Sushi Etiquette: Are You Breaking the Rules?


Luscious tuna sashimi bowl in Okinawa

One of my favorite things about living in Japan is access to fresh high-grade quality fish.

Almost every week, I meet a friend at a conveyer belt sushi restaurant, where the plates of delectable tuna and salmon meander by us slowly. It’s such a kick at the end when the server tabulates cost by waving a computerized wand across the stack of empty plates.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to eat sushi. In fact, I used to make so many “mistakes” from just not knowing any better.

What about you? What’s your sushi awareness?

Take this short quiz to find out:

Is it okay to rub chopsticks together to remove splinters after breaking them apart?

Is it acceptable to handle a sushi roll with your fingers?

Should you dip the fish or the rice in the soy sauce?

Is it better to visit a sushi-go-round when it’s quiet and relaxed or busy?

Is it fine to pass food from one chopstick to another?

Is it okay to rest chopsticks sticking up inside a rice bowl?

Is it rude to ask the sushi chef for something not on the menu?

Creative sushi rolls like this are not typically Japanese. They are somewhat of an American import...

So, how’d you do? Some of these rules may surprise you…

It’s not polite to rub chopsticks together. (yes, I’m guilty)

You can handle sushi (fish and rice) with your fingers, but not sashimi (fish only).

It’s preferred to dip fish in the soy sauce (not rice), as it enhances the taste without absorbing too much. The rice, on the other hand, is a sponge! (again, guilty)

However, be careful not to dunk the sushi in the soy sauce, as it overpowers the taste of the fish. One of my Japanese friends advised me that contact of fish ad soy sauce should be a “soft touch” only. (Oh totally guilty)

It’s not acceptable to pass food from one chopstick to another or leave chopsticks sticking up inside a bowl, as these are symbolic of burial customs. (So guilty). A Japanese friend was horrified once when I took something from her chopstick using mine. The proper way is to use a plate for transfer.

You get the freshest fish when the sushi go round is busy. They have to constantly restock the supply.

It’s perfectly okay to ask for an item not on the menu since the chef may have special items not listed.

More sushi advice I’ve learned from Japanese friends

Be wary of sushi doused in heavy sauces or lemon and herbs. Additives are meant to disguise old fish. This practical piece of advice was given to me by a Japanese friend formerly in the sushi industry! It’s good to know as I’m always drawn to the exciting innovative sounding ones!

Lower grade fish is used to make spicy tuna rolls or anything minced and flavored.

Be a regular and make friends with the sushi chef and you’ll get prime cuts of fish.

At sushi buffets, remember that rice is cheap and fish is expensive. Leave the rice on the plate, as it expands in your stomach, fills you up, and prevents you from getting your money’s worth.

Do you think it’s important to follow food etiquette rules even if you’re not part of that culture? Do we get a free pass if we’re foreigners?

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6 thoughts on “Sushi Etiquette: Are You Breaking the Rules?

  1. According to this, my sushi ettiquette is alright. I actually never understood the rubbing the chopsticks together thing. Has anyone ever gotten a splinter from chopsticks? I have some friends who do that and it makes me laugh 😉 And I’ve never really had a taste for anything doused in sauce so I am not a soaker. Good to know I could hang in Japans, hehe.

    Every traveler should try to be mindful of a country’s traditions, but you can only know so much when you are visiting for a short time. If you are staying longer, that’s when I think it’s more important to really figure things out, especially when you could find yourself constantly offending locals. But something like making sure how and where to dip your sushi is correct is kind of silly to me because that’s a matter of taste!

    • Ekua,
      I hear you about dipping the sushi! It’s funny how strident some cultures are about food rules when it comes to the “proper” way to enjoy it. I’ve heard similar rules from people in France and Italy about their cuisine too…

  2. I also never got the rubbing together chopsticks thing. The first time I saw someone do it, I had to ask why…and thought the same as Ekua…”Really…you can get splinters from chopsticks? And rubbing them together prevents it?”

    I have heard you can handle sushi with the hands, but I wasn’t sure…now I’m glad to know. Chopsticks with large sushi rolls just feels awkward.

    My favorite time to go to the sushi-go-round is right when the open for lunch. Great selection. Good to know about the sauces, though. Tricky!

    Luckily, I heard about the not passing from chopsticks rule and also how to rest them before I got here…otherwise, I know I would have broken that one.

    I used to think that the word sushi referred to the raw fish, so I always called California rolls “fake sushi”. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned sushi actually referred to the way the rice was prepared, and that it didn’t need to include fish at all, although that is most common.

    I think we should try to abide by local customs whenever possible…but I do love being able to fall back on the whole foreigner “pass” when needed.

    Mmmm…now I want some sushi! ;^)

  3. I never knew that there were so many things to think about when eating sushi! I must have the worst sushi-eating-manners!
    Good tip about the rice and the fish, to eat more fish and less of the cheap rice 😉

  4. Pingback: 5 Travel Blogs You Should Be Reading

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