Japanese dining etiquette can be a maze to navigate, but thankfully we have a great guide – Chiharu Kuwajima, editor-in-chief of Oishii magazine.
It’s no big secret that Japanese cuisine is one of the preferred cuisines in Singapore. On our little island alone, the number of Japanese restaurants is estimated to be more than 800! With the proliferation of Japanese restaurants, most of us are probably familiar with the various food items and how to enjoy them. Or are we?
Turns out, Japanese dining etiquette is a lot more complicated than just “slurping your noodles to show appreciation”. Editor of Japanese food magazine Oishii, Chiharu Kuwajima clears up some common misconceptions of Japanese food and shows us the proper way to handle our food.
3 mistakes commonly made by non-Japanese diners
1. Not lifting bowl to mouth
“When it comes to eating rice from a rice bowl or drinking soup from a soup bowl, Japanese diners would lift the bowl closer to their mouths to eat whereas non-Japanese diners tend to lean forward and lift the food into their mouths. Of course, this only applies to soup bowls. For rice bowls, your mouth should not touch the bowl at all. The reason why we lift the bowls to our mouths is because it creates less of a mess and you’re able to finish off your food more cleanly. Apart from our tradition of slurping our noodles loudly, the Japanese prefer minimal noise and mess at the dining table. Plus, the Japanese used to sit at low tables to eat, so lifting the bowls closer to our mouths helped maintain a good posture. ”
2. Mishandling of chopsticks
“Since I was a young girl, my mum has always ingrained in me the correct way to handle chopsticks. First, pick it up from the thicker end, then support the thinner end with your other hand before you start using it. As much as possible, ensure your chopsticks don’t cross (see image below). When you’re eating, be sure to rest your free hand on the table (versus resting it on your lap). Also, when sharing food with others, don’t use your chopsticks to hover or touch food without taking it. The Japanese call this sorabashi (empty chipsticks) and it’s considered rude and unhygienic. Other things to remember: when talking, don’t use your chopsticks to point or gesture, and never leave your chopsticks standing upright in your rice as it is reminiscent of a Japanese funeral custom. Also, when using a bowl and chopsticks, always pick up the bowl with two hands first before picking up your chopsticks. ”
3. Mixing wasabi with shoyu (soy sauce) “Fresh wasabi comes from a root that has been raised in beautiful spring water and plenty of clean air. It’s typically very expensive and has very delicate flavours, which is why it’s a big no-no to mix it with soy sauce. The correct way is to take a bit of wasabi, put it on a slice of sashimi before dipping it lightly in the soy sauce. Better yet, take your cue from the sushi chef – some sushi already comes with salt or soy sauce, and the chef will inform you whether it needs more or not.”
4 myths of Japanese food
1. When it comes to sushi and sashimi, the more expensive the fish, the better it is.
“This is not necessarily true. For example, pufferfish is a delicacy but some people don’t enjoy it because they find the flavours too subtle. To me, it’s more important that the fish is fresh and in season – again, always check with the chef. Personally, I prefer ‘cheaper’ fish like sardine and mackerel, which are especially fat and flavourful during the autumn months.”
2. Japanese diners don’t like salmon sashimi.
“In Japan, salmon is typically found in the waters around the northern parts of Japan. However, sushi originated in the western parts of Japan, where salmon was not widely available. This is why the Japanese are more used to eating salmon either grilled or cooked in a soup. Fresh salmon also tended to be imported from Norway. If the Japanese were to eat fresh salmon, it would be those that have been treated in super-low temperatures. That said, salmon sashimi and sushi is a lot more common now and there are plenty of Japanese diners who enjoy it.”
3. The secret to good tempura is all about using good ingredients.
“The most important thing when cooking tempura is to use good-quality oil. A lot of chefs use a blend of vegetable oil and seasame oil so the tempura is light and crisp. Also, when preparing the tempura batter, it’s recommended to use very cold water when mixing the egg with the flour, as cold water develops gluten slower than warm water. This helps achieve a lighter and more crispy batter. And yes, when selecting your ingredients, make sure they are as fresh as possible.”
4. Miso soup should only be drunk at the end of the meal.
“This depends on whether you’re having a set meal where everything is laid out in front of you, or you’re having kaiseki (traditional Japanese multi-course meal). For the former, some people prefer to have a bit of soup first so that the rice doesn’t stick to their chopsticks. However, for kaiseki, the wait staff usually only serves miso soup and rice at the end of the meal once you’re done with your alcohol.”
Are there any rules when it comes to pouring drinks when in a group setting?
“Typically, the youngest in the group will start serving everyone else in the group but it’s a reciprocal thing. As much as possible, we avoid letting the person who poured drinks to pour one for himself. This is so that everybody feels included and nobody feels left out.”
Ok, there are so many rules to remember! Will I be judged if I forget some?
“Japanese people don’t expect foreigners to know every single rule in Japanese dining etiquette, but it’s great to pick up a few simple rules. For example, it may be difficult to correct the way you handle chopsticks but you can remember other things like how to pick it up gracefully or not leave it upright in your rice. However, it’s important to remember that these rules can be relaxed, depending on the company you’re with or where you’re dining at.”