The number of U.S. sushi restaurants quintupled in the 1990s, but an industry insider says sushi knowledge hasn't kept pace with the genre's stateside expansion. According to Yasuko Nakajima, a sushi restaurant vet who last weekend emceed a "How to Eat Sushi the Expert Way" program sponsored by the Hokubei Hochi Foundation and Japan Foundation, most aficionados unwittingly make major mistakes at the sushi bar.
Here, a few of the more common errors -- and how to correct them:
Nakajima would prefer if American sushi eaters laid off the soy sauce, period. "You shouldn't be using it as a sauce all over," she warned, explaining that salt and fermentation flavors interfere with the taste that the chef has painstakingly engineered. But the greatest sins are dipping rolls rice-side down - "It's quite wrong, because one, sushi rice is already seasoned; two, the rice will crumble and, three, the rice will absorb too much soy sauce." - and adding wasabi to the soy sauce. "It is rather not a good idea," Nakajima said. But if eaters can't give up their soy saucing ways, Nakajima suggests quickly swiping the fish through unadulterated sauce.
DON'T set your chopsticks on the table.
Chopsticks which touch your mouth shouldn't touch the table, which is why most sushi bars provide chopstick rests. But if a formal rest isn't provided, a knotted chopstick wrapper will suffice. "Use this, so it will be cool," Nakajima demonstrated. Also, on the topic on chopsticks, "some people automatically rub them together, and that's sad." If the chopsticks are splintered, better to remove the offending fray with your fingers, she advised.
DON'T hurt the planet.
Sushi fans already know to avoid certain unsustainable species when ordering (for the guide to the no-gos beyond bluefin tuna, check out Seafood Watch's guide.) But in response to a participant's question, Nakajima said eaters should also consider bringing their own reusable chopsticks if the restaurant uses disposable utensils. "I think it's a great idea," she said. "I don't think anyone's going to object."
DON'T bite off less than you can chew.
Sushi is supposed to be downed in a single bite. "Place your thumb on the fish, tilt and place in your mouth," Nakajima counseled, assuring worried eaters that it's entirely appropriate to eat sushi with your fingers. "Both rice and fish touch the palate at the same time." But what if it's a very large piece of fish? "If you can eat a Big Mac, you can do it," she promised. That's an apt comparison, since sushi originated as fast food, and is still supposed to be consumed quickly.
DON'T start with a spicy tuna roll.
Shiro's sells more salmon than any other fish, but tuna's the legendary restaurant's second best-seller. Shiro Kashiba, who prepared sushi for the program, said, "We hate to serve spicy tuna first." That's because flavor nuances are lost on tongues burned by wasabi: If you're set on spicy tuna, save it for last.