Now you know your maki from your chirashi, can read the list of ingredients like a true Japanese native and even remember that it’s bad form to mix wasabi and soy sauce. But there is still one level of intimidation left: sitting and ordering at the sushi bar. Here, you have none of the anonymity of hiding behind a menu. Decisions have to be taken quickly and dining becomes a public venture.
But it’s also a chance to watch sushi-making in motion (which is often a form of art!), interact with other connoisseurs get the top choices of the menu. And it’s really not that difficult – as long as you mind a few things.
1. Interact with the itamae (sushi chef): When sitting at the sushi bar, always order directly from the itamae. Ignoring him is considered disrespectful and the best way to strike up a rapport is by asking for a recommendation.
2. “Is the fish fresh?”: You can ask which fish is the freshest? But NEVER ask if any given fish is “fresh”, since this implies it might not be fresh. Which is rude.
3. Ask the itamae ONLY for sushi: And sashimi. Any other items and beverages, including soup, edamame or other side items, should be requested from a server.
4. Order carefully: And inform the itamae of any allergies or dislikes. It is impolite to leave food on your plate after a meal or turn up your nose if you don’t like a particular item.
5. Order one at a time: It’s polite to order only one sushi roll at a time. If the bar is busy, you can order up to three at one go but never more. When in a rush, order chirashi sushi – it’s faster to make and eat.
6. Don’t dawdle: Never let fresh sushi sit for too long as this will degrade the temperature, texture and moisture – all of which impact the taste.
7. Repeat, please: Feel free to ask for a repeat of anything you especially liked.
8. Rinse your fingers in the “canal”: Most sushi bars have a small stream of water running between the itamae and diners. This is to rinse your fingers when they become messy.
9. Be gracious: It’s just good manners to thank the itamae. If you want to go the extra step, try some Japanese. Domo arigato means “thank you”, while oishikatta desu translates as “it was delicious”.
10. Time to tip: Many sushi bars have a tip jar as the itamae will never touch money (since he touches food). The wait staff would be tipped separately.
11. Try omakase dining: Finally, consider omakase on your next visit. In this, the itamae chooses dishes for the diner as well as the order in which these dishes will be served. It’s a way to compliment the chef AND ensure that you get the freshest, choicest sushi. So, this means a win-win for all. But remember, it also gives the itamae free reign to serve you anything, including strange items like live shrimp!
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