The sushi police will not appear from the shadows and issue an infringement notice if you break any of these “rules”. Sushi is meant to be enjoyed, and we've all got our own preferred way of doing things. But if you’re not yet a sushi master, and you’d like to max your enjoyment of your next sushi platter, we've rounded up some tips from the experts on things that can help you fully appreciate the flavours – and avoid that elegant bit of nigiri falling apart on its way to your mouth…
1. Start with lighter sushi first
Starting with lighter sushi first, and working your way towards those made with more oily fish is often recommended because the fish fat will coat your mouth, and that could affect your enjoyment of the lighter offerings. Alternatively, swap between fattier and plainer pieces. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the engaging documentary about Japan’s most revered sushi master, Jiro Ono, food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto describes the ebb and flow of Jiro’s tasting menu as being like a concerto. “The order is important … when I ate the menu I felt like I was listening to music.”
Ono is the charming, dedicated and still working 92-year-old owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a three-Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Tokyo. But it’s not a lavish affair. The sushi bar is located in a basement near a subway station and seats only 10 people at a time. Still, the tasting menu, of roughly 20 pieces, costs 30,000 yen - about $350 - plus tax, and bookings usually need to be made at least a month in advance.
2. The dip tip
If you want to avoid a rice mess in the soy sauce, many sushi experts suggest it's best not to put the rice part of the sushi in the sauce. It will ward off nigiri disasters, too – use chef and restaurant owner Nobu Matuhisa's half-turn technique and dip only the fish, not the rice, to make sure your nigiri stays in one piece:
Those lucky enough to have sushi made by Jiro Ono don’t have to worry so much. “For guests from foreign countries, I make the nigiri super firm and tight. Since these folk dip the shari [the rice], not the neta [the topping], in the shoya [soy sauce], I make nigiri that doesn’t fall apart even when they dunk it in,” he explains in Sushi Chef Sukiyabashi Jiro, the detailed guide to sushi he wrote with Japanese journalist Shinzo Satomi.
Among those foreign guests? Former US President Barack Obama, who ate there in 2014 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Jiro - who is left-handed himself - also looks for whether a guest eats with the left hand or the right, and places each piece of sushi in front of them accordingly.
3. Go easy on the soy sauce
There’s one soy-sauce junkie on the Food team who says the more the better. On the other hand, Nobu recommends a light touch, and it makes sense. After all, sushi is all about the interaction between three things - the vinegared rice, the fish, and the soy sauce. Too much sauce and we can't appreciate the artful balance between rice and fish.
4. Don’t put the ginger in the soy sauce
Pickled ginger serves as an excellent palate cleanser between different types of sushi. Quite a few sushi eating guides - including another prominent Tokyo sushi chef, Naomichi Yasuda - say you shouldn’t dip the ginger in the soy sauce, or eat it on your sushi either, just use it to gently jump-start your mouth between bites. But the handy sushi eating tips on the Sukiyabashi Jiro website suggest you can also use the ginger to apply soy sauce:
“If, by chance, the sushi chef has neglected to brush nikiri shoyu on your sushi, pick up a small amount of shoga (pickled ginger) to use as a substitute for the brush. Soak it in soy sauce, and then brush it across the top of the sushi topping. It is next to impossible to pick up sushi to dip into soy sauce.”
At Jiro’s sushi counter, sauce is usually applied to the nigiri by the chef, although soy sauce may also be provided for dipping ungarnished tuna or cucumber rolls.
5. Well, how about wasabi in soy sauce then?
Nobu says he prefers to put the fish in the soy sauce, and a dob of wasabi on top, so the flavours are separate. Jiro Ono says he puts a lot of thought into putting exactly the right amount of wasabi in his sushi so that extra isn’t usually needed. This is another one where it comes down to personal preference, and the strength of the wasabi you've been served.
6. One bite sushi
Traditionally, sushi is made just the right size to be consumed in one mouthful. "There is a suitable size when you put it in your mouth: it tastes best when you can eat it in one bite,” says Jiro Ono in his book.
While Jiro Ono brings a fierce and unending dedication to his sushi making, he has mellowed when it comes to how sushi is eaten. "I used to get mad," he writes, of watching customers dunk nigiri he'd already carefully coated with a precise amount of sauce. "But now that I am over seventy, I try not to mind. It's not good for my heart." Likewise, people should start and finish with whatever they want. "Nigiri is for the people," he says.
And if you were wondering whether you should eat your sushi with chopsticks or your fingers – whichever you like, say Jiro and Nobu, and Naomichi, too.
Lead image by Foodie Factor via Pexels.
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This recipe contains numerous tips for making these beautiful vegetarian nori rolls. Take your time and you’ll be rewarded with a sensational result. Masako Fukui gives four different filling ideas – the kampyo filling is deliciously unusual (kampyo is strips of dried gourd sold in packets at Japanese grocery stores).