On the proper way to eat sushi

On the proper way to eat sushi

Most of Japanese TV is about food, which is odd considering that Japan consumes fewer calories per person than any of the major industrialized nations, by far. Not that there are many cooking shows. There aren't. Unlike in America, where people learn to cook from books and TV personalities, Japanese people learn to cook from their mothers.

TV here is filled with "magazine shows" which cover all manner of topics that might appear in the Lifestyle section of the newspaper, including food. A typical segment will follow two male hosts, accompanied by an attractive and much younger female host, as they wander some local town on foot looking for a specific mom-and-pop shop that they heard makes its oyakodon in some special way. The hosts will meet the proprietors, make small talk, and sample the dish to visible delight, screaming "Oishi!" (Delicious.) Then the secret will be revealed... but censored, to entice you back after the commercial break.

Fear not. It's almost always some minor tweak to the standard recipe that you or I would never notice: the blanching of the egg first or the addition of a local root vegetable or the use of imported Spanish chickens. The oyakodon is still oyakodon.

Orine watches a lot of these shows, which means they're on in the background while I work. One of the male hosts we see on a regular basis is a real dandy. Something about being wealthy turns middle-aged Japanese men into right proper dandies. This fellow lightens his hair, which has clearly been replaced with surgery to combat male pattern baldness, and carries a bag indistinguishable from a purse. The other day, the producers interrupted his golf game to conduct a surprise site gag, and he was decked head-to-toe in Calloway-branded outerwear, presumably to let everyone know what a fine golfer he is.

When this guy drinks wine -- which he seems to like since we often see him drinking wine -- he makes the "O" face that professional wine tasters do and "breathes" a sip of wine back and forth over his tongue. Now, this is in fact something people do. However, for it to be useful, it requires two equally important ingredients: a highly complex wine and a highly refined palate. If either of those are missing, it's a pointless affectation. (Of course, wine tasters also take only a tiny sip and then spit it out so as to keep from getting drunk, which makes all the wine taste wonderful!)

The other day, this guy was doing that with the house wine at a steak place. It was an expensive steak place, to be sure. (Realize that beef here costs 25-50% more than in the US.) But still, it was the house wine.

To be clear, if you do the wine tasting thing around me, I'm not immediately going to think you're an ass. If, through the course of the conversation, you happen to demonstrate a deep and nuanced appreciation for fine wines, I'm going to walk away thinking nothing but "Man, that gal sure knows her stuff!" But if not -- if you know no more about wine than I do, or, heaven forbid, actually less -- I'm just going to think you're a stuck up prig.

Sushi, like wine, is one of mankind's greatest culinary inventions and capable of subtle gymnastics of flavor, which is amazing when you consider there are only three or four ingredients. (Sushi in Japan typically does not mean rolls. Rolls are cheap. Sushi is a four-inch cut of fish draped like a wet curtain over a three-inch slab of hand-pressed rice, with or without a dab of wasabi underneath, with or without a brush of soy on top.)

You will see all kinds of "rules" about how you are supposed to eat sushi -- with your hands, for example, or by dipping in soy at some prescribed angle, or by never ever ever ordering a California roll, which is not actually sushi. And yes, if you go to a really nice sushi restaurant in Tokyo, you will see people eating with their hands. (You will not see many rolls.) But they don't always eat with their hands, certainly not at the mid-market places. Even Japanese people use chopsticks, particularly, I've noticed, if they are sharing from the same large serving plate.

But snobbery exists everywhere, and sooner or later you're bound to run into a Japanese person who says "no no no no" and corrects your horrible breach of sushi etiquette, whatever it is. I'm here to tell you that you can tell this person to go fuck themselves. The proper way to eat sushi is this: with enjoyment, and with respect for the person who made it.

That's it.


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