First Time Eating... Japanese Sushi
FOOD VIRGIN'S FIRST TIME
The first time I ever
ate sushi, I was actually in Tokyo.
Unfortunately, my attitude toward eat raw fish was
still back in landlocked North America.
Basically, I popped a piece in my mouth, and then
went through a series of ‘I Love Lucy’-like face
contortions as I tried to chew and swallow it without
gagging completely as I imagined the Coroner examining my
body and declaring my cause of death, "Eating raw
then, I’ve tried to eat it a few more times, but in all
honesty, I’ve come to realize that I’m never going to
like it because I don’t really like sticky rice, seaweed
or raw fish (or whatever other mystery ingredients
sometimes sit atop the rice as it passes on the sushi belt).
So why am I writing about sushi at all, you might
mainly, it’s because sushi is fast becoming popular in
all parts of America, and yet some people still haven't
tried it yet. On
top of that, I can give all the sushi virgins out there a way
to try it that’s a lot less scary than getting thrown in
the deep end like I did. Plus, I can share a secret:
Even if you don't like sushi, there are still lots of
things at a sushi restaurant that you might find tasty.
Tell us about your first time eating Sushi
Sushi restaurants in America will usually share some common
features: They’ll often have a fabric curtain that
you’ll have to lift and walk through at the entrance, as
well as a cat or badger with a paw raised by the front
door for luck. You
might also see some hanging paper lanterns or stone
Japanese restaurants have probably been created with feng
shui principles in mind, a practice that aims to balance
the elements of nature- wind, water, earth and metal- resulting in a harmonious
Once the hostess and other restaurant staff see you inside,
they’ll likely shout, “Irrashai imasu!” at you. This means, “Welcome.”
You can reply just by saying, “Hi,” or
in the most traditional Japanese restaurants in America
would you need to take your shoes off, and that’s
typically at restaurants that focus on other kinds of
Japanese food. So,
for all of you dodgy sock wearers, you can leave your
Seating at a sushi restaurant typically has two options: At the
sushi bar, or at a table somewhere else.
The sushi bar is pretty much what it sounds like- a
long bar with seats on one side and the sushi chefs on the
it, you’ll see all the ingredients that are available
for sushi that day- big slabs of tuna and salmon,
containers with fish roe or condiments.
“By sitting at the counter,” Yoshie Cabral from
the California Grill in Orlando explains, “You are
better able to observe the quality of the seafood, the
technique of the chef, and the preparation of various
sushi meals.” You’ll
also be able to interact directly with the sushi chefs.
“Sushi chefs love to talk about their passion to
create a delectable and artistic plate,” Ms. Cabral
advantage to sitting at the sushi counter if it is your
first time eating sushi, is that the sushi chef can find
out what kind of things you might like to eat.
Secondly, you can see what’s on offer, as all of
the ingredients can be seen through glass, like at a
butcher’s counter. If you want more privacy, though, or a quieter dinner,
there’s nothing wrong with sitting at a table or booth.
Early on, a waitress will bring you some kind of
wet towel. It might be a kind of wet nap in a plastic package, or a hot
face cloth that’s rolled up and presented on its own
little tray. Whichever
it is, open it up and use it to wipe your hands down.
Sometimes men also use it to pat down their faces,
though women should be careful of wiping off their makeup.
TO ORDER & HOW TO EAT IT
you’re squeamish about trying sushi for the first time,
you might be happy to find out that not all sushi is raw.
The word ‘sushi’ actually refers to the rice,
not what’s on it, so whereas some sushi will be made
with raw fish, not all of it is.
Shrimp sushi is cooked, as are many other types,
such as eel (which tastes much nicer than it sounds, like a mild white fish), egg,
and crab. If
raw fish scares you, start with these.
The easiest types of raw fish to start with are
those which you’ve probably already eaten cooked: tuna
and salmon. You’ll
find these in virtually every sushi restaurant.
There are a couple of ways you can place orders in a sushi
you’re sitting at the sushi counter, you can order
directly from the sushi chef.
You should also tell them that it’s your first
time trying sushi and ask for their recommendations.
Asking the chef what they recommend is something
that everyone should do, as they know what’s freshest.
Now, you might be wondering whether you need to know how to say a
million and one things in Japanese so that you can order.
Well, you don’t. Sushi restaurants will often have menus that have pictures.
Others will write what’s available in both
Japanese and English.
The glossary below will list some of the most
popular items, if you want to learn how to say them ahead
of time. If
you turn up and don’t remember them, though, don’t
worry- just use the menu and point to items as you order
them, or say them in English.
The other benefit with the picture menu is that you
can see what items will look like before they come out.
Another key thing to know about going to a sushi restaurant is
that you can probably also order other things that have
nothing to do with sushi.
This is where the non-sushi eaters like me find
food we like. One
great item is edamame.
It’s an appetizer that everyone can share.
What will come out are things that look like pea
pods. They’re actually soybean pods.
Pick one up with your fingers, put the outside edge
near your lips, and squeeze into your mouth.
A bean or two should pop into your mouth.
Discard the pod into a bowl that the waitress
should’ve brought for you.
If there’s no discard bowl, put the pods on your
own plate- the waitress will swap it out for a fresh plate
when she comes back.
Whatever happens, don’t eat the pod itself!
I’ve always loved tempura and recommend this as a part of
anyone’s Japanese meal.
Tempura is deep fried battered vegetables and
shrimp- think onion rings but with way more than just
you eat it is by picking up a piece with your chopsticks,
and dipping it into the accompanying sauce (a thin soy
it in your mouth, and- yum!
Another tasty item is chawanmushi.
It’s steamed egg in a cup.
The egg is smoother than scrambled eggs, but not
sweet like custard. You
might find chunks of crabmeat and green onion in there
Other meal items if you want to avoid sushi altogether include
grilled meat often served over rice, like tonkatsu (which
is pork), or teriyaki chicken.
These will often come as part of a set meal that
might include a Japanese salad (often made with cabbage
instead of lettuce and a ginger-soy dressing), soup such
as miso (which is a thin broth with a few chunks of tofu
and seaweed in it), and fruit for dessert.
If you are served a set meal like this, avoid
turning the tray or shuffling around where all of the
items are. How
Japanese food looks is as important as how it tastes in
Japanese culture, so a lot of thought and care has been
put into how everything is arranged in front of you. This goes for sushi too.
Share more tips of your own
When eating sushi, the most basic thing you’ll need to know is
how to use chopsticks.
Eating sushi with chopsticks isn’t particularly
easy, and the truth is that the most authentic way to eat
sushi is actually with your fingers.
Yes, that’s right- it was common in Japan to pick
up the rectangular pieces of sushi with your fingers, and
go from there. Only
once sushi spread to America and beyond did everyone start
using chopsticks to eat it, and ironically, now, even in
Japan, you’ll find that most people use chopsticks.
To learn how to use chopsticks,
Before you actually are served your sushi, you need to prepare
your condiments. You’ll
have a little dish as part of your place setting.
You’ll also find a container of soy sauce nearby.
Pour some soy sauce into your little dish.
There should also be a small clump of green stuff
near you (this might come on the same plate as the sushi).
This is wasabi, Japanese horseradish, and like the
regular horseradish that we’re used to, it’s very hot.
Now, here lies a debate.
In Japan, it is traditional to keep your soy sauce
and wasabi separate.
In fact, it can be considered ‘dirty’ to mix
them together. In America, it’s become customary to mix some wasabi into
your soy sauce. So
what’s right? Well,
I like to follow the “when in Rome, do as the Romans
do” philosophy (or in this case, “when in
I were to eat sushi in Japan, I’d leave them separate;
if I were to eat it in America, I’d mix them together.
‘So what’s this wasabi and soy sauce for anyway?’ you might
what you do when eating sushi, is pick up a piece with
your chopsticks (unless you’re in one of the last few
places where this isn’t done), turn it over so that the
fish side is underneath.
Dip the fish part into the soy sauce.
Flip it back over and pop it into your mouth and
eat it. If
it’s too big, gingerly bite the first half off.
Here’s where things could get messy.
Be prepared that your rice might crumble apart if
you bite into a piece of sushi, leaving half on your
gentle hold and a gentle bite will help to avoid this, but
still won’t guarantee avoiding problems.
The other way that rice falls apart is when people
dip the rice side of the sushi into the soy sauce.
This will most definitely cause the whole thing to
fall apart, so avoid, avoid, avoid it!
Dip just the fish side.
Some types of sushi will be easier to eat.
Any of those that are served as round, rolled up,
bite-sized pieces can easily be popped into the mouth.
The best way to order sushi is in small amounts at a time.
Be aware of whether your restaurant takes order by
the piece or whether ‘an order’ is two or four pieces.
What you don’t want is to order four pieces of
sushi, and end up with four orders that are eight or
sixteen pieces accidentally.
By ordering as you go along, you shouldn’t get
stuck with lots of leftover pieces.
It is also normal for sushi eaters to complete their meal by
having a bit of miso soup or other items, such as yakitori
(grilled chicken on skewers).
It also isn’t unheard of to have a few pieces of
sushi as a starter and then move on to a cooked entrée,
such as the ones already mentioned, or one made with
Many sushi restaurants, especially those where the sushi is on a
conveyor belt, will have a little hot water tap right at
your table. From
this, you can fill your cup to make green tea, and keep it
topped up. Sake
is a traditional Japanese drink, and you can choose to
drink it hot or cold (Chef Yoshie suggests going with the
season- hot in the winter, and cold or room temperature in
the summer). It
is made from rice, though, so some traditionalists feel
that it is redundant to drink sake while eating sushi.
If you do choose to drink sake, though, be aware
that it is very potent and even when drinking small
amounts the alcohol’s effect can sneak up on you.
Beer is very popular in Japan, and there are some
local brands you can keep an eye out for, such as Asahi,
My favorite sushi dessert is one that Chef Yoshie makes at The
California Grill: rice krispie treat sushi!
OK, you probably won’t find it anywhere else, but
it’s so cute I just had to mention it.
It’s little rice krispie treats in the shape of
sushi rice with gummy fish on top.
Fun for kids of all ages (or at least as old as
me). In a
standard sushi restaurant, dessert might be in the form of
cut fruit, green tea ice cream or cake, or sometimes made
with red beans.
The meal ends with dessert, as there is
traditionally no coffee or tea as an after-meal drink.
Going to a sushi bar is something that everyone should try at
least once- and now you know that having a fear of eating
raw food doesn’t have to stop you.
For those who find out that they love it, it tends
to become a staple in their life, and for the rest of us,
the other choices at most Japanese restaurants also often
become favorites. There
are a lot of kinds of Japanese food that I haven’t
talked about here (like teppanyaki, for example).
This is because this article is mainly about eating
sushi; I’ll talk about other types of Japanese
restaurants in a ‘Part Two’, at a later date.
JAPANESE SUSHI FOOD TERMS
Types of Sushi:
Shrimp (which is cooked)
Eel (which is also cooked)
Other Menu Items:
Raw fish served by itself or with a bed of salad
Japanese horseradish, usually formed into a green paste.
Dried flat seaweed used to wrap sushi
Items served in a seaweed cone; these can be eaten
with your fingers.
Miso Soup- soup made with tofu
An appetizer item of soy beans cooked in their pods
(don’t eat the pods!)
Teriyaki- A Popular sweet sauce for meat, such as chicken or beef
Yakitori- Chicken skewers
Tempura- Deep fried vegetables, shrimp or
Mushi- steamed egg in a cup
Soba- Buckwheat noodles
more Sushi term to the list
DO’S AND DON’TS
drinks for your other tablemates.
In Japan, it is polite to keep their drink
you want to be very traditional, this is a task
normally done by a woman at the table, and after
pouring other people’s drinks, she’ll then pour
her own. If
you’re out with all guys, then it can be shared, or
done by the younger or more junior guy if there is a
noticeable difference between you.
- Order a
few items at a time, and talk to the chef for tips on
what to eat today.
careful with wasabi- it’s very strong stuff and just
a little goes a long way.
stick your chopsticks straight up and down in your
rice- it is a sign of death.
food between your chopsticks straight to someone
else’s chopsticks- this is a funeral ritual and
carries a somber meaning.
your soy sauce dish too full- you can always refill it
if you find that you need more.
Splashing soy sauce all over is not a good
to tip. The
best bet is to leave 20% and let them work out who it
belongs to. Typically
each restaurant will have a system by which they split
Suggest more DOs and DON'Ts
As alien as Japanese food can be, I’m actually
going to rate it fairly highly for family-friendliness.
there’s a lot that kids will enjoy in both the food and
the dining experience.
Kids who are too young to get grossed out by the
idea of raw fish typically take to sushi as easily as
anything else. Other
kids can certainly eat a full meal of cooked items.
They’ll enjoy seeing food pass by on a sushi belt
or watching and talking to a sushi chef.
They’ll be able to eat their food with kids’
utensils and even use chopsticks as drumsticks when their
parents aren’t looking.
What’s not to like?
Child-friendly Food (is it easy to find things
that American kids will eat):
Adventure Level (how different is this from standard
American food): 9.5/10
What do you think?
Rate Sushi yourself!
To eat where The Food
Virgin eats, try sushi at The California Grill- click