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Entertaining & Etiquette Sushi

Sushi Etiquette

1sweetpea | | Nov 17, 2008 08:30 AM

At what point is the customer NOT always right? I've spent the majority of my life in Toronto, save for the last handful of years, savouring the vast array of ethnic delicacies that Toronto has to offer. In the last decade or so I've seen a literal explosion of sushi restaurants in the GTA. I absolutely adore sushi. I was first exposed to it in Vancouver, where I attended university. At that time, I was a vegan and would only eat vegetarian maki options. As you might imagine, they can be a bit on the bland side, particularly kappa maki (cucumber, sushi rice and nori). Many chefs don't use wasabi when assembling nigiri or maki/temaki, while others are liberal with it. Top chefs claim to season each fish differently, be it with wasabi, grated ginger, scallions, unagi sauce or nothing at all. I can understand that, but have not come to expect such sensitivity from sushi chefs, particularly at more run-of-the-mill sushi joints. Anyway, to get to my point, somewhere along the way, I became a wasabi and pickled ginger hound. I'd routinely ask for extras, even at the time of ordering. Sometimes, my request was granted. Other times, it was ignored. Still other times, extra wasabi would be hiding within the maki or underneath the fish on nigiri (yes, sushi caused me to abandon my veggie ways) waiting to explode in my mouth.

The question is: am I offending the chef if I use so much wasabi in my soy sauce dish that I am creating liquid greenish-brown cement? Is the fact that I'm dipping any and every piece of sushi or sashimi in it a sacrilege? Is my request for extra ginger or wasabi wrong? Once, at Hiro, the chef refused my request of extra wasabi, on the grounds that the sushi was already appropriately seasoned/spiced. At the time, I was appalled by his audacity. I'm sure he was equally appalled by mine ... LOL! At another downtown place, I sat at the bar and was promptly lectured by the chef about how and when to use wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger. Being a more meek individual in my younger years, I fought back tears of embarassment at the "calling out", finished my meal, paid and never returned. Were it to happen today, I'd ask the chef whether he'd prefer to have 3 diners with impeccable sushi-eating etiquette in his restaurant or 20 semi-galoots enjoying his sushi any damn way they please? For anyone interested, what I was doing was pre-mixing my wasabi-soy spackle, then dipping a piece of maki that had a slice of pickled ginger placed on top. I'd pop the whole thing in my mouth, then savour the wasabi whallop and gingery, eye-watering heat that ensued. This, for me, was bliss. I was expertly using my chopsticks, sipping my miso soup from the bowl like a pro and otherwise behaving like a civilized diner.

I just can't seem to win. When I order sushi anywhere, I always ask for extra ginger and wasabi. I rarely get it. After the sushi arrives, I request them a second time and usually gigantic mounds of both are delivered, which is truly wasteful. Had they brought a little bit more than is standard on the first go-round, I wouldn't need to ask a second time. However, the second request (after the first one isn't granted) seems to result in overcompensation and delivery of enough for four people. I only want a little bit extra. Heck, give me a double portion of both, but quadruple? These aren't the stingy places that charge for extras either. That, I would understand. Once you're paying extra, they should be extra generous.

I'm really shocked that the places that charge extra for wasabi or ginger are often the more expensive restaurants. The cheap joints rarely give it a second thought when I ask, or else the extra charges are clearly marked on the menus. One place I distinctly recall is Nami. They're willing to give you all the wasabi you could possibly want, for no extra charge, but the ginger charge is unusually high (this was 10 years ago, so I can't recall the exact amount). I was a bit offended at the charge, since the sushi isn't cheap to begin with. I ordered each item a la carte, so my dinner was by no means cheap. Why charge so much for one item, then comp the other? Strange.

When pondering my own questions and quirky behaviours, I begin to think about true sushi-eating etiquette. Should pieces in a set be eaten in a certain order? Should fingers be used, or chopsticks only? How does one eat a hand roll (temaki) without making a mess? What's the point of those super fat rolls that require two or three bites per piece, resulting in a heap of ingredients falling to the plate? Should the ginger only be eaten between bites of different ingredients? Should wasabi be mixed with soy at all, or should I be taking little bits with my chopsticks and adding it to individual pieces, based on some elusive set of rules? Should I feel ripped on when I pay $25 for a premium sushi set and receive egg, fake crab, cheap surf clams, flying fish roe and cooked shrimp, instead of sweet shrimp, salmon roe, giant clam and king crab (or no crab at all -- I'll take anything else, as long as it's raw). I understand the egg. It's not my fave, but I get its purpose. This rant may sound tongue-in-cheek, and to some extent, it is. I'll probably go on eating my sushi any old way I choose, but it would be nice to know the rules, as well as what to expect for my money, especially since one day I plan to visit Japan. I already expect to be considered a gauche foreigner, but it would be nice not to totally humiliate myself and my co-diner(s)!

Any advice, anecdotes or restaurant recommendations would be welcomed, but please, don't suggest any place that uses pre-made wasabi from a tube. That stuff is horrendous. I now live in Windsor, where sushi is both poor quality and way overpriced. I generally avoid it and save myself for my monthly Toronto visits.