You're First Time Sushi Experience

Step 1 - Choosing a Restaurant

Perhaps you have been invited to a Japanese restaurant for the first time, or perhaps you just want a new experience. Either way, the first step to trying sushi for the first time is finding someone to go with you. You should go with someone who knows a bit about sushi, since you don't want to worry about ordering or where to go. If you don't know anyone, just try to visit a moderately priced restaurant. Cheap sushi can have an overly fishy taste and bad texture. Make sure to ask questions, as the waitstaff at a nice Japanese restaurant will bend over backward to make sure you have a pleasant experience.

About Sushi

Step 2 - Sushi Etiquette

As a first time sushi eater, make sure you are familiar with the etiquette. Most western sushi bars, are not expecting much for the typical sushi goer, but learning a little about the culture and what is expected will make the experience more enjoyable. Some rules to remember:

  • Never pass food to someone using chopsticks. This act parallels passing cremated bones of a deceased relative at a Japanese funeral. If you must share food, pass them the plate so that they can pick from it instead.
  • If you take food from a shared plate (such as in the above situation), use the reverse ends of your chopsticks rather than the ends which go in your mouth.
  • Never bite into a piece of food and then replace the other half on your plate. Once you have picked something up you should eat all of it.
  • When not using your chopsticks, you should place them in front of you, parallel to the edge of the sushi bar, with the narrow ends in the provided hashi oki; never place them directly on the bar.
  • Never leave rice after a meal. Leaving any kind of food is considered rude, but leaving rice is especially so.
  • Never smoke in a sushi bar, it obscures the delicate flavours of the fish for everyone else. Ashtrays will likely be provided in many sushi bars (especially in Europe and America) but to use them is dismissive of the efforts of the chef.
  • Never expect the chef to handle money, another employee will settle the bill for you. People who handle the food never touch the money.
  • Do not ask for knives. This would imply that the food is so tough it can't be properly eaten without them.
  • Most westerners eat sushi by dipping it rice-side-down into the soy, and let the soy soak up into the rice. Then they wonder why the sushi disintegrates on its way from the soy to their mouth, leaving little black flecks of soy-stained rice all over the bar and their clothing. Japanese people rarely have this problem, because they know that the purpose of the soy is not to flavour the rice, but the fish. As such, the sushi should be dipped rice-side-up in the soy and then carried to the mouth.

Step 3 - What to Order

Newbi sushi eaters generally start with maki, which is thin slices of fish and rice wrapped in seaweed. You should start out sharing a single roll, which comes with about six pieces, with a friend. The most popular maki in the United States is the California roll, which has a very rich taste and little or no raw fish. The Cucumber roll is very good as well, but also contains no fish. If you are willing to be adventurous, you should start with a Tuna roll, which is simply raw tuna, sushi rice, and seaweed. The taste of the seaweed and bittersweet taste of the rice will mostly overpower the tuna. Once you have tried maki, however, you should graduate to nigiri to have the true sushi experience.

Most Sushi Bars provide a 1 page sushi menu for you to fill in the quanties of each type sushi you want. You will often see these readily available at the bar along with small pencils for filling in your order. Feel free to order multiple times. Many places include 2 columns on the sushi menu for entering your first and second orders. See a sample menu here.

About Sushi

Nigiri is nothing more than raw fish placed on top of sushi rice. Eating nigiri allows you to truly enjoy the taste of the fish. Since this is your first time, you'll want to start out eating fish you are familiar with. Maguro is the Japanese name for a particular cut of large tuna, and is the most popular fish to eat as nigiri. It has a very pleasant taste, and it's the best choice for your first time. Ebi, shrimp, and Hamachi, yellowfin tuna, are also good choices (note that the shrimp will actually be cooked, though cold). If you are feeling even more adventurous, try Ika, squid, which has a creamy texture and sweet taste. You might want to avoid Uni, Anago, and octopus for now.

As long as you are in a small Japanese restaurant, you should feel comfortable ordering small amounts of sushi, and ordering multiple times. A common mistake of first timers is to order a "sampler". These may contain varieties that you won't want to try just yet. Or just go wild and taste something you have no idea about.

Step 4 - What the Waiter Brings You

You may be given miso soup to start. If you've never tried it, it is likely that will not taste like anything you've had before. However, some people associate the taste of miso with the salty taste of home-canned green beans. Miso soup is strong, very salty, and slightly fishy. It should be stirred with your chopsticks and then drunk directly out of the bowl. However, most restaurants will provide you a spoon since most westerners feel drinking the soup out of the bowl is bad manners. Careful, it will be very hot. The ingredients of miso soup are pretty complex. The most unusual ingredient is in the broth, which contains some fish skin.

About Sushi

When your sushi comes, it will be on a wood plank or, less commonly, a plate. If you are sharing with friends, it may all come in a single wooden pan. Everyone gets a white ceramic dish for soy sauce. Also on the table are thin pink or white slices of ginger, they are there to eat between pieces of sushi. Finally, everyone gets some wasabi.

About Sushi

Wasabi is a green paste made from a Japanese horseradish. It is very, very, very strong, and a key ingredient in sushi. If you're okay with hot things, you should try some wasabi to start out. To try it, put a very, very small piece no larger than a teardrop onto the tip of your chopstick. Place the wasabi onto your tongue, and smear it around the roof of your mouth. You may want to keep a glass of water and napkin to wipe your eyes nearby.

About Sushi

You should know that even if you don't try it plain, your sushi will contain some wasabi. However, it will not make your sushi hot, since it is only in very small amounts.

Once you've got your soy sauce, you're finally ready to go. Take a piece of sushi in your chopsticks, dip it lightly into the soy sauce, and place the entire thing into your mouth. If you can't use chopsticks, use your fingers. That's the "proper" way of eating sushi in Japan.

Step 5 - Tips on eating nigiri

Right before you eat nigiri (slabs of raw fish on rice), be prepared for what it will taste like. You should expect a fishy taste and a fleshy texture. Don't pretend you're eating something else, because that will ruin the experience and may cause you to gag.

About Sushi

You have to put the entire thing into your mouth. Don't try to bite it in half. You won't be able to with your front teeth, and you'll end up clumsily spilling rice. If you really think you can't fit it, try chewing it a little while you are putting it in your mouth. You can also ask the waiter for smaller pieces.

You will probably not enjoy the texture at first. Many however do, or quickly learn to. Good maguro has the texture of very firm gelatin, and you likely have not eaten anything like it before.

Don't hold your breath or plug your nose. Make sure you take in deep breaths through your nose as you chew. Nigiri has a very subtle taste, and breathing ensures you actually get to taste the fish. As was just said, at first you might not enjoy the texture, so if you plug your nose you are definitely not going to enjoy it!

Sometimes nigiri will have a small dab of wasabi between the fish and the rice, so don't be surprised if you notice a little spice.