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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.

    1 Reply
    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

                              2. I reconsidered my original position, I sorta misread the post. I would not ask a high end sushi place to do this.

                                1. The high end places in NYC don't serve giant slabs of fish. That seems to be more what the less traditional places serve. Proper etiquette is that you eat the sushi in one piece and you should be able to. I have been to places that serve slabs and I always think WTF do you need to make it so large that I have to gnaw on it? Must be the Olive Garden school of sushi. I've never seen any place cut the nigiri in two pieces. I'm not sure how the chef would react to such a request. Can't hurt to ask. Don't be surprised if your request is denied.

                                  My teeth aren't as sharp as a chef's knife either but I don't know how that compares to your bridge.

                                  Its fine to pick up the sushi with your fingers. That's why they bring those towels to wipe your hand when you sit down.

                                  Dip the sushi fish side down if you want but at one of the better sushi places, there really is no reason to do that. Each piece is seasoned. Please don't mix a gob of wasabi in the soy and dunk the rice in. The chef will just cringe.

                                  I'd be surprised if you could not bite through a piece of sushi at the better places in NYC. The best stuff just seems to melt in my mouth. Hardly any need for pressure at all from my teeth.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Bkeats

                                    What a thoughtfilled response. Any favorite, in Manhattan?

                                    1. re: Bellachefa

                                      Favorite? No one favorite

                                      Many favorites. Oh so many places to go.
                                      Off the top of my head
                                      15 East
                                      Ushiwakamaru
                                      Ichimura
                                      Kurumazushi
                                      Sushiden
                                      Yasuda

                                      Still have not been to Sushi Nakazawa yet. Need to address that soon.

                                  2. Just want to say that eating with fingers or eating with chopsticks are considered acceptable -- in Japan or elsewhere.

                                    Some of what you asked are really more about "preferred" instead of accepted. For example, it is preferred to dip your fish side into soy sauce. It is not unacceptable if you dip the rice into soy sauce. No one will think of you being offensive. However, you are likely going to disintegrated the rice into piece when you do that. Making a mess is unacceptable. Same thing about one bite vs two bites. It is preferred that you take one bite, but it is not offensive if you take two bites.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      Thank you, I thought I was clear in stating that in japan sushi is often finger food. I wasn't looking for a qualifier, but appreciate it. And I know that it is acceptable to have a piece of nigiri or a large roll in two bites.

                                      1. re: Bellachefa

                                        <I was clear in stating that in japan sushi is often finger food>

                                        While it is true, I would argue that many Japanese eat sushi with a pair of chopstick.

                                        "Tokyo cookery teacher Yumi Sone likes them for their elegance -- her husband does too -- and finds eating with the hands a little affected when practiced by anyone but a true aficionado."

                                        http://travel.cnn.com/tokyo/eat/miche...

                                        That being said, some sushi chefs do prefer their costumers to use hands -- especially if the customers cannot use chopstick well.

                                        I would eat the sushi however you appreciate it. Have fun.

                                    2. I wouldn't do that. I prefer to eat nigiri sushi in two bites, myself. Most nigiri does not require sharp teeth to bite in two. I usually do not order shellfish and such as nigiri. I like tako (octopus), but always order it as "tako-su(nomono)," which avoids the problem.

                                      1. Hi, Bellachefa:

                                        I'm no expert on the etiquette, but please do not 2-bite at Sasebune in Honolulu. The chef takes great offense, nearly bum-rushed a dear friend out of of the place who couldn't do a jumbo raw prawn in one bite. Ever since that experience, I've considered it kapu.

                                        Aloha,
                                        Kaleo

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: kaleokahu

                                          Mahalo Kaleo,

                                          Still planning our return, but Honolulu is not in the plans. We are negotiating Heana, Hawi, and Hana - the three great H's

                                          1. re: kaleokahu

                                            I wouldn't go back to a place with such a rude sushi guy. Even if the strictest application of sushi protocol expects it, and even if the pieces were made in a suitable size for most people to eat in one bite, the general rule that politeness governs behavior takes precedence. A diner at a sushi bar who eats his nigiri in two bites is not intending to insult the sushi-ya by flouting tradition, but merely trying to dispatch the sushi in a comfortable way.

                                            1. re: GH1618

                                              Hi, GH:

                                              Well, I thought it was a little extreme, but I'm not steeped in the culture and protocol.

                                              If you've eaten at Sasabune (Honolulu), you might change your opinion. The prawn in question was 10 hours out of Antarctic waters, and small enough for one bite. We had put ourselves at the mercy of the chef, down to which shoyu, if any, and how much. My friend just has an issue with the texture of raw shrimp. I think it would have been better if he had simply declined and said he was allergic.

                                              This particular friend IS steeped in the tradition, and well-traveled throughout Japan and worldwide. He still considers Sasabune as the best bar anywhere, save a few places where gaijin are not welcome.

                                              I'm not likely to go back anytime soon, but that's more a function of price than protocol.

                                              Aloha,
                                              Kaleo

                                              1. re: GH1618

                                                I should have written "itamae" instead of "sushi-ya." The latter is the house. The former is the guy with the knife.

                                            2. Ask the chef to kindly make your nigiri pieces smaller. This is perfectly acceptable and not at all uncommon. If you need to eat it in two bites, it is not a big deal- even in fancy places. But anyway, well-trained chefs slice the fish and mold the rice according to their individual customers.

                                              1. The "small enough to eat in one bite" thing can vary a lot by person.

                                                I have a fairly small mouth. I generally can physically fit a piece of nigiri in my mouth in one bite, but my mouth is so full that it produces the feeling that I'm trying to chew and swallow without choking, and doesn't let me taste the food properly.

                                                Choking it down is not really what I want to do with a food that I really like and am spending a lot of money on it.

                                                For a lower end place, I would eat it in two bites, with time to chew and swallow between bites. For a higher end place with a fancy sushi chef, I'd discuss it when placing my order, and ask if they could accommodate it. If they got snotty about it, I'd leave.

                                                1. Why not ask the restaurant? My favorite place in NYC is 15 East. Some will argue other venues have better food but for me, the warm, welcoming environment at the bar keeps me coming back. Every person who works there has always been incredibly friendly to me and i am by no means a frequent customer or "whale".

                                                  My point is, I'm sure if you ask them in a likewise friendly manner, they will accomodate you if they can. And if they won't, I believe they will explain the reason and not just go sushi nazi on you.

                                                  Edit: someone also mentioned not ordering chewier stuff like Tako.... Now. If you go to 15e, you can et the massaged octopus which is unbelievably tender and my favorite octopus ever!

                                                  Good luck!

                                                  1. Just curious...why do you need to eat your sushi in 2 bites?

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: joonjoon

                                                      Perhaps nobody "needs" to, but it is more enjoyable to eat a comfortable-sized bite than to cram it all in at once, unless the pieces are small.

                                                      1. re: GH1618

                                                        Yes. Eating a too large piece of nigiri sushi in one bite makes for a gummy mess. You don't get to enjoy the texture, and the taste is muddier, as you're trying to get it to go down rather than savouring it.

                                                        Actually, I find eating pretty much anything in too large mouthfuls is unpleasant. Try eating a too large piece of a good steak that leaves your mouth so full you have trouble chewing properly, for example.

                                                    2. Honestly, I have been to Yasuda and 15 East in NYC and the default size of the nigiri pieces at those places run small- like smaller than anything I've had in Japan, even high end temples of sushi. I can't imagine someone would have an issue and if they did, then they probably have bigger concerns than sushi etiquette.

                                                      1. At this point, I would love for you to ask and then tell us what the chef says. It'll shut some of us for good.

                                                        5 Replies
                                                        1. re: Worldwide Diner

                                                          Or better yet, OP can call ahead and make a reservation and put in that specific request with the staff, to see if the chef accommodates and how it will be handled, rather than showing up and then drop the ball. That way the chef gets enough time to prepare if anything.

                                                          1. re: K K

                                                            right on! i suggested that above.

                                                            1. re: K K

                                                              Yes. This would be most appropriate.

                                                              1. re: K K

                                                                How does one "prepare" in advance for cutting nigiri in half for a customer? I mean, you either do it, or you don't.

                                                                But yeah, might be good to know in advance in order not to be disappointed.

                                                                1. re: linguafood

                                                                  Sorry didn't read through all the comments where chartreauxx had already said this.

                                                                  The call in advance just guarantees you a seat if the restaurant is super popular (and high end), plus the inquiry gives them the courtesy of a heads up, if a request. Usually those who handle reservations are better communicators and can be on one's behalf with the chef (depending on his fluency).

                                                                  About "prepare" in advance....It's not a matter of taking a piece of nigiri and cutting it in half. You only see that in the Jiro movie only because the tiger prawn or kurumaebi is so big that it would be impractical for most to down a single piece. Then again not everyone is Jiro who notices a diner using their left hand, or make sushi in accordance to the size of their mouths/bite etc.

                                                                  It is more so enabling the chef also to carefully pre-portion out the purchased amounts of fish, and figure out best ways to still ensure a customer experience. This is the mark of a chef at the top of his game if this is a super high end restaurant if he knows how to delegate these properly and still make tasty sushi at a smaller size. This could mean doubling up a single piece, or offering you maybe twice the variety (assuming each reduced size bite is half a regular nigiri). The chef can then figure out how much product he uses per night, and also if he needs to order more (or less).

                                                                  Certain fish and seafood are cut specifically for optimal sizes. It may require something different to get an equivalent joyous bite at a smaller size. I can see this happening with some shellfish (clam, abalone etc). And if the OP has jaw/bite issues with firmer selections then it is also best to let the restaurant know.