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Photograph by Erika Pino

Know Your Roll

Sushi Bar Etiquette: A Beginner's Guide

By Todd Inoue

WOULD YOU BELIEVE some people still order chow mein and fried rice at sushi bars? To ensure maximum enjoyment, as well as the sanity of your chef, familiarize yourself with the following sushi bar tips.

"Irasshaimase" is the standard sushi bar greeting. It means "Welcome." It doesn't mean "Halt, unwashed heathen."

At some establishments, a steamed cloth (oshibori) is provided for you to wipe your hands with. If it's a muggy day, gently dab your forehead and back of your neck. Don't use it to clean your nails, blow your nose or remove wax from your ears.

Don't order table food at the sushi bar. When the restaurant gets busy, some hosts will seat you there, and in that case ordering off the main menu is kosher. But if the dining room has open tables, sushi bar space should be reserved for sushi patrons. If there's a line for the sushi bar, and you're not going to eat any more, finish conversations and drinks in the bar and let others get their roll on.

Unless it's a sushi boat place, order your drinks from the waitress and order sushi directly from the chef. When you're ready to pay, ask the server, not the chef, for the check. It's unhealthy for chefs to handle money and raw food at the same time. Most sushi chefs and servers pool their tips, but it's OK to slap a Lincoln on the sushi bar counter when you leave. It's all going to the same place. When in doubt, ask.

Do refresh each other's beer or sake when supplies get low. It's considered rude to pour your own drink. Pass it on so you don't die of thirst. Advanced sushi bar patrons order a beer or sake for the chef if he's doing a commendable job.

The dab of wasabi on the corner of your plate is optional. When an order arrives, some people automatically mix the wasabi with soy sauce. Wasabi is already smeared underneath the topping, but extra is offered as a courteous gesture. The gari (pickled ginger) is used to cleanse your palate between courses--don't eat it like a salad.

Dip the topping, not the rice, into the soy sauce. Rice soaks up the soy sauce, crumbling it and making it salty and unappetizing. For those with moderate chopstick dexterity, it's OK to use your hands to dip.

Sharing sushi is great but don't pass anything chopstick to chopstick. that's a big no-no. Pick it up off the plate. Cremated remains are traditionally passed chopstick to chopstick at Japanese funerals. Also, if you're picking something from a communal plate, turn your chopstick ends around.

Don't order sushi and a side of rice. That's like ordering a sandwich and a side of bread. Sushi is expensive, but filling up on rice is an easy facade to see through. Your sushi chef wasn't born yesterday.

Know the personality of your sushi establishment. Just because you ate an avocado, pineapple and bacon handroll in Cancun doesn't mean you'll find the same at the sedate sushi place down the street. It's OK to request special orders, but save the weird combos for the appropriate places.

Don't get all "Japanese" on the chef. Practicing your Japanese language skills is always welcome, but assuming all sushi chefs will have an intimate knowledge of Buddhism, Ichiro's batting average or Robotech anime is presumptuous.

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From the May 2-8, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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