The dining etiquette: How to eat sushi

Who doesn’t love sushi, get out of here!

While there really are no absolute requirements, other than general politeness, there are certain behaviors that may make your dining experience more pleasant, and the staff more attentive and interested in you.

Not everyone is going to know every tradition of how to eat sushi, and you are not expected to be an expert.

Here are some tips from sushifaq.com: 

You may be offered a hot, wet towel (called an oshibori) at the beginning of your meal. Use it to wash your hands and try to fold it back neatly the way it was offered to you before returning it.

Do not rub your chopsticks together. When not in use they should be placed parallel to yourself on the holder (if there is one) or on the shoyu dish. They should also be placed there when finished with your meal.

Don’t be afraid to ask for an item not on the menu as the sushi-ya may have special or seasonal items that are not listed. It is perfectly acceptable to ask, and often the itamae will appreciate your interest.

Don’t put wasabi directly in the shoyu dish. Nigiri-zushi (fingers of rice topped with fish or another topping) comes with wasabi placed under the neta (fish) by the itamae, and reflects what he feels is the proper balance of wasabi to fish. Some of us like a little more, and you can always sneak some separately on the fish or with it.

It is OK to eat nigiri-zushi (sushi) with your hands. Sashimi is only to be eaten with your chopsticks.

Pick up the nigiri-zushi and dip the fish (neta) into your shoyu, not the rice (which will soak up too much shoyu). The rice is like a sponge, and too much shoyu will overpower the taste of the food and could also lead to the rice falling into your shoyu dish and making soup, which is not a good thing.

Do not pick up a piece of food from another person’s plate with the end of the chopsticks you put in your mouth. When moving food like this use the end you hold, which is considered the polite way.

Eat nigiri style sushi in one bite. This is not always easy (or possible) in North America where some sushi-ya make huge pieces, but traditional itamae in Japanese sushi-ya will make the pieces the proper size for this. In North America, try your best and don’t worry if there’s possible way to fit the entire thing in your mouth! It’s not up to you to have proper sushi etiquette if it’s physically impossible.

Gari (ginger) is considered a palate cleanser and eaten between bites or different types of sushi. It is not meant to be eaten in the same bite as a piece of sushi.

Slurping noodles is OK, less so for soup, but a bit is fine, at least by Japanese standards.

In more traditional sushi-ya, if you are not given a spoon for your soup, do not ask for one. You are expected to pick up your bowl to drink the soup, using your chopsticks to direct the solid pieces to your mouth.

It’s nice to offer a beer or sake to the itamae (but of course not required). He may remember you and treat you well upon subsequent visits.

Never pass food to another person using chopsticks as this is too close symbolically to the passing of a deceased relative’s bones at a traditional Japanese funeral. Pass a plate instead allowing an individual to take food themselves.

Also, never stick your chopsticks in your rice and leave them sticking up. This resembles incense sticks and again brings to mind the symbolism of the Japanese funeral and prayers to one’s ancestors.

Technically one doesn’t drink sake with sushi (or rice in general) only with sashimi or before or after the meal. It is felt that since they are both rice based, they do not complement each other and therefore should not be consumed together. Green tea is a great option with sushi or sashimi.

With alcoholic beverages, it is considered customary to serve each other (if not alone) instead of pouring one’s own drink. Be attentive of your fellow diner’s glasses and refill them. If you need a refill, drink the remainder of the beverage and hold the glass slightly and politely towards a dining partner.

It is customary for the most “prestigious” person at the table to pour the drinks. Serving of drinks is very hierarchical in nature. Example: a professor who dines with his students would pour the drinks. Seniors would serve the freshman. If not by prestige, it would be the host of the evening or who made the invite. If you invited someone to dine with you, you become the automatic host.

Sake is available both chilled and hot, depending the quality and style. Experiment to learn what you like, but generally, higher quality sake is served cold. And some is quite good as well as sophisticated.

Belching is considered impolite at the Japanese table, unlike some other Asian cultures. This is a no-no for sushi etiquette.

“Kanpai!” (“empty your cup”) is the traditional Japanese toast you may hear. Do not say “chin chin” as to the Japanese, this is a reference to a certain male body part best left out of proper conversation. 

6 thoughts on “The dining etiquette: How to eat sushi

  1. Great tips! I’m ashamed to say I was doing quite a few things wrong. One of them I plan to continue doing, though. I really love to mix the wasabi with the soy sauce. 😉

  2. I have been doing it all wrong apparently. I never eat the ginger in between bites, I just put it right on. Now I want sushi.

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