(Feature) On the proper way to eat sushi

Most of Japanese TV is about food, which is odd considering that Japan consumes fewer calories per person than any other major industrialized nation. (It’s on par with developing, largely agrarian countries like Vietnam and Costa Rica.) Food segments easily fill half of your average “magazine show,” which otherwise covers all manner of topics that might appear in the Lifestyle section of the newspaper: travel, celebrities, fashion, and so on.

A typical segment will follow two male hosts, accompanied by an attractive and much younger female host, as they wander some local town on foot looking for a specific mom-and-pop shop that they heard makes its oyakodon in some special way. The hosts will meet the proprietors, make small talk, and then sample the dish to visible delight, screaming “Oishi!” (Delicious.) Then the secret will be revealed… but censored, to entice you back after the commercial break.

Fear not. It’s almost always some minor tweak to the standard recipe that you or I would never notice: the blanching of the egg first or the addition of a local root vegetable or the use of imported Spanish chickens. The oyakodon is still oyakodon.

Sooner or later, there is an inevitable segment on sushi. To be clear, however, in my experience, most Japanese people don’t eat sushi regularly. Some of them do. But some of them, like my fiancee, don’t like it at all.

For one, sushi is a little expensive. It’s typically the most expensive item in the grocery store deli. (Deli sushi, by the way, is restaurant-grade quality, per Western standards.) There is a widespread assumption that a man who eats sushi regularly is wealthy. In the Kurosawa classic “Seven Samurai,” for example, the titular warriors are surprised to discover the peasants have sushi hidden away.

In that sense, sushi is like wine in the West. It’s common, but it carries a connotation of wealth and status. Not everyone likes it, and even people who do like it don’t necessarily consume it on a regular basis.

Like wine, sushi is also one of mankind’s greatest culinary inventions, capable of subtle gymnastics of flavor, which is amazing when you consider there are only three or four ingredients. Sushi in Japan typically does not mean rolls. Rolls are cheap. Sushi is nigiri, a four-inch cut of fish draped like a wet curtain over a three-inch slab of hand-pressed rice, made sticky with a bit of rice wine vinegar, with or without a dab of wasabi underneath, with or without a brush of soy on top.

Also like wine, you will encounter all kinds of “rules” about how you are supposed to eat sushi — with your hands, for example, or by dipping in soy at some prescribed angle, or by never ever ordering a California roll, which is not actually sushi. (California rolls are the box wine of the sushi world.)

And yes, if you go to a high-end sushi restaurant in Tokyo, where chefs serve each guest at a prescribed pace, one piece at a time, you will see people eating with their hands, and you will not see any California rolls — just as at a fancy restaurant in the West, you will see people sniffing wine in the glass, none of which was poured from a box.

But at the ubiquitous mid-market places, where most sushi is consumed, your entire order comes on a wood platter, which means everyone at the table eats off that platter, which means they will use chopsticks. (But I have not seen any California rolls.)

Still, snobbery exists everywhere, and sooner or later you’re bound to run into a Japanese person — or worse, a Westerner — who says “No no no no” and corrects your supposedly horrible breach of sushi etiquette, whatever it is.

I’m here to tell you that this person can go fuck themselves. The proper way to eat sushi is this: with enjoyment, and with respect for the person who made it. That’s it.

(cover image by Toshio Saeki)