How to Eat Sushi the Right Way (Yep, You’ve Been Doing It Wrong)
Three sushi and Japanese-food experts explain how to eat sushi—the right way—and other tips for a successful sushi experience
Since its introduction to American cuisine in the 1960s, sushi has become one of the most popular Asian foods in the country. Got a fancy first date? A recent study by Match found that eating sushi increases your chances of a second date by 170%. Looking for an exclusive, romantic ambiance? Few experiences come close to the intimacy of omakase, a chef-chooses option that integrates sashimi, nigiri and high-artistry forms of sushi. It may have taken some time for the ancient Japanese dish to catch on, but once Americans learned how to eat sushi, there was no stopping them.
Today, sushi is nearly as common as pizza, and trying it is as easy as picking up a basic roll while shopping at a mall or some of the nicer grocery stores in the United States. For something in the middle, there’s always the casual experience of a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, a low-key budget sushi joint or a pan-Asian buffet.
But no matter where you choose to buy or eat your sushi, it’s important to practice good table manners and acknowledge etiquette rules when partaking in cuisine that is so vital to a specific culture. Basics include knowing how to eat with chopsticks but can extend to specifics like how to eat Japanese food in general. We asked three sushi and Japanese-food experts to explain the right—and best—ways to enjoy this food. Here are their tips for how to eat sushi like a pro.
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How to eat sushi
Many Americans approach eating sushi with reverence, but according to chef Masatomo “Masa” Hamaya of O-Ku, you don’t have to. “There really isn’t any proper ‘ritual’ to follow once the hands are clean,” he says. “Sushi was originally ‘fast food’ that began as finger food, so it’s actually perfectly acceptable to eat it with your hands and not even use chopsticks, except for sashimi.”
But it’s far from a free-for-all. And when presented with a smorgasbord—or better yet, a boatful—of sushi, it’s hard to know where to start, even as early on as crafting that spread. Order and balance are important to Japanese culture, hence the subtle rules for eating the cuisine. In The Complete Guide to Sushi & Sashimi, for instance, authors Jeffrey Elliot and Robby Cook advise starting with lighter fish, like whitefish, and making your way to the richer, more oily types.
Of course, there’s more to eating sushi than food facts like these, with steps that need to happen both before and after your first bite.
1. Clean your hands
At any sushi restaurant, once you’re seated, you’ll receive a damp towel or individually wrapped single-use moist towelette, both of which are for cleaning your hands.
“This is part of omotenashi, the Japanese term for hospitality that emphasizes looking after your guests wholeheartedly,” says Hamaya. Funnily enough, the tradition of wiping your hands before a meal started with customers wiping their hands on the noren, the room-dividing curtains common in Japanese design. “The dirtier the noren, the better,” he says, “because it signaled the popularity of the restaurant and therefore the high quality of the sushi.”
2. Set the towelette aside
After you use the towelette, it is polite to fold it back up and place it on the tray it was presented on—don’t dump it in a pile. In fact, customarily, “the oshibori [hot towel] should be set tableside nicely folded at all times, similar to placing a napkin on your lap,” says Sachi Nakato Takahara, the third-generation owner of Atlanta’s oldest Japanese restaurant, Nakato. In the United States, however, it’s common for the server to take it away after you use it.
3. Set up your chopsticks
Just as learning how to eat sushi goes beyond the basics of ordering, understanding how to use chopsticks is also more than technical direction. If the sushi restaurant uses disposable chopsticks (waribashi), it’s appropriate to take them out of their packaging and split them apart in preparation for eating. But avoid immediately rubbing them together.
There’s a good reason to avoid that etiquette faux pas. “It implies the restaurant has provided cheap chopsticks,” says Hamaya. “Good-quality chopsticks will not splinter.” Because some diners consider chopsticks that splinter a sign of a bad restaurant, taking an action that implies you’re trying to avoid splinters also implies the restaurant may not be tops.
“If you’re going to a really high-end omakase, they’ve picked out really nice chopsticks,” says chef Leonard Yu of Omakase Table, noting that they’re usually the flatware-level, non-disposable variety. “So you’ll never need to rub them.”
And speaking of chopsticks, be mindful of where you place them. At high-end sushi restaurants, Yu says, “there’s always a chopstick holder—use that!” Not sure what to look for? The holder is typically positioned parallel to the counter above your plate, as this is how to set a table for sushi.
4. Fill your sauce dish
Pour some soy sauce into your dipping dish—and soy sauce only. A common mistake many make when it comes to how to eat sushi is mixing soy sauce with wasabi. “Mixing it creates a wasabi mud; it becomes just wasabi with some fish texture. [It] easily overpowers the sushi, and then all you taste is the wasabi,” Yu warns.
5. Prepare to enjoy
“Traditionally, the sashimi course is served before nigiri and sushi rolls,” Nakato Takahara shares. “Any noodle or rice dish, including sushi, is usually a ‘filler’ after the chef or guests order several other lighter dishes first.”
No matter what type of sushi you’re eating, though, our experts unanimously agree that how to eat sushi is in one bite. “Sushi was intended to be a finger food,” Hamaya says, “so yes, it’s supposed to be eaten whole. … It’s not meant to be cut or made smaller.” Leave those little nibbles for times when you’re eating soup dumplings!
6. Dip into soy sauce or top with wasabi … but only if the sushi calls for it
A common misconception about how to eat sushi is that all sushi must be dipped into soy sauce. But that’s simply not true. It can even be considered insulting for a guest to immediately do so, similar to salting a meal at a restaurant before tasting it.
“If you eat in an omakase restaurant, the chef always brushes the sushi with soy sauce, so it’s perfect—you don’t need to dip,” explains Yu. “And we will put the right amount of wasabi or adjust to the customer to keep the balance. If there’s more rice or the fish is fattier, there’s more wasabi.”
Hamaya agrees. “Chefs may have preferences for what dish pairs best with wasabi or soy sauce, and they usually perfect the balance of ingredients before it arrives at your seat. To get the most authentic experience, you should speak with the chef or restaurant staff and allow them to guide your meal.”
7. Cleanse your palate
You may have seen diners layering a slice of pickled ginger on their sushi, but that’s not proper etiquette. “Ginger is served as a palate cleanser between dishes and isn’t actually meant to be eaten with your sushi,” Hamaya tells us. “If a chef wants to incorporate ginger into the dish, they will include it in the preparation.”
Nakato Takahara is adamantly opposed to the use of ginger as a sushi topper, and she’s not the only one. “I have asked people to please not do this,” says Yu with a laugh. “The ginger is really good, and the sushi is really good, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good together! In fact, it’s kind of a waste—the ginger will overpower it.”
8. Reset your sauce dish
This step is optional, depending on the level of formality of the sushi restaurant you’re dining in. “In formal Japanese dining, they’ll bring out a separate soy sauce dish before the sushi course to switch in between [other lighter dishes],” says Nakato Takahara. This keeps your umami-rich soy sauce fresh and undiluted or compromised by pieces of food that may have fallen in during an earlier course.
9. Tidy up your space
“You want to keep your food on the plate and avoid making a mess on the table,” Yu says matter of factly. After that, you might want to straighten up as you end the meal. Did you use disposable chopsticks? It’s polite to put them back in their packaging and fold it closed.
10. Thank the chef
“If you eat at a sushi bar, thank the chef and say it was a wonderful meal, even if it wasn’t,” advises Yu. The insincere praise might be among the polite habits most people dislike, but during an experience as intimate as omakase or dining at a sushi bar, where the chef is literally serving you, it’s just a matter of etiquette to convey gratitude for their service. Whether or not the meal was the best ever, they still put in the work.
FAQs about eating sushi
Yagi Studio/Getty Images
Whether it’s your first time eating sushi or your hundredth, it’s not uncommon to still have questions about the best or most polite ways to do so. People are often uncertain about what to do with side items, whether it’s impolite to stuff their mouth with a full piece of sushi, where to place their chopsticks and what rules apply to special dining situations, like omakase or conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Our experts weigh in below.
Is it rude to use your towel to clean your face?
While the provided hot towel or moist towelette is primarily for cleaning hands, you don’t have to stop there. “It is not impolite to clean your face; it’s totally fine,” Yu assures us, particularly in cities where people may have walked to the sushi restaurant. Whether it’s a warm or cold towel depends on the weather, he adds.
Are you supposed to eat the whole piece of sushi?
Yes, yes and yes our experts chorused. “Most items presented by the chef are designed to be [eaten in] one bite. Nigiri sushi is ideally one-bite size,” Nakato Takahara says.
Taking giant bites of your meal may be one of those habits dinner party hosts dislike, but if you’re eating sushi, that’s not the case. There’s a really good reason to avoid eating sushi in multiple bites, no matter how tempting the prospect. And that’s the mess.
“The biggest mistake I often see here: Say they have one bite, and the sushi’s really good. So the next, they want to enjoy it in two bites,” Yu says. The better to extend the experience, right? Er, not exactly. “When they try to bite the sushi, it becomes unbalanced,” he continues. “Maybe they don’t get what’s in the middle, or there’s not enough wasabi or soy sauce in one of the bites.”
The exception comes down to size. “For something like a hand roll or an item you cannot eat in one bite, the restaurant will provide a sharing or resting plate to use,” Nakato Takahara notes. “Ideally, you finish this before you move onto another dish, though.”
The benefit, then, to something like a sushi counter or omakase service is that the chef can adjust to the customer. “If I’m making nigiri and they look like they’re getting really full and like they wouldn’t like to have such a big bite, I’ll make them a smaller one,” says Yu.
What are some basics of Japanese chopstick etiquette?
You already learned that rubbing disposable chopsticks together is a no-no, but another tip from the pros is to make sure your chopsticks have something to rest on. If you don’t have a chopsticks holder, you shouldn’t place them on the table. Instead, fashion the chopsticks’ wrapper into a holder, and don’t forget to dispose of them in it after the meal.
When you’re not using them, move the chopsticks to their holder, and try not to fuss with the table setting. “Do not use your chopsticks as a bridge between a plate and the counter or tabletop,” says Nakato Takahara. This is called watashi bashi in Japanese culture and is considered bad manners.
You also don’t want to hover your chopsticks over the communal sushi platter, serve others with your personal chopsticks or touch pieces you do not intend on taking, all of which can compromise hygiene.
On a symbolic level, avoid passing items from one pair of chopsticks to another or setting chopsticks down crossed or stuck upright into anything, including a bowl of rice. While some rules for using chopsticks are exclusive to certain cultures, crossing or standing chopsticks straight up is nearly always taboo.
Why shouldn’t I mix my wasabi and soy sauce?
“Most Japanese fish have a delicate flavor profile, and nuances should be enjoyed according to fish type, so I do not encourage heavy soy sauce and wasabi dipping,” Nakato Takahara says.
Besides, the wasabi that’s taking over your palate likely isn’t real wasabi at all. “Real wasabi is so expensive, it can be the most costly item on your plate! But powdered wasabi, which is common, is very cheap, so don’t worry about not using it all,” confides Yu.
Do you always use the soy sauce?
The answer is a hard no—your usage of added soy sauce should always depend on the chef. “When the chef tells you it’s already sauced or if you see the chef brushing on any sauces or topping the dish, it should be enjoyed exactly as is,” Nakato Takahara says. This is doubly true for omakase experiences.
Yu offers a general rule of thumb: “Look at the price point, and that will usually tell you if it’s seasoned. If it’s, like, $100 for two, it’s usually not seasoned, but the more expensive places will likely already have soy sauce on it. If there’s soy sauce and wasabi provided on the side, it’s likely not seasoned.”
What is the right way to dip sushi into soy sauce?
With a light hand! “Do not overwhelm the food with soy sauce by pouring it over the dish,” says Nakato Takahara. “Always use the soy sauce dish to dip lightly and only on the fish, if possible.”
Yu agrees. “Dip it only on the fish side, not the rice side, to reduce the chances of it falling apart.”
Dipping the fish instead of the rice can also help you avoid overdoing it on the soy sauce. “Rice can easily absorb soy sauce, and too much can ruin the dish,” Hamaya adds.
How should you handle tipping?
Regardless of whether you’re at a table or at the sushi bar being served directly by the chef, you should always tip as you would any other type of dine-in restaurant. So exactly how much should you tip?
“Every establishment may have their own protocol, but from my experience, it’s usually pooled based on a point or percentage system,” says Jenna Phravorachit, the general manager of Omakase Table. “Although not always required, it would be ideal to tip at least 20%, since it’s usually split among the chef, servers and any server support staff. If you felt service was exceptional, you can tip chefs or service on top individually. It’s always appreciated but not necessary.”
For to-go sushi orders, the rules are not quite as clear, as to-go tipping etiquette is still evolving. If it’s delivered, be sure to tip your driver. But if you’re picking it up yourself, tip as you normally would (or wouldn’t) for other types of cuisine.
What is the polite way to partake in an omakase-style meal?
It’s important to understand that when you dine at an omakase restaurant, your entire meal is at the chef’s discretion. “You’re giving the chef free rein on whatever they would like to present to you,” explains Nakato Takahara. “The chef will usually ask if there are any allergies, but if you have a lot of likes and dislikes, I would not recommend an omakase experience, since it can hinder the chef’s creativity.”
The most important etiquette rule you can follow during this dining experience? “Do not go back and ask for substitutions or tell them [partway through] if you have food aversions,” she says. Midway through the meal is not the time to practice saying no, however polite you may think you’re being.
Hamaya backs this up. “It would be rude to give any sort of suggestions or make specific requests,” he says. “Instead, trust the chef and leave it up to them.” Think of omakase as chefs taking you on the very flavor journey they thoughtfully intended.
As for other pieces of advice, Yu suggests eating as soon as your food arrives. “Always try to eat it in one bite and as soon as possible—the minute the chef places the food on your plate—because temperature really matters,” he says. “And plan ahead for it. In omakase, it’s disrespectful to the chef to take courses to go.”
When he personally dines this way, Yu says he always finishes the meal because “I don’t want to disrespect the chef, who’s been there since 8 a.m. prepping, perfecting his craft and tailoring the menu. Go in prepared and schedule properly, check the amount of courses and go hungry!”
What’s the proper etiquette for eating at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant?
One of the most casual—and trendy and fun!—ways to enjoy sushi is at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. There, anything goes, Nakato Takahara says.
At conveyor belt sushi restaurants across the country, you can sit down, pick up whatever you like, eat and then let the restaurant tabulate your bill at the meal’s end. “No judgment there!” assures Yu.
About the experts
- Masatomo “Masa” Hamaya has served as head sushi chef at the critically acclaimed Uchiko in Austin, executive chef at Ozumo and executive sous chef at Michelin-starred Ame, after attending Arizona State University and culinary school in his native Tokyo. He is currently the executive chef of Atlanta’s O-Ku, known for its fresh and innovative take on traditional Japanese sushi and cuisine.
- Sachi Nakato Takahara is the third-generation owner of Nakato Restaurant, Atlanta’s oldest Japanese dining establishment. She mastered every aspect of the restaurant before becoming general manager and assuming leadership of this city stalwart.
- Leonard Yu is classically trained in the culinary arts but found his passion in sushi. As the chef at Omakase Table in Atlanta, he challenges himself in pursuit of technical perfection with every 20-course dining service, integrating techniques from Edomae-style sushi with selections of sushi and nigiri made from a proprietary blend of sushi rice and fish sourced from Tokyo’s Toyosu Fish Market.
- Jenna Phravorachit is the general manager of Omakase Table in Atlanta.