Metro Weekly

The 5 Rules of Sushi

How to eat sushi in a way that respects the tradition of the culinary craft

Sushi with chopsticks - Photo: Todd Franson
Sushi with chopsticks – Photo: Todd Franson

“So many rules!” someone says during a recent “How to Properly Eat Sushi” lesson at the iThai Restaurant & Sushi Bar in Georgetown. “There are a lot of protocols in Japan,” agrees Ayung Myint, the session’s leader. “In Japan, if you want to be a chef, there is a year that you do nothing but cook rice. And when you pass that step, there’s a year that you do nothing but roll makis and special rolls.”

At iThai Georgetown, one such special roll is a particular standout. It’s what they call an M Street Roll, served with spicy scallop, crab and scallion and topped with tuna, avocado and tobiko, also known as tempura crunch. “Whenever we make tempura, we save all of the crumbs and then we use them for [toppings] on some of our rolls,” says Myint, a Burmese native who consults for a chain of Asian-cuisine restaurants that includes iThai Georgetown and Shori Sushi in Vienna, Va.

“The Japanese table manner is based on one thing, and one thing only: To respect and appreciate what the maker has done to serve it,” says Daisuke Utagawa, owner of Suskiko, in Chevy Chase, Md. “And in order to do that, the most important thing is to enjoy the food the way it’s meant to be, or to enjoy the food at its maximum potential. If you keep that in mind, everything else falls into place in a correct way.”

Here are five key steps to eating sushi in a way that maximizes the experience.

  1. To Chopstick or Not to Chopstick. Use chopsticks when it comes to sashimi, raw fish served without rice. But sushi, maki rolls and nigiri — fish served on a small pedestal of rice — may be eaten with your hands, picked up using a three-finger rule: thumb, index and middle. “In a very, very strict sense, chopsticks are better,” Utagawa says. “But fingers are absolutely fine.”
  2. A Little Wasabi Goes A Long Way. In Japan, most sushi is presented with wasabi already dabbed between the fish and the rice. But in America, we tend to mix wasabi paste in a small bowl of soy sauce, diluting the sharp, hot flavor of wasabi. “Real wasabi has a very delicate, beautiful, floral quality to it,” says Utagawa, “and if you mix that with soy sauce, it just kills the flavor.” The best way to add wasabi is to use chopsticks to pick off a tiny speck and place it on top of the sushi.

Fun fact: Imitation wasabi is often served instead of the real thing. Because the wasabi plant is difficult and expensive to cultivate, even in its native habitat, most sushi restaurants serve a wasabi-like paste fashioned from horseradish, mustard powder and starch and then tinted with green dye. At both iThai Georgetown and Sushiko, they serve a wasabi paste that includes real wasabi blended with the imitation wasabi/horseradish powder. Utagawa notes that at Sushiko, they “have fresh, real wasabi that we sell with a supplemental fee, just to cover the cost.”

  1. Eating Ginger-ly. Pickled Ginger — or gari — is meant to cleanse the palate. It’s also there to help tamp down the inevitable smell of fish in a sushi restaurant. However, if a sushi spot smells like fish, it’s not merely a sign that they’re not using enough ginger, but that their raw fish isn’t as fresh or as properly handled as it should be. You’d be advised to steer clear.

Ginger should be picked up with chopsticks and eaten separately between bites of sashimi, or between nigiri and sashimi. It’s not necessary to eat between sushi rolls, and it’s not meant to be put on top or eaten in the same bite as sushi.

Sushi dipping - Photo: Todd Franson
Sushi dipping – Photo: Todd Franson
  1. Don’t Soak the Rice in Soy Sauce. The main point of soy is to accent the taste of the fish, not the rice. Explains Utagawa: “If you put the rice into the soy sauce, it will suck up the soy sauce, completely imbalance the flavor, and fall apart.” In the case of nigiri, dip only the fish side into the soy, not the rice — tip over the piece so a corner of the fish hits the sauce. And then place it in your mouth fish side down, so the fish and soy are the first things you taste.
  2. Right for One Bite. The last tip goes back to Utagawa’s instructions about basic table manners and respect for the chef. “Eat the whole piece in one bite,” he says. “It is designed that way. If it is too big, you can always ask the sushi chef to make it slightly smaller.”

iThai Restaurant & Sushi Bar is at 3003 M St. NW. Call 202-580-8852 or visit

Sushiko is at 5455 Wisconsin Ave. in Chevy Chase, Md. Call 301-961-1644 or visit

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