How to eat sushi the right way, and why you should obey chef’s rules to get the most out of that U$450 omakase meal
Sushi etiquette explained by two celebrated chefs in Hong Kong – why you should be punctual, not wear heavy perfume, and eat each piece with your hands, in a single bite and without delay. As for the wasabi and soy sauce ...
Sushi chef Yoshiharu Kakinuma has no trouble recalling the worst customer ever at Sushi Shikon, the three-Michelin-star restaurant that opened in Hong Kong six years ago.
“It was Valentine’s Day two or three years ago. We have eight seats at the sushi counter, [and that night it was] four couples. One couple did not show up – they came almost at the end of the session. The guy was very showy, saying, ‘I paid a lot of money’,” says the chef known to his customers as Kaki-san.
“He sat down and I tried to explain that he couldn’t eat, that [the other customers] were almost finished. He said, ‘I am the customer, how come you talk to me like this? You can make me some [food].’ I tried to be nice and said, ‘OK, you have 30 minutes, I will try my best.’
“I made him food but he didn’t eat, he just drank champagne and made a lot of noise. I said, ‘Everyone is sharing this [counter], please don’t do that. If you keep doing that I don’t want to make sushi for you.’ He kept doing it so I said ‘No more’.
“Then he started throwing champagne glasses at me, breaking the glasses on the sushi counter, and he [challenged me, saying] ‘Hey chef, come on out’. I tried to push him outside and his girlfriend apologised. When I came back inside, the other customers clapped and said thank you.”
Sushi Shikon in Sheung Wan, the sole overseas branch of Sushi Yoshitake (also with three stars) in Tokyo, and the newer (it opened earlier this year), equally high-end Sushi Saito, the only branch of the three-Michelin-star restaurant of the same name in Tokyo, state upfront their expectations of guests – the former on the etiquette page of its website, the latter on a form you need to sign and email back when you book.
Kakinuma explains that these rules let guests fully enjoy the sushi experience.
“We have two sessions per night [at 6pm and 8.30pm] and it’s important you’re on time because we adjust all timings for the sushi rice. We cook the rice a special way.
“I explain to the customers that sushi rice is like pasta. All the rice is cooked at the same time, and if we serve one customer [at a certain time] then the rice will be al dente, but with the next customer it will be a bit soft.
“We want to make the sushi [for all the customers] at the same time so the rice is the right condition. That is why we tell our customers to please come on time, so we can start serving them all together,” Kakinuma says.
He has encountered some resistance, especially when the Hong Kong branch first opened in 2012 (back then, it was called Sushi Yoshitake). “I’ve been here six years and at the beginning, the customer would shout at us, ‘Why – we are the customers, we are paying so much money’.
“Being on time might bother their schedule, but think about it – if you go to a movie or a show, they don’t wait for the customer [to arrive]. But after six years, they understand.”
Ikuya Kobayashi, the young chef that Takashi Saito picked to head up Sushi Saito at the Four Seasons, says: “Because the experience starts on time with all the guests together, it is not just about respecting the fellow diners, but also lets one relax and enjoy the dining experience at its best.”
Both sushi-yas have counter seating only, with guests sitting side by side. Sushi Shikon’s etiquette page reads: “Please be aware that strong fragrances such as tobacco and heavy perfume in a narrow space can have a negative impact on the occasion for others.”
Kakinuma elaborates: “We try to serve the best sushi to the customers. We are concerned with temperature, taste and everything. Strong perfumes destroy the taste for all the customers – and for us, too, because we can’t smell what we are preparing, and they can’t smell what they are eating.”
We all know the routine at sushi restaurants: pour some soy sauce in the little dish provided, add a dab of wasabi and mix, use your chopsticks to pick up the nigiri (the neta [topping] over shari [vinegared rice]) then dunk it into the slurry of sauce. Right?
“At more casual places, there’s more freedom,” Kakinuma says tactfully. “If customers want to add more wasabi, they can add it; if they want more salt, they add soy sauce. The customer can create the taste. But we are different.
“We think about the customers and what is the best condition of the sushi – that is why we don’t serve soy sauce, we don’t serve wasabi. We create our own taste – it’s different. We serve the fish in the best condition – we might age the fish, or we salt it.
“Everything is crafted – all the tastes. Everything is for the customer. We don’t want [the customer] to add something, to make a new creation. Of course, if they want us to add less wasabi, we can do that.”
While you’re at it, eat the nigiri in one bite, and within 30 seconds of the chef placing it in front of you. Oh, and use your hands, not chopsticks, to pick it up.
Kakinuma says: “I make sushi with my hands – they tell me how soft the rice is, the texture – everything is from my hands. If customers eat with their hands, I see it as being from hand to hand, from heart to heart.
“Some customers use the chopsticks the wrong way – they cross [the sticks]. I watch them when they eat the appetiser, I figure it out. I suggest to them, ‘Please eat sushi with your hands, if you don’t mind’. If they use chopsticks anyway, I use more pressure on the rice; I make it more firm [so it’s easier to pick up].”
He also says” “Nigiri sushi should be eaten in one bite.” If the customer bites it in half, Kakinuma says, he doesn’t get the “passion” that the chef puts into making it. He will adjust the size of the nigiri for people with smaller mouths.
Kobayashi agrees, but points out: “At Sushi Saito, the nigiri is slightly smaller, striking the best balance of taste and texture. It is never an issue for guests to enjoy in one bite.”
And the so-called 30-second rule? Neither chef is as rigid about that as some of their counterparts at high-end sushi-yas in Japan, many of which forbid photography, in part out of a fear that diners will take too long to eat the nigiri.
“We don’t have a rule when enjoying sushi, about taking pictures or not,” says Kobayashi. “The only thing to be aware of is to enjoy the sushi within 30 seconds once it is served.
“The art of sushi is about the balance of flavour, texture and temperature. According to the nature of the fish and seafood, the temperature of the shari is different in order to bring out the best of the ingredients. So the 30-second rule is to make sure every guest can enjoy the pieces of sushi at their best.”
Of course, none of these rules apply if you’re eating at an izakaya or kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi establishment (although being on time is a courtesy you should follow everywhere, and the avoidance of strong perfumes is one that your fellow diners will appreciate no matter what level of restaurant).
Linger over your meal (within reason) at the local branch of Genki Sushi, and if you want to add so much wasabi that it clears your sinuses for the next week, go right ahead.
But please don’t try this at Sushi Shikon (omakase dinner HK$3,500, or US$446) or Sushi Saito (omakase dinner HK$3,280, or US$417).