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Nov 17, 2008 08:30 AM

Sushi Etiquette

At what point is the customer NOT always right? I've spent the majority of my life in Toronto, save for the last handful of years, savouring the vast array of ethnic delicacies that Toronto has to offer. In the last decade or so I've seen a literal explosion of sushi restaurants in the GTA. I absolutely adore sushi. I was first exposed to it in Vancouver, where I attended university. At that time, I was a vegan and would only eat vegetarian maki options. As you might imagine, they can be a bit on the bland side, particularly kappa maki (cucumber, sushi rice and nori). Many chefs don't use wasabi when assembling nigiri or maki/temaki, while others are liberal with it. Top chefs claim to season each fish differently, be it with wasabi, grated ginger, scallions, unagi sauce or nothing at all. I can understand that, but have not come to expect such sensitivity from sushi chefs, particularly at more run-of-the-mill sushi joints. Anyway, to get to my point, somewhere along the way, I became a wasabi and pickled ginger hound. I'd routinely ask for extras, even at the time of ordering. Sometimes, my request was granted. Other times, it was ignored. Still other times, extra wasabi would be hiding within the maki or underneath the fish on nigiri (yes, sushi caused me to abandon my veggie ways) waiting to explode in my mouth.

The question is: am I offending the chef if I use so much wasabi in my soy sauce dish that I am creating liquid greenish-brown cement? Is the fact that I'm dipping any and every piece of sushi or sashimi in it a sacrilege? Is my request for extra ginger or wasabi wrong? Once, at Hiro, the chef refused my request of extra wasabi, on the grounds that the sushi was already appropriately seasoned/spiced. At the time, I was appalled by his audacity. I'm sure he was equally appalled by mine ... LOL! At another downtown place, I sat at the bar and was promptly lectured by the chef about how and when to use wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger. Being a more meek individual in my younger years, I fought back tears of embarassment at the "calling out", finished my meal, paid and never returned. Were it to happen today, I'd ask the chef whether he'd prefer to have 3 diners with impeccable sushi-eating etiquette in his restaurant or 20 semi-galoots enjoying his sushi any damn way they please? For anyone interested, what I was doing was pre-mixing my wasabi-soy spackle, then dipping a piece of maki that had a slice of pickled ginger placed on top. I'd pop the whole thing in my mouth, then savour the wasabi whallop and gingery, eye-watering heat that ensued. This, for me, was bliss. I was expertly using my chopsticks, sipping my miso soup from the bowl like a pro and otherwise behaving like a civilized diner.

I just can't seem to win. When I order sushi anywhere, I always ask for extra ginger and wasabi. I rarely get it. After the sushi arrives, I request them a second time and usually gigantic mounds of both are delivered, which is truly wasteful. Had they brought a little bit more than is standard on the first go-round, I wouldn't need to ask a second time. However, the second request (after the first one isn't granted) seems to result in overcompensation and delivery of enough for four people. I only want a little bit extra. Heck, give me a double portion of both, but quadruple? These aren't the stingy places that charge for extras either. That, I would understand. Once you're paying extra, they should be extra generous.

I'm really shocked that the places that charge extra for wasabi or ginger are often the more expensive restaurants. The cheap joints rarely give it a second thought when I ask, or else the extra charges are clearly marked on the menus. One place I distinctly recall is Nami. They're willing to give you all the wasabi you could possibly want, for no extra charge, but the ginger charge is unusually high (this was 10 years ago, so I can't recall the exact amount). I was a bit offended at the charge, since the sushi isn't cheap to begin with. I ordered each item a la carte, so my dinner was by no means cheap. Why charge so much for one item, then comp the other? Strange.

When pondering my own questions and quirky behaviours, I begin to think about true sushi-eating etiquette. Should pieces in a set be eaten in a certain order? Should fingers be used, or chopsticks only? How does one eat a hand roll (temaki) without making a mess? What's the point of those super fat rolls that require two or three bites per piece, resulting in a heap of ingredients falling to the plate? Should the ginger only be eaten between bites of different ingredients? Should wasabi be mixed with soy at all, or should I be taking little bits with my chopsticks and adding it to individual pieces, based on some elusive set of rules? Should I feel ripped on when I pay $25 for a premium sushi set and receive egg, fake crab, cheap surf clams, flying fish roe and cooked shrimp, instead of sweet shrimp, salmon roe, giant clam and king crab (or no crab at all -- I'll take anything else, as long as it's raw). I understand the egg. It's not my fave, but I get its purpose. This rant may sound tongue-in-cheek, and to some extent, it is. I'll probably go on eating my sushi any old way I choose, but it would be nice to know the rules, as well as what to expect for my money, especially since one day I plan to visit Japan. I already expect to be considered a gauche foreigner, but it would be nice not to totally humiliate myself and my co-diner(s)!

Any advice, anecdotes or restaurant recommendations would be welcomed, but please, don't suggest any place that uses pre-made wasabi from a tube. That stuff is horrendous. I now live in Windsor, where sushi is both poor quality and way overpriced. I generally avoid it and save myself for my monthly Toronto visits.

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  1. Not being Japanese, much less a Japanese epicurean, I can't answer your question directly. Certainly, Japanese culture is driven by rigid formal rules far more than many others, and I'm sure that sushi is no exception.

    From a purely commonsense perspective, it does seem congruent that a chef who takes great professional pride in the food offerings might be insulted while a bargain resto wouldn't care. If everything is dipped in the same, highly flavoured seasoning, then everything would tend to taste similar, if not identical.

    This is hardly limited to sushi. Higher end restaurants, and pretentious ones of any level, are unlikely to provide salt and pepper on tables, presuming that all dishes emerge perfectly seasoned from the kitchen. When I ask for same, I am usually accommodated, but sometimes refused.

    I've been in cheap Italian restaurants that refused to serve butter with bread despite having butter in the kitchen. My wife doesn't like her bread dunked in oil. Why refuse her? That's just being pretentious. Citing "authenticity" in this circumstance is a crock.
    After all, they HAVE the butter.

    The chef at one (now defunct) mid range place I patronized would go apoplectic if a customer requested ketchup. Servers would actually hide bottles of ketchup in the dining room.

    Some chefs refuse to allow substitutions across the board. While some substitutions might wreak havoc on food costs or ingredient stocks, I have been refused substitution of, say, one starch for another because "this would compromise the chef's artistic vision".

    This is ridiculous, especially when the substitution involves something like an allergy, but I would consider high end sushi an exception. Sushi can really be as much art as food, and I would likely take any seasoning advice I was offered - at least once.

    I used to struggle trying to eat sushi with chopsticks. I eventually gave up when I realized that Japanese diners were using fingers. Now, with rare exceptions, I do the same. However, I have been told in no uncertain terms that eating soup in any way other than by slurping it directly from the bowl is extremely gauche.

    I would not be offended when asked to pay extra for real wasabi, vs the stuff from a tube. I don't understand a charge for ginger. But I think this also cuts across most cuisines. Expensive places charge extra for many things simply because they can. Cheaper places wouldn't dare.

    1. I used to work at a sushi/seafood restaurant and some of the chefs can be a bit sushi-nazi. But to answer you etiquette questions, fingers and chopsticks are equally acceptable. You should not (techinically) mix wasabi with your soy sauce. Furthermore, you should always dip the fish side in the soy and not the rice side. the "rules" is to put the focus on the fish and not overwhelm it with soy and wasabi. Ginger is used to cleanse the palate between different types of fish, not to flavor the roll.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Chefsquire

        Look, in the end, you are the customer, so if you ask for it, they'd better pony up, and if they lecture you, stand your ground, to the point of getting the manager or telling the chef to f-off.

        BUT, lets step back a bit. Sushi - especially nigiri, ESPECIALLY things like toro, is very expensive and very delicate in flavors. if you want to blow it out with wasabi, fine, but just realize you are masking the flavor of an expensive piece of fish with an inexpensive condiment. Its sort of like when someone orders a filet mignon well-done or douses raw oysters in a bath of cocktail sauce and horseradish - you know they aren't getting the true, high-end flavor that is there, but they do have a right to ask. If you want to flush cash down a toilet, no one is going to stop you, just be aware of what you are doing.

        On side notes, it is perfectly fine to eat nigiri with your fingers. That's partly why you have that hot towel at the beginning of table service. It does make it easier to dip the fish into the soy without getting it too much into the rice.

        Second, very few places offer real wasabi. For that, I wouldn't be surprised at an extra charge. Also, real wasabi isn't going to blow your sinuses out - its much milder than our Americanized version..

        1. re: Chefsquire

          I think any restaurant that gives you that faked paste wasabi has no right to tell you how you should use it. If they give you real wasabi, then fine, let's discuss.

        2. i think mixing soy and 'wasabi' is just wrong. i will only ask for wasabi if it is the real thing.
          i also eat nigiri with my fingers.

            1. i am not going to comment on what is right or wrong in that you're allowed to enjoy your food how you want to though i would hope that you have tried eating your sushi the way highly trained itamae have suggested... they usually know what they're talking about.

              but i will point you towards this thread and this article:

              take it with a grain of salt.... i've known a few chefs to have some attitude about seasoning the fish though never with a bully type persona but i really respect their training and tend to eat mine mostly bare. actually.... when i get real wasabi... i'd rather have it straight up. you lose the subtleties in real wasabi by mixing it in with fish and rice and it's just so amazing on its own.