10 sushi-eating commandments according to master sushi chefs

Nigiri with wasabi
Nigiri is best consumed in a single bite for peak fish-rice-wasabi harmony. | Credit: Alanna Hale

Japan’s greatest culinary delicacy tastes better when eaten correctly, so improve your experience by becoming well-versed in proper sushi bar etiquette.

Sushi wasn’t always consumed against tranquil backdrops. The dish was first scarfed down as a casual Japanese street snack in the 19th century but shifted indoors after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when Tokyo land prices fell and made brick-and-mortar options more affordable for vendors. Nowadays, enjoying a sushi feast to the fullest relies on not fiddling with your chopsticks, skipping the wasabi in your soy sauce—your nigiri already contains the optimal amount—and engaging in thoughtful banter with the chef.

Read on for 10 sushi commandments culled from some of the country’s top talents including Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto (of Morimoto fame), 20-year veteran Jackson Yu, who steers Omakase in San Francisco, and John Um, regional corporate chef at Sushisamba Las Vegas.

  • Don’t add wasabi directly to your soy sauce—the sushi chef has already perfected the horseradish-to-fish ratio in your nigiri.
  • Dip your nigiri into the soy sauce fish-side down to avoid a total sushi breakdown.
  • Devour the nigiri in a single bite for peak fish-rice-wasabi harmony.
  • The pickled ginger is a palate cleanser so graze on it between your nigiri courses—not alongside your sushi.
  • It’s fine to buy the chef a shot of sake and considered a way to show appreciation and build rapport. But don’t go overboard.
  • Tip your chef: The service fee is baked into the check in Japan, but in the U.S., a standard 20% tip is acceptable.
  • Special requests are okay—as long as they’re not for a California roll. Chefs usually have unique la carte options up their sleeve, especially on weekends.
  • Don’t rub your chopsticks together, it’s considered an insult that suggests the quality of your chopsticks is not up to snuff. Ask for a new pair if you see a splinter in the wood.
  • It’s not all about the fish. Sushi celebrates core ingredients such as rice, vinegar, seaweed, soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger. Chefs in Japan spend up to a decade just perfecting sushi rice—it’s an art form. Showing appreciation for the rice can be the ultimate compliment for a chef.
  • Though sashimi requires chopsticks, eating sushi with your fingers is perfectly acceptable and better for appreciating its temperature and texture.

Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, blogger, and cookbook author. She is the publisher of the food blog Cooking with Amy. She currently contributes to numerous online publications including Food Network, Fodor’s and Refinery 29 and never says no to a warm donut. Follow her @cookingwithamy.

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