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Sushi etiquette

Knowing how to eat sushi requires the subtlety and decorum of sushi flavours

In Japan, in the old days, becoming a sushi chef was undertaken with a long apprenticeship. It began with the responsibility of preparing tea. This would be done for three years. After that the apprentice would learn to prepare rice, and for the next eight years this would be their sole responsibility. Only after these 11 years would an apprentice be offered the opportunity to cut fish.

Preparing sushi is an art, an amalgamation of skill and creativity. Eating sushi is a process of appreciation for both the elegance of presentation and the variety of flavours harvested from the ocean’s bounty. Or, at least it should be. Given that Whistler, and the West Coast generally, are so sushi crazy, I was interested to find out whether we follow proper customs when we eat Japanese cuisine. What is proper sushi etiquette?

After speaking with three of the six sushi restaurants in Whistler, Sushi Village, Sushi Ya and Sachi Sushi, I am ashamed to say that I am guilty of several gastronomic faux pas in Japanese establishments. Wayne Escott, manager of Sachi Sushi, laughs when he says that "North Americans are barbarians so we can do whatever we want and get away with it."

As far as social conventions go, it is better to know the offence you are committing so that you may avoid it in the future, so read on.

To begin with, before any food is even ordered you may be guilty of an offence before you even sit down. If you are shown to a private table in a tatami room (often referred to, incorrectly, as a booth) it is custom to remove your shoes on the outside of the room before entering. In Japan, as in North America, it is rude to tramp your muddy boots inside the house and the tatami room is representative of a house, being privately enclosed. Tatami is also the name of the woven mat that graces the floor of traditional Japanese homes where meals are eaten sitting cross legged. It would be dreadful to have to sip delicate miso soup while staring at somebody’s stinky outdoor shoes.

Time to order the food – but wait, you wanted your California roll to come first followed by the chicken teriyaki, not the other way around. Local restaurants will accommodate this wish but only if you let them know in advance. In Japan, all the meal’s different dishes are placed on the table together and are to be eaten by selecting different items from different dishes without any particular order. Courses, i.e. an appetizer followed by a main, are not a part of the Japanese dining experience so you shouldn’t expect it to be. Usually food will be presented at the table as soon as it is prepared.

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