Omakase & Etiquette

Many visitors to Japan who are enthusiastic to eat ‘Michelin sushi’, even maybe Jiro dreams, a place that is a dream for some with deep pockets and little understanding of sushi.

I always warn foreigners who are ambitious to avoid putting themselves in any position to go to a sushi counter, unless you are prepared to eat what the chef serves. The idea of omakase is important to understand; the definition is “chef’s choice” and that usually means no seconds, no choices, no interfering, and limited speaking.

I should clarify the speaking part: speaking is a matter of the establishment and the clients. There are two types of sushi chefs, those that speak and those tat are silent. I know of a case where one of my Japanese friends refuses to eat at a restaurant because the chef talks too much.

So it can happen that a fish takes forty times to chew it according to one of my guests. But you should not spit out any nigiri given you are opposite the chef, surrounded by clients, and that’s one of those faux pas that spoils it for everyone.

Avoid overfilling the small dish provided with a pool of shoyu. It can be a major sense of embarrassment when the nigri falls from your sticks into the shoyu pool and splatters all over the counter and your shirt. Use your fingers if you feel uncomfortable to pick up nigiri, and don’t be shy about it. Using your fingers isn’t a problem and is common and easier in many cases. If you use your finger, gently turn the fish topside onto your palate to have the full flavours.

Sushi is 80% about the flavoring of the rice, and so keep this in mind, and bear in mind that all chef’s think they have the best rice and tuna. The tuna that is domestically caught are few and far between, and it is very expensive and rare. You are lucky to find a chef with hon maguro, the real Bluefin locally caught:

There we go again I think to myself, one of my guests thinking its all right to use heaps of shoyu. For foreigners who have no idea about sushi its okay, but shoyu is salt, and so who salts every bite of nigiri? The idea of shoyu is only used for some hand-rolls, and or cut rolls, and not all rolls as some are eaten ‘sans shoyu.’

But in general the chef uses his own nikiri, a sauce prepared using shoyu and mirin. It is prepared in advance by the chef, and he swipes over the fish before you take control. That’s enough salt trust me.

Clients need to understand that a sushi chef is working diligently, and cannot stop every nigiri to explain what the fish are. Of course they will, but its disruptive and in many cases chef’s do not accept foreigners due to the hassle. being polite and realizing there are other people around you is integral.

You are not the only one at the counter so watching the chef’s timing is important. Demanding rolls (off menu items) such as California rolls will only land you in trouble, or the chef will say ‘sorry no California roll.’ Just forget it, and kappa is not common, if you think about it who wants to eat vegetables at a sushi bar? Those people who do not belong there.

Having said that, in some times of the year you’ll find fermented radish named bettara: and or at most time oshiko, which is a specialty roll. That doesn’t mean that kuri with shiso and goma isn’t appreciated – it is. There is a time and a place for everything at a sushi counter and knowing when is what makes the difference.

Now imagine even Jiro couldn’t tolerate foreigners for the longest time, or least when he was pre-michelin he did not accept non-Japanese speakers:

Also if you are not open-minded and ready to eat awabi,(abalone) a very crunchy fish, or uni which for some is a consistency issue be careful when dreaming sushi. Then you have the seasonal fish, and in some seasons shellfish are predominant, such as the spring and summer. Such fish such as torigai or mirugai feel strange for some sushi lovers as they cringe when eating shellfish. No fish is fun when you are unpleasantly surprised by it.

You are better off to go to kubei in Okura, or in Ginza and demand whatever your heart’s content. There they are obliged to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. There you can place your hashi anyway you wish, and the chef will smile. You can talk lousdly and the chef wouldn’t frown upon your tone.

However in most cases good behavior is appreciated, and placing the hashi onto the holder is appropriate and should be done after each use. It’s like a knife and fork, you place them where they belong, or you look foolish.

If you are prepared to accept the system then go for it, but do it right and dress nicely, and be prepared to take the leap of faith. If the quality is there, it can be one of the greatest and unique food experiences.

I often recommend one of my favourite sushi establishments named Kizushi. This is a family run and owned business and they are very serious there:

Personally I always begin when teaching people about sushi at kizushi for many reasons. There you can order as you like, no telephone accepted inside and the two brothers and their dad are warm-hearted. This sushi counter is one of those experiences you’ll never forget.

However if you are a Nobu fan then think twice about omakase, and if you believe you can tolerate trying new adventures then do it with an open mind. But remember California roll, or rolls in general are not common in high-end sushi establishments. Te-maki (hand rolls) are often consumed as a second, or final choice if you are still hungry. They are not eaten throughout the meal unless you are at Nobu, and there is a nobu in Tokyo.

Of course there are the magical fatty delights, those rolls made with neggi and toro, a roll made from blue fin tuna and Japanese green stemed onions, but this again is one of the maki adventure many miss.

The real neggi-toro is made from toro and not scooped from the cartilage of the tuna as seen here:

For the true connisseur there is the luxury of torotaku: or shiso maki, a classical roll made with plum (ume) sesame, and shiso leaf, or other rolls that are you’ll find that are common yet the chef should be in the mood, which means he will take a prime cut of fish for a roll – that’s extravagant.

Avoid tobiko as it is repulsive, chemically coloured and pointless, and himachi known as yellowtail, it’s no wonder the world is so fucked up. It is typically farmed, too fatty and just served to accommodate fake western ideals.

Enjoying sushi isn’t about filling your dreams, it’s about etiquette, a common denominator in most well-groomed sushi establishments. Avoid taking anyone who cannot bare the thought of raw fish, seeing raw fish, or even fish move, shouldn’t go.

Lastly and most importantly; in Japan please “no perfume” is invasive on other people space, it offends anyone who is interested to enjoy the aromas of a sushi encounter, and it interferes in the enjoyment and pleasure of others while eating sushi. You can imagine what its like when you enter a zen environment and all of a sudden you smell some foreigners perfume. How horrifying is that!

Wow that is a real downer, a major faux pas, and most foreigners just don’t get it. In fact they cannot smell their own perfume, and they spray themselves, or splash it over their necks, wrists, or wherever. In Japan respect is what matters, and without respect Japan wouldn’t be cherished by so many.