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  • Writer's pictureTien Chew

5 Ways To Dine Like The Japanese

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

I've always loved Japanese food, thanks in part to my mom, who used to spoil my brother and me with sushi rolls and unagi donburi when we were kids. Thanks to my numerous visits to Japan, I've learned much about Japanese dining customs, etiquette, and manners that have become useful whenever I eat at any Japanese restaurant. 

What's not to love about nihon shoku (Japanese cuisine)? It's pure, delicious, and nutritious, with a deep respect for the terroir and seasonal bounties.

Tempura is tops at Tenkuni, Ginza

Most who know me know that I frequent Japan quite often. Before the global pandemic, I used to visit Japan at least two to three times a year. And every single time I'm there, I indulge. Sometimes a tad too much. Anybody who's visited the country can empathise with me. It's incredibly challenging to have a bad meal in Japan, and that's no joke.

I sometimes get asked to share my experiences and knowledge when it comes to Japanese-related dining due to my love of the cuisine and my link to Japan. Thus, I thought that I'd share some of the tips and tricks I have discovered throughout the years that may help you the next time you find yourself at a sushi-ya, ramen-ya, izakaya or any Japanese restaurant really. I know they've certainly helped me.

Just remember, as a foreigner, you aren't expected to follow all the subtle cues and dining etiquette the Japanese have. But, it doesn't hurt to dine like the Japanese, which will display your respect and appreciation to the cuisine and to your Japanese friends/host if you ever find yourself in such a situation.

Some of the don'ts and do's that I'm sharing with you dear reader also comes fact-checked by this incredibly handy book I picked up on one of my visits to Tsutaya bookstore called "A Complete Guide To Japanese Table Manners". So, you can be sure I've done my homework.

1) Don't Dip Your Nigiri Sushi Rice Down In Soy Sauce

Indulgence at Suzuki Sushi, Hitachi

This one may be more widely known to sushi lovers, but I still see many diners doing this. Dipping your nigiri sushi (like the one pictured above) rice down into your soy sauce isn't entirely a faux pas, but doing so may cause the taste of the soy sauce to overpower the delicate flavour of the fish. This is because the shari, the rice part of the sushi, may soak up more shoyu than what's necessary. And nobody wants their sushi to taste like 80% soy sauce and 20% fish, whether assembled by a master sushi chef or arriving via sushi train.

Nobu Matsuhisa (yes, that Nobu) enlightened me during an interview that the proper way to eat sushi is to grab it, with either your chopsticks or your hand, turn it to the left and gently dip only the neta (fish topping) in soy sauce. If you've accidentally dipped too much, never shake your sushi to remove excess shoyu, as it's bad table manners to do so.

This advice can, of course, be negated if you're dining at a fancy sushi-ya because the skilled chefs behind the counter will only use the adequate amount of soy sauce and wasabi (if you, like me, choose to have your sushi with wasabi) for each sushi piece. For kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi restaurants) and other self-service restaurants that do not mainly focus on sushi, this simple advice may elevate your sushi eating experience.

Once you've executed the proper sushi dipping motion in one smooth motion, which is actually harder to do so without messing up, you can then enjoy your sushi as it was meant to be. Phew.

2) Don't Rub Waribashi Chopsticks Together

Photo: Pixabay

The unsung hero of the Japanese shokudo – waribashi. You can find these ubiquitous disposable low-quality wooden chopsticks in almost every Japanese restaurant. Now, the only thing between you and that hearty bowl of niku udon laying in front of you are these ingenious wooden utensils and your mastery of this ancient Chinese eating tool. 

Think you've mastered the chopsticks? Well then, did you know that it's actually lousy table manners to rub waribashi chopsticks together in a futile attempt to remove splinters?

You did? Oh, well, then good on you. If you didn't, however, you do now.

3) Please Do Slurp Up Your Noodles

My regular tsukemen joint – Mitsuyado Seimen

Ok, I get it. You've been taught not to slurp up any form of liquid your entire life when at the dining table because it's just good manners. When eating at a Japanese restaurant, however, you can take that accepted norm and throw it out the window. I, too, found it hard to slurp initially. But, after embracing it, I found it incredibly liberating, so much so that I accidentally tend to enjoy slurping a little too much when having non-Japanese noodles. Yes, I'm guilty as charged.

Try it, and I promise you it's audibly satisfying. It's so gratifying that the simple act of slurping will actually enhance your noodle eating experience. I kid you not.

There are two main reasons the Japanese slurp their noodles, be it ramen, somen, tsukemen, udon, or soba. The first was what I just mentioned, that the act of slurping will enhance the experience and stimulate the appetite. And, they're really not wrong. The second reason is actually practical. As most noodles are served hot, slurping will actually help cool the noodles down before they reach the throat. Whether this has been proven by MythBusters or not, I'm still sold on the slurping idea, and nothing you say will change my mind.

4) When Having Ramen or Tsukemen, Do Taste The Soup First

Clover's chicken broth ramen near Narita airport

Ramen restaurants take pride in every component that goes into that delicious, satisfying bowl which will sate your palate for hours to come. But they go the extra mile when it comes to the broth, of which they've probably spent hours, days, weeks, and even months cooking, tweaking, mixing and conceptualising to achieve peak deliciousness. Won't take my word for it? Just watch the fantastic documentary Ramen Heads.

The soup can literally make or break a bowl of ramen or tsukemen. And it's not just exclusive to ramen, this extends to every other bowl of noodle soup out there – prawn mee, curry laksa, you name it.

The first thing you want to do when having ramen is to taste the soup. This will not only introduce your palate to the broth's wonderfully complex flavours, which sets the stage for the oncoming mouthfuls of gratification, but it is also a silent nod to the chef and his team that you understand and appreciate the labours that went into just the soup.

5) Don't Drink Sake Like A Gaijin

Taikan – my favourite sake from Hitachi

As sake appreciation begins to spread, there are a couple of things you, dear reader, ought to know about sake etiquette. First, the Japanese never like to leave a buddy hanging. What I mean by this is that you should always pour sake (or any beverage really) for your family and friends. And they, in turn, should do the same for you.

There's something warming about the simple act of pouring a drink for one another, an act of camaraderie shared through the age-old custom of sharing finely made rice wine that I find so appealing. The same can be said for beer and shochu.

Do remember, however, to always lift up your sake cup/glass with two hands and extend them outwards to show humility and acceptance. It's simply good manners to do so.

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