In Japan, an important figure is that of the Itamae, the “sushi master”. In fact there are some precise rules when you sit down at the table to enjoy a Japanese meal.
Bon ton Japanese’ way
So, whether you are a frequent visitor of tatami and Japanese restaurant or neophytes, some tips can always be useful. Meanwhile, we emphasize that in Italian restaurants that offer traditional Japanese cuisine you sit at the table and not, as used in Japan, kneeling in seiza style (position to hold at table, kneeling and sitting on the heels) on the tatami (straw mat of pressed rice, covered with woven reed) around a low table and without shoes.
Japanese lunch or dinner is presented at the table all together. While in Italy often the dishes are served already in the dishes, in the country of the Rising Sun you sit at the table in front of empty plates and the trays with dishes, all the guests are served using chopsticks or rather hashi. To serve from the common dish to the center of the table, be careful to turn the hashi and use the opposite end. In Japan you do not use tablecloths, the dishes rest directly on the table.
But let’s start with the chopsticks. The rods must always be placed in parallel on the saucer or on the rod holder. They should not therefore be placed directly on the table, because the thinner end is the one that goes into the mouth and is not considered hygienic.
And do not leave the hashi on a plate but on the appropriate “back hashi”, the hashioki. They also hold each other trying to keep their fingers away from the ends that they carry in their mouths, because the lever that exerted will work better.
Do not leave hashes upright on a plate of food. It is considered a bad omen, because this position recalls incense on graves in cemeteries.
You do not have to pass the food to the other wand-to-head diners; it is a gesture that brings bad luck, because this is done by the priests at the funeral with the bones of the dead cremated. Just as it is bad education to vertically stick the chopsticks in the rice bowl because this position is also associated with funeral rites: the senkou, or the equivalent of our incense for the dead, is in the form of a stick inserted into the braziers to commemorate the deceased. Finally, do not use hashes with both hands.
Before the meal, the oshibori are distributed, small moistened towels, which are used both for washing hands and napkins, brought warm in winter and cool in summer. The special sponge wipes are used to clean the hands and should then be stored away neatly folded and used throughout the meal to clean the fingers between a mouthful and the other. Because sushi can be eaten by bringing it to the mouth with chopsticks but also with your hands! The important thing is to do it in one bite: it should not be bitten, split or broken. The same rule also applies to sashimi, which however must be strictly eaten with chopsticks.
But to say sushi and sashimi is generic enough and it is good to explain exactly what these typical dishes of the Rising Sun consist of. The sushi is a dish mainly based on rice and cooked and raw fish. The nigiri is one of the simplest of the various types of sushi and consists of a hand-shaped oval rice ball and a slice of fish on top.
The hosomaki are rice rolls stuffed with fish or vegetables wrapped in a nori seaweed leaf. Onigiri is a typical Japanese street food that is consumed while walking or as a quick snack. It consists of a triangle of rice with a stuffed heart mainly composed of salmon and tuna and a strip of seaweed that also has the function of “handkerchief” not to touch the rice with your hands.
Uramaki are rolls of rice that wrap around seaweed and fish and are often covered with toasted sesame seeds, tobiko or fish eggs with a filling made of two or more ingredients between fish and vegetables. The temaki is the largest sushi among the various types and is conical in shape wrapped in a leaf of seaweed and filled with different ingredients. The traditional temaki is 10 cm long and should be eaten with your hands because it is too big to eat with chopsticks.
These are the most popular types of sushi, while sashimi consists of thin slices of fish and very fresh molluscs served raw with wasabi, a plant of Japanese origin belonging to the Brassicaceae family and rather spicy, to be consumed in small quantities.
At the beginning of the meal, put a “veil” of soy sauce in the special dish and dip the bite only from one corner and the side of the fish, to prevent the rice from crumbling. For example, nigiri should be eaten with your hands and soaked in soy sauce only on the side of the fish, the rice should not come into contact with soy. Ginger instead serves to clean the palate between a mouthful and the other.
The soups are consumed without a spoon, drinking from the bowl in a noisy way, while the ingredients inside are taken and eaten with chopsticks. The “noise”, unpleasant to us Westerners, is instead pleasing to the Japanese because it means that you are appreciating the dish. And if the soup is in the broth of spaghetti, this is the case of ramen or soba, there is a special way to eat them: they should be taken with chopsticks, while they are steaming in the boiling broth and should be brought to the mouth. At that point you will have to suck them noisily, sucking them with air as well.
At the table try not to use the expression cin cin. In fact, the word “cin” represents the male member and is therefore not very suitable for this type of occasions. Better to say “kampai”.
For our part, every time we decide to spend our convivial moments in a Japanese restaurant, we learn something new about how to behave and what to taste. Our last “discovery”? The yuzu, a rare and very fragrant citrus very used in oriental cuisines. What is most striking is the strong scent, while the taste of its juice is similar to that of lemon and grapefruit, but sweeter and more delicate, ideal to grate on meat and fish both grilled and steamed.