itamae, but ensure that you pay the waitress or cashier directly.
- If you liked your meal, make a big show of thanking the itamae; as you’ll see in the next subsection, foreigners are not always welcome at sushiyas. Be an ambassador of good will and open doors for others to enjoy your experience!
The Japanese culture can be hard to grasp and reactions of the sushiya owners can range from welcoming to downright rude and dismissive when you visit. I’ve asked about the reasons for the negative reactions and the explanations ranged from convenience to the establishment (i.e. they aren’t equiped to deal with non-Japanese speaking foreigners) to bigotry. Avoid patronage of sushiya where foreigners are unwelcome, visit the rest when you go exploring by yourself or in a guided tour. Sucks that things are that way, but that’s the way they are.
- A prominent sign indicates that only Japanese people are welcome
- The host or hostess makes a sign by crossing extended fingers in front on your face (reminiscent of samurai crossing swords) and shakes his or her head as you approach or insist in getting service
- They escort you to the door without explanation
- You manage to sit at the bar and the itame, wait staff, and everyone at the bar ignore you