Japanese food is hands-down the most popular cuisine in Singapore – apart from our own local fare – and the array of options available is mind-boggling. From high-end omakase restaurants and super fresh sushi bars, to fast food burger joints and street food festivals, Singapore’s got it all covered – and consequently, we consider ourselves reasonably well-versed in the etiquette of Japanese food.
However, eating a lot of Japanese food a lot of the time doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing it right. Here are some lesser known dos and don’ts when it comes to enjoying Japanese cuisine.
Rice dishes don’t go with rice drinks
Sake and sushi are a match made in heaven – or are they? Traditionally, it’s considered a no-no. The classic mentality of Japanese cuisine is never to pair a rice-based food with a rice-based drink, as there simply won’t be an interesting enough complement of flavours. That’s why a traditional sushi meal usually starts with kaiseki-style dishes – flavourful appetisers specially created by the chef to go with your sake before the sushi. Sake is also perfectly fine with sashimi, as it doesn’t involve rice. Green tea and beer are considered appropriate choices of drink with sushi – no, it’s not considered “unrefined” to go with a soft pilsner or a crisp larger. In fact, it is thought a good beer can help to bring out the umami flavours of sushi.
Lighter flavours before heavier ones
One of the unspoken rules of Japanese cuisine is fully appreciating the simplicity of an ingredient’s flavour, and allowing that to work in harmony with the overall course. Japanese style traditionally abhors a clash of flavours, or a stronger flavour overpowering a more subtle one. This is why there is usually an order to which you should be eating your dish, be it sashimi, tempura or even yakitori. When in doubt, remember to eat from front to back, as the chef will arrange the variety of ingredients on the dish such that the lighter flavours are at the front, and the richer, heavier flavours towards the back.
Wasabi and soy sauce don’t mix
We’ve all been guilty of this one before – mixing a dollop of wasabi into a dish of soy sauce makes for easy dipping, but it’s considered pretty much sacrilegious at any sushi bar. Firstly, this grainy slurry is simply not kosher in Japanese cuisine – if you want to season your food with soy sauce and wasabi, do it separately. Use your chopsticks to spread a tiny amount on your food, then dip the piece into a dish of shoyu – that way, all the elements can be tailored to the ingredients, and the varying levels of intensity carefully calibrated. Secondly, there’s usually no need to add more seasoning to your sushi as a good sushi chef will have worked out the right level of wasabi (if any) or umami to bring out the flavour of that particular ingredient. If you must add some shoyu, dab a little on the fish, not the rice, as that would soak up too much of the sauce.
Pickled ginger as a palate cleanser, not an accompaniment
The pink slivers of young pickled ginger served with your sushi is called gari, and it’s really meant to be eaten on its own as an interstitial palate cleanser. Its refreshing zing freshens the mouth and “resets” it for the next piece of sushi, which will conceivably be of a more intense, or different, flavour. Using the ginger as a garnish on your piece of sushi is simply not on, as it will basically annihilate the flavour nuances of the fish and rice – and that’s the opposite of what you want.
Don’t wait for everyone’s food to arrive
In most Western cultures, the polite thing to do is to patiently wait until everyone at the table has been served before tucking in – not so in Japanese culture. In fact, there are even several phrases in Japanese to express that food should be eaten once it has been served, the way it is meant to be enjoyed: Atsui uchi ni tabete (“Eat it while it’s hot”), Dozo O-saki ni (“Go right ahead”), and Meshiagarikudasai (the honorific form of “Please eat”). If other’s dishes have arrived before yours, you would be expected to invite them to start eating first, and not to wait for you – and vice versa.