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Sushi étiquette

What I know to be acceptable is that one can eat it with fingers, or chopsticks, always use the other end of chopsticks for communal plates, and one can eat it with two bites, dip the fish not the rice in soy/sauce.

So onto my query. I am considering some high end places on an upcoming Manhattan trip. Would it be acceptable to ask the sushi chef to cut in half pieces of sushi on rice? I have a 4 tooth bridge that is not nearly as sharp as the chef's knives.

Would this be an insulting request?

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  1. A good sushi restaurant makes the pieces small enough so you can put the whole thing in your mouth. :)

    When I had my wisdom teeth out, I couldn't open my mouth too wide for a couple weeks. We went out for sushi, and I called ahead to see if they could make me smaller pieces due to an issue with my law (I didn't explain). they said it wouldn't be a problem. Instead of making me 2 larger pieces, they made me 3 smaller ones.

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      1. In a word-no. Not cool. Sorry.

        Maybe ok at a casual tempura roll kind of sushi place but I would not at an omakase or high end sushi where the chef has spent years training to cut the fish just so.

        The nigiri is often fine to eat in one larger bite, perhaps slightly awkward but managable.... Or you could stay with mostly sashimi which is potentially easier in one bite.

        28 Replies
        1. re: Ttrockwood

          It's funny that you wrote "In a word", the proceeded to write two paragraphs.

          1. re: Ttrockwood

            But if I'm dropping $500 for dinner for two, it's not acceptable, and if I'm dropping $100 at a casual place it is? And at $500, am I really meant to manage a large piece of nigiri when I prefer to eat it in two bites?

            1. re: Bellachefa

              At $100 for 2, no one would care. At $500, there's tradition and pride at stake. Some sushi chefs don't even give you wasabi much less would cut your sushi in half.

              1. re: Bellachefa

                I would not think twice about asking. The idea that the sushi chef is sacred is just silly to me.

                1. re: jpc8015

                  You could ask and the chef can refuse to accede. There's a Japanese restaurant here where the chef will not give you wasabi. As Silverjay says, they might make smaller pieces - but I don't know if they would make half size pieces.

                  1. re: Worldwide Diner

                    The chef can refuse to accede and I can refuse to return.

                    Its not like the OP is asking for a side of 1000 island dressing. She is asking for pieces sized so that she can manage to eat them. Any chef who is worth anything would be happy to accommodate this request.

                    1. re: jpc8015

                      Really? Let me ask you some logistic questions. Let's say a customer says he want a half sized sushi. Do you give him two pieces of half sized sushi at the same price as 1 regular piece? What about the fact that the sushi chef had to make twice as many pieces? What if the cusomter wants sushi pieces at 2/3 size. How many extra pieces does he get and which type of extra sushi would he get? Giving someone thousand island dressing or extra wasabi is a simple thing. Changing the size the sushi sounds simple if there's no reductiong is price or increase in quantity. I'm just trying to figure out how all this would work.

                      1. re: Worldwide Diner

                        They just cut smaller pieces or use smaller wads of rice. It's not a big deal and you can vocalize your concern about value. I'm sure most chefs will work with you. If not, just eat pieces in two bites.

                        With sushi, there is a conventional wisdom and then on top of that there is the individualism of the particular chef. Some can simply be obstinate in their ways and beliefs. It's a potential turn off for this kind of dining. One of the reasons why sushi is such an interesting culinary experience compared to almost any other.

                        As mentioned, one always has the option not to return.

                        1. re: Worldwide Diner

                          You can play "what if" all the way to absurdity, which you have already gotten very close too. The OP simply asked to have their large pieces cut in half for ease of eating. I think this is a simple enough request that can easily be accommodated. Nobody is asking for a single piece of nigiri to be delicately broken into 100 little pieces and fed to hamsters for a comical You Tube video.

                          1. re: jpc8015

                            Have you ever seen it accomodated at a high end sushi joint? A piece of salmon roe nigiri sliced in half? A piece of sea urchin nigiri sliced in half? Tobiko sliced in half? I'm not Japanese so my experience is limited - I'm just wondering what you're saying is often done or just your opinion that any sushi chef worth anything will do this.

                              1. re: jpc8015

                                But you stayed at a Holiday Inn Express and that makes you qualified to give advice on something you know nothing about?

                                1. re: Worldwide Diner

                                  I worked in the restaurant business for most of my adult life and I know about proper customer service. If one of my chefs refused to accommodate a simple request like this I would go back to the kitchen and come uncorked.

                                  1. re: jpc8015

                                    Ah, but you haven't been to those the sushi places where the chef is the owner and he decides what you're going to eat. No one is going to tell these guys how to serve their sushi. Can be fabulous experience if you love sushi.

                                    1. re: Bkeats

                                      It could also be an awful experience if, like th OP, you have physical limitation that prevents you from being able to comfortable eat the food.

                                      I will never understand this concept that the sushi chef is sacred and shall not be questioned. A true master chef can adapt his craft to meet the needs of his customers.

                                    2. re: jpc8015

                                      In small sushi bars, the guy making the sushi is probably either the owner or working closely with the owner and doing it his way. As for larger restaurants where the owner or chef is not a sushi man himself and the itamae at the sushi bar are merely his minions, I wouldn't want to go to such a place anyway.

                                      1. re: GH1618

                                        I understand that. You see the same thing in other types of restaurants. The places that are small and really nice are typically owned by the chef or the chef and the owner have a very close working relationship. So why the hero worship for sushi chefs?

                                        1. re: jpc8015

                                          Because if you really like good sushi, you find out how few truly good sushi chefs there are out there. Even in a city with as many sushi places like NYC, there are only a few true masters. Not all of them are sushi nazis, but you will put up with a lot to get that piece of sushi that makes you just stop and enjoy the moment when you put it into your mouth. Most of the stuff out there is no better than eating the sushi equivalent of a Big Mac. If you're a fan of sushi and have discovered the better places and have the means to go, its a sublime experience. If you don't care for sushi as I gather you don't, then move along as there's no reason to go.

                                          By the way, cutting a piece of nigiri wouldn't be the easiest thing to do. When its being prepared, the chef uses just enough pressure with his fingers to mold the rice into shape. When you put it into your mouth, the rice and fish just fall apart/disintegrate. There's minimal chewing going on. If you took that piece of nigiri and cut it, I think a lot of the rice would just crumble. Better option would be to request smaller pieces to be made as silverjay suggested. Just wouldn't make sense to me to cut it.

                                          But I think this discussion is sort of a moot point. At all the better sushi place I have been to NYC, I probably would say that I would actually appreciate a bit larger piece of fish. I'd be surprised to find that an adult would find the sushi truly physically difficult to eat. I've been taking my kids since they were little to some of these places and as tykes, they had no difficulty. Some of the trendier places that pile a slab o' fish on chewy compressed balls of rice? I completely understand the OP's issue. I have to bite those things in half to eat them and I don't find that enjoyable.

                                          1. re: Bkeats

                                            I don't know why everybody thinks this sublime experience is exclusive to sushi. The first paragraph of your response could also be true for steak, pizza, hamburgers, egg foo young, pasta carbonara, or any other number of dishes. So why is there so much more hero worship for the sushi chef than with the pizza maker?

                                            1. re: jpc8015

                                              Actually your list are perfect examples of things that are the opposite of fine sushi and show the total contrast.

                                              When you go to the best steak, pizza, burger, pasta place in town, how likely is is that you are going there because of a particular chef? The line cook grilling your steak or burger could be one guy Tuesday and a different guy on Friday. One quits and is replaced by another. Is the steak you have any different from the one at the table next to you? Do you know who made your meal? Does it even matter? Most likely answer to those questions is no, no and no.

                                              Even at high end temples of fine dining here in NYC, the "name" chef rarely is in the kitchen. There is an army of anonymous cooks working to prepare your meal under instruction from the chef (chef after all just means chief, the boss). How much training do these guys receive? Who knows? Could be days, could be weeks or months. Maybe a few years at most.

                                              Contrast that with what it takes to be a master itamae. It can take years before an apprentice is deemed sufficiently trained to make the rice. Even longer before the apprentice is allowed to make sushi for a customer. If you read about the techniques that are used, you would be surprised to find that how a fish is killed and how the blood is drained will affect the texture and taste of the fish. There is a lot more to learn than how to cook a steak rare, medium rare, medium.

                                              Finally, when you go to these sushi places, the head itamae is there on the line preparing the food. You can sit there and watch him make each piece. You talk to him, he talks to you. You reach an understanding of what the meal will be and it commences. No ordering. Can't remember ever having an experience like that when I had a steak, burger, pizza, pasta.

                                              Every itamae is different. They have different styles and strengths. You find the ones you like. Ideally, you come to know them and they know you. It really pays off because as the itamae comes to know you and your taste, he can tailor the meal to maximize your enjoyment.

                                              But if you don't care for sushi, you won't get it which is ok. In the long run that will save you a lot of money. Sometimes when I get the check, I have to just give them my credit card and not look at the total.

                                          2. re: jpc8015

                                            If you really want to understand the hero worship, might I suggest you read The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg. The true masters have gone thru a very long and thorough and exacting apprenticeship.

                                            It took me years struggling to eat monster nigiri in two bites with chop sticks. A japanese friend noticed and said, "you know in Japan, it's mostly finger food." I read up on chopstick etiquette - one side for communal, one side for eating, placement while still eating, placement when you are finished, never cross the sticks and never stick the upright in your rice bowl, as that is an omen of death, etc....

                                            1. re: Bellachefa

                                              can you please be sure to follow-up on this thread with what ultimately happens? it's a fascinating question and there's been so much conjecture on this thread, i'd love to actually hear the final answer. and good luck and hope you do end up enjoying some wonderful sushi.

                                    3. re: jpc8015

                                      Typically the chef would just say to eat it in two bites. But if there is some kind of physical issue, a good chef would be happy to accommodate.

                      2. re: Ttrockwood

                        Chefs are trained to cut the fish "just so" for the particular customer in front of them. Not "just so" like a textbook fixed standard size.

                        1. re: Silverjay

                          I don't think the OP wants to pay the same price for half size sushi. But I have no clue. Maybe she's fine with that.

                          1. re: Worldwide Diner

                            They will usually give you more pieces.

                            1. re: Silverjay

                              Good to know. I don't have a problem with shoving sushi in my mouth but I suppose smaller pieces would be less intimidating to my kids.

                              1. re: Worldwide Diner

                                Some places in Japan deliberately serve nigiri with big honking two-bite slices of neta on top as a sign of decadence and value.

                      3. To qualify, I like to eat my nigiri in two bites. my teeth cannot match a cared for japanese fish knife. When I look at photos of high end places, I know I will need two bites. So rather then let my teeth rip it in two, would it not be more respectful to have it cut in half with a proper, respected knife?

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: Bellachefa

                          No. That would ruin the presentation of sushi. Some nigiri simply can't be cut in half, like the salmon roe, sea urchin, etc. A simpler solution is to ask for a knife.

                          1. re: Bellachefa

                            Call and ask Nakazawa, 15 east, etc where you were thinking to go...

                              1. re: PHREDDY

                                funny we actually do own some very nice pocket knives!

                            1. sushi is intended to be eaten in one bite. otherwise, you're the customer so you can ask whatever you like, but i think a sushi chef (especially if a japanese national and/or trained in japan) will probably take it as a bit of a slight or rude. otoh if you really can't consume the item... maybe you could call ahead and inquire if you can be accommodated without causing undue inconvenience to the restaurant/chef. i'd phrase it perhaps as "i know this is unconventional, but here's my medical situation, and i was wondering if you would be able and willing to accommodate me by serving me smaller pieces. if it's not possible i completely understand, but i am also very excited and eager to dine at your establishment. what do you think? if you need to ask the chef and get back to me that's fine." this would give the restaurant and chef some warning, and also give them a graceful out if it will be a problem. no nasty surprises on the spot for anyone involved, and avoids risk of hurt feelings/perceived rudeness.

                              3 Replies
                                1. re: chartreauxx

                                  There is nothing wrong with eating it in two bites, as long as one does not set it down in between.

                                  1. re: GH1618

                                    that is exceptional advice, thank you