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How To Eat Sushi Properly: The Right Etiquette Explained

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  October 20, 2022

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Japan is full of sushi restaurants and sushi bars. In fact, sushi is one of the most popular dishes in Japan.

Maki zushi, nigiri zushi, and sashimi are some of the most popular types of sushi in Japan.

At a Japanese sushi restaurant, the sushi chefs usually have many years of experience, and they train for years to perfect their craft.

The chef prepares the fresh sushi in front of the customers, and the sushi is often served with soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger.

4 women eating sushi at a restaurant

In sushi bars, sushi is often served on a conveyor belt. The sushi is placed on small plates that travel around the restaurant on a conveyor belt.

Customers can take the sushi they want and return the empty plates to the end of the conveyor belt.

Sushi restaurants and sushi bars can be found in many cities around the world.

Find out how many pieces of sushi are in a roll and how many you can eat

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Sushi etiquette

Japan is known for its food etiquette. Sushi is no exception, and there are some dining rules to follow when enjoying the dish.

At a sushi restaurant, the sushi roll is only dipped into the sauce once. The sushi is then eaten in one bite.

If soy sauce or wasabi is needed, a small amount should be added to the plate.

It’s considered rude to rub chopsticks together, and they should be placed on the table when not in use.

How to eat sushi correctly

  • You can use chopsticks when enjoying your sushi, but you don’t have to. That’s just something we’ve introduced in the West. It is never wrong to use your hands. Particularly when eating hand rolls (as opposed to maki) as you can just touch the nori on the outside. If you are picking sushi from a shared plate, make sure that you use the back end of the chopsticks when picking the roll apart, and never eat sashimi with your hands. That’s a no-no everywhere.
  • Nigiri should be eaten with chopsticks as there is no nori to pick it up. When dipping it in soy sauce, hold it sideways and then turn it slightly while dipping only the fish part in the soy. Don’t dip too much and never shake off the soy sauce but quickly put it in your mouth to eat.
  • Whenever you are not using the chopsticks, place them on the chopstick holder on the table.
  • Every piece of sushi has to be eaten in one bite. Although it might be a mouthful, especially the larger American types of sushi with rice on the outside taking several bites is not the way to eat it and can make the pieces fall onto the table, and you don’t want that to happen since it is considered to be rude by the Japanese.

How to eat the toppings and sauces

  • You should eat the pickled ginger (gari) in between the servings as it assists in good digestion of the food, and also cleanses your palate. You should never eat the ginger together with the sushi, or dip in the soy sauce.
  • If you want to dip your sushi in soy sauce, just dip the fish part of the sushi. You should never dip the rice in the soy sauce, especially with a nigiri piece or American sushi with rice on the outside. The rice can become soggy and break when it absorbs the sauce, but more importantly, dipping it in soy sauce can ruin the perfectly seasoned flavor of the rice. When dipping a maki roll with nori on the outside you can just very lightly dip one side of the piece in the soy sauce. When they serve sushi with a sauce, like spicy mayonnaise or unagi sauce, then the soy sauce is not necessary anymore.
  • It has become a common thing for diners to add wasabi, either to the fish or by mixing it to the soy sauce. This is a common practice in American restaurants but you should never mix the wasabi in the soy sauce. In traditional restaurants, sushi chefs will have prepared the sushi rolls with the wasabi already inside of them. Alternatively, it can be under the fish on top of the nigiri. Most American restaurants will probably not have the wasabi already in them since not all Americans like the taste and those who do are accustomed to adding it to their sauce. If you want to use wasabi, add a little bit on top.

Sushi etiquette

  • Most Japanese sushi restaurants will give you a hot towel before you start dining. The purpose of the towel is to clean your hands. 
  • When you decide to sit at the sushi bar, order your appetizers, and drink from the server. Your chef is responsible for handling all your sushi orders.
  • Never order wasabi and soy sauce if they are not offered. It’s important to note that sushi should be enjoyed, not soaked under other sauces. In a traditional sushi restaurant, the chef makes sure that he adds the required amount of seasoning needed to make the fish stand out. If that’s the case, never add anything to your sushi—just enjoy it without any additional sauces.
  • In case the chef provided soy sauce, pour it into the bowl or dish offered for the sauce.
  • Never ask the chef whether the fish is fresh—this is considered to be rude. Rather, ask the chef what he recommends for that day.
  • When dining at a traditional sushi restaurant, always start with the sashimi, and then sushi.
  • Always eat the pickled ginger as a palate cleanser. Take a small bite of the ginger in between sushi bites—never eat the ginger together with the sushi.
  • When you order nigiri, make sure that you eat the rice that accompanies it. Never leave the rice balls behind. If you needed sashimi, then go ahead and order it, rather than leaving the rice balls behind.
  • Every piece of sushi should be eaten in one bite. Taking several bites is considered to be poor etiquette.

Why is sushi eaten raw?

Meat consumption has been largely prohibited in Japan for much of its history as a nation with strong Buddhist origins.

Fish, however, offers an alternative source of protein as Japan is an island nation.

By maintaining the natural nutrients found in the flesh and oils, serving it raw has additional health benefits.

Some sushi contains raw fish or seafood, but it’s made with cooked rice, so sushi isn’t a true raw food.

Do you eat sushi hot or cold?

Sushi is usually served cold, but some types of sushi, like temaki sushi and uramaki, can be served warm.

Also, some sushi rolls contain fried fish or seafood, so the sushi roll will be warm.

What’s the best way to order sushi?

Traditional Japanese sushi restaurants have a basic etiquette that everyone should follow when ordering sushi. Western-style restaurants, on the other hand, you can just order without observing any etiquette. However, there are certain rules that you should follow in both settings.

How to choose the sushi you want to order

  • In the event you are confused about the type of sushi you want to order, it’s always a good idea to ask for help from the server. Never feel ashamed to ask any question. Are you unfamiliar with things? Ask for help! Do you want to know what’s best? Ask too! The server will be willing to assist you to choose the best sushi for the ultimate sushi experience. If you are dining in a good restaurant, the server will have the knowledge to assist you whenever you are stuck.
  • Leave everything to the sushi chef. In Japanese, this is known as omakase dining style, where you give your chef the power to choose whatever he wants to serve. So, is this a good idea? Yes, and you should always follow it since the chef will always serve the best deal for the day. However, you shouldn’t be afraid of alerting the chef of any preferences or food allergies before allowing him to take control.
  • It’s always a good idea to order at most two items each time rather than ordering everything at once. With this, in case you get something that doesn’t impress you, you can alter your order the next time. One way to have a good sushi experience is to mix different varieties of sushi.
  • Sit at the sushi bar—if you can. Even though not everyone loves sitting at the sushi bar, it’s one of the best places to sit in a sushi restaurant. The sushi bar allows you to see what the chef is doing. You can observe the artistry and skills that are used in preparing your sushi. In addition, it gives you the opportunity to communicate directly with your chef. In case you have questions, or are looking for recommendations, ask the chef.

How can you choose the best sushi restaurant?

Choosing the best sushi restaurant is a challenge for many people. However, there are some guidelines that you can follow, which can assist you to have the best sushi experience.

These guidelines include:

  • There is always one general rule—always eat in restaurants that have a good sushi reputation. It’s important to understand that the price doesn’t mean that that you will get quality sushi.
  • Some restaurants have the “all you can eat” sushi-style, which is a bit tempting, but it doesn’t mean that you will get quality sushi.
  • When you notice that the majority of the items in the restaurant’s menu are cooked, instead of raw, then that might be an indication that the fish uses is either of poor quality or old.
  • Always check whether the rice used is cold or at room temperature—never eat sushi made with cold rice.
  • Don’t eat sushi with soggy seaweed. If the sushi rolls are truly fresh, then the seaweed will be crispy, as well as have a nice and toasty flavor.
  • The restaurant’s display case, where the fish are placed should always look organized and pristine—avoid eating in restaurants with messy display cases.
  • The server should have a good knowledge of the menu and should be able to answer all your questions without struggling.
  • If the restaurant smells fishy, leave immediately. It’s like when you get a fish from the market or store, if that restaurant has a funny smell, then there is a possibility that you will not eat fresh sushi, or the restaurant is not cleaned well.

Can you eat sushi every day?

Eating sushi every day is not very healthy, especially if it contains raw fish. 

It’s healthiest to consume sushi only once in a while, or on a weekly basis. When consumed in moderation, it benefits your health because it is high in protein, low in fat, and contains Omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce cholesterol levels in the body. As well, it lowers the risk of heart disease. 

But best of all, most sushi is low in calories, so even people on a diet can enjoy this tasty food. 

Why is sushi expensive?

Sushi is expensive because most of it is made with expensive ingredients such as seafood and seaweed. These ingredients need to be fresh and high-quality, so they are costlier than processed foods. For example, sushi-grade fish such as tuna is expensive and can cost up to a hundred dollars per pound, depending on the type. 

Sushi is also very labor-intensive to prepare. It required quite a lot of work to make the rolls. 

Conclusion

Although this might look intimidating the first time, understanding your sushi, as well as the information and etiquette that accompanies it can assist you to have an amazing and memorable sushi experience every time.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.