Back in the early ‘80s, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, after signing Irish-rockers U2, decided to stay ahead of some imaginary country-of-origin curve and signed Japanese art/punk rock band Plastics (or The Plastics). As Island was at the time distributed by Warners, I was assigned to accompany the band on their maiden tour of America to facilitate promotional activities.
The best thing about the tour was that we would entertain radio and press at very nice Japanese restaurants in America where the band would order dishes not on the menu that defied description and pronunciation. Outside of the major markets, however, we would have to sublimate on just the sushi and sashimi on the menu. But as a result, I learned a lot from the band about the etiquette and procedure for properly ordering and eating sushi.
Fast forward to a sushi restaurant the other night (before a show, naturally) where I realized that, for all of the sushi consumption that keeps the music biz running on a daily basis, most of my colleagues are not aware of the correct ways in which one orders and consumes sushi. In fact, most of the others at the dinner admitted that they were only copying something they saw someone else do years ago, which wasn’t necessarily correct. Therefore, as an apparent altruistic public service, allow me to pass on a few major points about sushi given to me in the nicest possible manner by the members of The Plastics.
CAVEAT: A full comprehension of Japanese dining etiquette and the extensive nomenclature surrounding the art of sushi are way beyond the scope of this blog. But it’s kind of like publishing – if you know anything at all, you know more than 90% of anyone else in the music business.
First of all, some DEFINITIONS are in order: the word sushi refers to the sticky, vinegary rice that serves as the basis of the cuisine and which, by the way, is considered to be more important than the fish. Here are some things we call sushi which aren’t: a sushi roll is maki; a hand roll is temaki; a strip of sushi rice with a piece of fish stuck on top is nigiri; and strips of fish without the sushi rice is sashimi – OK, you probably knew the last one.
NOTE: The sushi bar is for ordering sushi only. If you or someone in your party would prefer teriyaki, tempura, edamame, or the like, sit at a table.
As you’ll be eating with your hands, begin by wiping your fingers with the provided warm, wet towel. (If a wet towel is not offered, the place might be a little suspect. Move to a table and order the teriyaki.) After the hand cleaning, put the towel aside. Never apply it to your face (or anywhere else you might think to use a wet towel).
Greet the chef and, if he speaks English, ask what he recommends. Do not talk to the chef during preparation or dining. Never offer or attempt to hand money to the chef as a tip. Afterwards you may offer to buy two shots of sake – one for each of you. And if you have the occasion, compliment the chef on the rice. Again, it’s all about the rice.
Pour only a small amount of soy sauce in the small cup and add to it as needed. Never leave soy sauce in the cup at the end of the meal – bad manners.
Do not mix wasabi in with the soy sauce, unless you’re eating sashimi. BTW, real wasabi is an expensive vegetable found only in Japan. What you’re getting is horseradish dyed green to look like wasabi. The chef has already put the correct amount of real wasabi in the sushi. Do not add anymore unless you really HAVE to. It insults the chef when you do. If you MUST add more wasabi, use your chopsticks to pick up the smallest dab and brush it on top of the fish – never the rice. Same thing with the soy sauce – only a brush on the fish at the very most. Do not dip or soak. Bad, bad, bad.
Lift the sushi (actually nigiri) between your thumb and middle finger. In a deft manner that requires some practice beforehand, turn the nigiri upside down in a counterclockwise motion (sorry – it may seem as if I’m making this stuff up – I’m not!). Lightly brush only the fish in the soy sauce – never the rice. Never shake any soy sauce off of the fish; in fact, never shake sushi for any reason. Any item with sauce or other ingredients already on the top, i.e., eel (unagi), should not be turned over and brushed with any soy sauce at all.
Place the sushi upside down in your mouth so the fish is directly on the tongue. Savor it on the tongue for a moment before chewing or gulping or whatever it is that you do with your sushi once it’s in your mouth.
Do not bite or cut off half of the serving; eat the whole thing. If sushi sizes are generally too big for you, ask your chef to prepare smaller versions for you. The exception is the hand roll, of course, that you have to eat in several bites. Hand rolls are generally more of a fast food, take out item in Japan.
Eat a piece of the ginger between mouthfuls – it cleans the palate. It can be picked up with chopsticks or your fingers. Never mix the ginger with anything or put it in your mouth with other food.
Do not order more than you can eat. Eat everything – never waste food that you have put on your plate.
Miso soup is meant to be consumed after the meal as a way to help settle the food. Ask for it after the sushi, but before the check. If no spoon is provided, pick up the bowl with both hands and bring it to your mouth. Slurping your soup is encouraged – it shows you’re enjoying it. Honest.
More recent etiquette says leave your cellphone shut off in your purse or pocket. No posting food photos or checking email. Rude!
With the exception of sashimi, all sushi is to be eaten with the fingers. For everything else, there are CHOPSTICKS. There’s way too much information about the care and handling of chopsticks to even begin to list here. Safe to say there are a few basic rules that, if followed correctly, you’ll never get called out at any location where they only speak English and take dollars.
- Do not rub chopsticks together to remove splinters. Do not play your favorite drumbeat with them. Do not wave them around or point them at anyone or anything including the food. Do not pass food to anyone using chopsticks. Do not suck sauce off the ends. Do not nibble on them or use them for any other activity. Do not cross your chopsticks – unless it’s your objective to show everyone the symbol of death.
- The “secret” of using chopsticks is to only move the top one. Do not hold them in your hand using all five fingers. That’s all I can tell you – you’re on your own from there. Like any skill, it takes practice, which would be best done in the comfort and privacy of your own home before you try it out in public. I’m still working on it.
- You are allowed to use your chopsticks to tear apart larger pieces of food, although you should never stab your food with a chopstick. It’s not a knife or a fork.
- When not in use, place your chopsticks to the right of your serving area, preferably with the tips on the provided rest and NEVER point them in anyone’s direction.
- Putting the chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate indicates that you’re done and the server will remove everything immediately. You’ll want to avoid that.
- When the meal is completed and if you were provided with disposable chopsticks, place them back inside the paper wrapper as best you can and leave them to the right of your plate.
Now you’re ready for your big coming out sushi dinner. Enjoy!
PLASTICS TOUR FUN FACT: When the band arrived and the tour began, one minor problem surfaced – the band spoke little to no English and my Japanese was, of course, non-existent. I bought Berlitz Japanese/English dictionaries for everyone, but that didn’t work. Somehow in the back and forth though, we discovered that both the lead singer and I had studied and remembered enough high school French to carry on a decent conversation. So we spent the rest of the tour communicating in bad French. For press and radio interviews, I would translate the question into some basic French and the singer would discuss it with the band in Japanese, of course, and come back to me in French; whereupon I would try and interpret it as best I could back to the writer or DJ. Most of the time I just made it up.
STINGER: Halfway into the tour, the lead singer approached me, acting very nervous, and in broken French pointed out that the band members eat Japanese food back home all the time and, while in America, they would rather experience some American cuisine. Well, duh. I apologized profusely and from there on out, it was my turn to do the ordering.