With its flourishing cherry blossom trees and vast collection of contemporary and classic Asian restaurants, Vancouver is no stranger to Japanese culture. As a resident of the city it is quite nearly impossible not to pass some sort of sushi restaurant—if not a few—wherever you may be wandering. Being such a familiar and favourite cuisine for Vancouverites, the etiquette and traditions that come with classic sushi eating experiences are often over-looked. Here we break down a proper sushi restaurant experience for those who wish to impress next time they head out on the town for dinner with friends and family.
“Irasshaimase” means, “please come in” in Japanese, and at many sushi restaurants this is how you will be greeted. Greet your host or hostess back with whatever is most familiar for you; a simple “thank you” or “good evening” is perfect.
Ordering and the itamae
It is customary to begin with sashimi as it is considered to be an appetizer. The nigiri, sushi or maki sushi is the main part of the meal. Eat each piece one at a time and never put a half-eaten piece back on your plate. If you are ordering ‘okonomi’, start with the lightest-tasting fish dishes and than move on to the stronger ones so that you can fully appreciate the levels of flavour and not overpower the light ones.
For the full traditional sushi dining experience, sit at the bar and watch the itamae—or sushi chef— prepare food. The itamae may take your order depending on what kind of establishment you are dining at, but only if it is a sashimi or sushi order. It is the job of the waiter or waitress to bring over drinks, soups, salads or any other non-sushi item. In Japanese culture, the itamae is the heart of the sushi bar and is well respected and trained. Feel free to ask for a recommendation when surveying the menu; the itamae’s tasting menu is called ‘omakase style’ and is communicated verbally, while ordering à la Carte from the physical menu is called ‘okonomi style’. ‘Omakase’ means “I leave it to you”, and this choice allows the itamae to serve you whatever is best for that day and season. Keep in mind that it is impolite to leave food on your plate, so only order as much as you think you are hungry for.
Most Wasabi found in grocery stores is actually just coloured Horseradish. In Japan, as long as the product contains a minimum of 5% Wasabia Japonica, the manufacturer is permitted to call it Wasabi—unfortunately the rest of the world has followed suit, sometimes not even incorporating any Wasabi in their products at all. If the label on your purchase does not read 100% pure Wasabia Japonica than it most likely contains the following instead: European Horseradish, mustard powder, turmeric powder, sometimes chilli powder, and of course fake colouring. Real Wasabi is a plant grown in Japan; the root is ground up and that is what is supposed to be served with your sushi dinner. Because it is a relatively difficult plant to grow, fakes are most commonly used.
If you are served a putty-like substance it is most likely fake as real Wasabi is grated. You may kindly request real Wasabi, and if the restaurant has it they may bring it out for you. Some dishes will come served with Wasabi already incorporated into the dish by the itamae. Real Wasabi is slightly fruity with a spiciness that does not last for too long—it is meant to enhance the flavour of what you are eating rather than to mask it with heat. Traditionally it is frowned upon to put the Wasabi directly into your shoyu dish with the soy sauce. Instead apply it to the sushi itself—if it is not already added by the itamae—and than dip your food into the soy sauce as you please. However, it is considered rude to drench your sushi with soy sauce as that masks the flavour of the fish, so use it sparingly.
Ginger—or gari—is actually supposed to be a palate cleanser and therefore should be eaten between bites of sushi or the different types of sushi that you have ordered. It is not correct sushi etiquette to eat ginger at the same time you eat your sushi.
Due to vast turnover rates, most sushi restaurants provide wooden disposable chopsticks (waribashi). Do not rub your chopsticks together, as this communicates to the establishment that you think their chopsticks are cheap and splintery. Instead place them parallel to yourself on the holder—if one is provided by the restaurant—or on the shoyu dish. It is also accessible to construct your own holder out of the paper wrapper the chopsticks came in. Once you have finished your meal do not leave the chopsticks on your plate or table, but instead place them back on the shoyu dish or back inside the original wrapper.
There are many traditional rules associated with chopstick use, so avoid offending with these tips. Do not pass food to a fellow restaurant guest using chopsticks; this actually is painfully symbolically close to the passing of bones at a traditional Japanese funeral for relatives. If you want to share your food, pass the whole plate as an offering for the other guest to take the food on their own. Do not stick your chopsticks upright in your rice at any point, and do not stab at your food with them. Crossing your chopsticks is considered a sign of death. If there is a communal plate of food, you may turn your chopsticks around to the non-eating end and pick up the food in that manner. It is considered greedy to browse the dishes with your chopsticks, so decide what you want before you approach the dish. Do not swirl your chopsticks in soup, lick them at any point or dig into your food.
Like ginger, green tea is actually a palate cleanser, making it the best thing to drink while eating at a sushi restaurant. It is considered to be clean and refreshing. The traditional Japanese green tea served at a typical sushi bar is agari. This is a konacha tea made up of tiny leaves that dissolve in boiling water very quickly, allowing for a short brewing time. It is very strong in both taste and colour and quite cheap for restaurants to purchase so often it will be free for customers. More often than not agari is served very hot; this is to wash away the oils left in the consumer’s mouth from sushi. Green tea’s main function at a sushi bar is to allow for an enhanced enjoyment of the delicate flavours of sushi, so sip in between the various dishes you have ordered. There are sometimes three other types of green teas available: bancha, sencha and genmaicha. Bancha green tea has a lovely flavour that goes well as a pairing with food, and is typically served in finer quality sushi restaurants. Sencha—also used as a base for genmaicha brewing—is often consumed after a dinner. Sometimes you may come across Gyokuro green tea which is quite rare and expensive and typically not available at more casual sushi bars. These higher quality teas are meant to be enjoyed not simply as palate cleansers like agari, but on their own as delicious additions to your culinary experience.
Never pour your own drink, but rather lift your glass for your friend to fill and vice versa. If you are dining alone, the server will do this for you. Sake is not traditionally consumed with sushi as it is made from rice and is known to conflict with the flavours and experience. However it is acceptable to consume beer or sake with the appetizer, usually sashimi.