A sushi platter can be gorgeous, but it's not the ideal way to order sushi.

A sushi platter can be gorgeous, but it's not the ideal way to order sushi.

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Updated Aug. 29, 2017 at 2:30 p.m.: revised to include additional information.

It's easy to wander into a sushi bar, order an assortment and have a great time. But have you ever wanted to take it a step further? Here are tips for ordering and appreciating sushi that will help turn you into a sushi connoisseur.

  • Sit at the bar and order sashimi and sushi directly from the sushi chef. Try to establish a rapport -- be respectful, not chummy, and show an interest in the provenance of the fish and the sushi chef's craft. Drinks and items from the kitchen may be ordered from a server.
  • If you're planning to have both sashimi and sushi, order sashimi first. Look for an interesting fish that's being highlighted on a chalkboard or specials menu, or ask the sushi chef what's great for sashimi that day. Not sure what to get? Try kampachi (Japanese amberjack) or madai (Japanese snapper) if they're available and the sushi chef is enthusiastic about them.
  • Sauce or no sauce?  At the best places, the sushi chef will brush nikiri shoyu (a sauce made with mirin and soy sauce) onto some or many of the items himself; others may have been marinated or cured. Most will tell you if you shouldn't dip the fish in soy sauce (shoyu). If you're unsure, ask. Don't be embarrassed -- it'll mark you as a pro.
  • Don't over-pour the shoyu -- just a few drops, about the size of a nickel in the dipping dish. You can add more later.
  • Higher-end sushi bars may offer freshly grated wasabi -- if you're in a place like that, ask if it's available. It has a brighter, deeper flavor than the powdered stuff.  Don't add it to the shoyu. Use your chopsticks to lay a bit on top of a sashimi slice, then dip it in shoyu and eat.
  • The sashimi should have a beautiful texture and flavor. Properly cut fish is never stringy.  The freshest fish isn't necessarily the best (though sometimes it is); sushi chefs take pride in curing different fish for different lengths of time for subtly different flavors and using cuts from different parts of the fish (the belly, for instance, or just under the fin).
  • Next order nigiri sushi (the kind that's a slice of fish set atop an oblong ball of seasoned rice) and gunkan maki (the kind that's a ball of rice with a short collar of nori wrapped around and fish, seafood or roe set on top) -- one item at a time. Sushi should be eaten as soon as it is prepared. Don't add wasabi, as the sushi chef will apply the proper amount to each piece. If you like more kick, ask him to use a little more. Two pieces per order is traditional.
  • Fingers or chopsticks? Either is fine for the sushi. In any case, it's traditionally eaten in one bite. If you want to do that and it's too big, ask the sushi chef to make the next ones smaller or to cut them in half for you.
  • If the sushi is meant to be dipped in shoyu, only dip a corner of the fish -- never dip the rice in the shoyu.
  • When it comes to appreciating sushi, the quality of the rice is important. How important? In 2013, sushi master Mori Onodera told Los Angeles magazine "rice is 70 percent, fish is 30 percent." Pay attention to the rice's temperature, flavor and texture. Sushi masters in Japan take great pride in the quality of their rice; some even hand-polish the husk off brown rice to get it perfect.
  • The flavor  of the rice is key. "Sushi" means vinegar in Japanese; it refers to the vinegar used to season the rice, and you should be able to detect its gentle tang. Sushi chefs make sushi vinegar by combining rice vinegar, salt, sugar and shoyu. It must be added, in the proper proportions, to the rice immediately after cooking the rice, or it won't be absorbed. Kikuo Shimizu, chef at famed Kikuyoshi in Tokyo, includes sugar in the sushi vinegar recipe he gives in his book Edomae Sushi. But, says Onodera, "rice shouldn't be too sweet." It also shouldn't be too cool or too warm: About body temperature is ideal. It should stay together, but not be hard or gummy.
  • Branch out from the familiar tuna and yellowtail and order a range of sushi with different flavors and textures. Start with more delicate-flavored fish (flounder, scallops, halibut), and end with more assertive flavors (mackerel, sardines, eel). Ordering seasonal fish from Japan, or anything offered "live" -- such as scallops -- is another good way to discover some great fish. 
  • Uni (sea urchin roe) is a very special treat that is now fairly widely available in Dallas. Lesser quality uni can taste awful, like a dirty tide pool, but great-quality sea urchin has a lovely, gentle, mouth-filling oceanic flavor and marvelous richness. Much of the high-quality uni we get here comes from San Diego or Santa Barbara. You can often judge its quality by looking at it in the case: It should look very rough, like a cat's tongue, and have vivid color. It is usually served wrapped in a collar of nori (seaweed); in other words, as gunkan-maki rather than nigiri.
  • Here are some other fish favored by aficionados -- ordering one or more of them helps the sushi chef understand you're adventurous, and you'll be more likely to have a superior experience: clams (red clam, giant clam, surf clam); Spanish mackerel; ankimo (monkfish liver); herring roe (sort of bitter, but very interesting with an incredible crunchy texture); yellowtail belly (richer, softer and more delicate-flavored than regular yellowtail); kohada (gizzard shad); shima aji (striped jack); ikura (salmon roe) -- great when it's fresh rather than frozen; should have "pop"; abalone. Toro -- fatty tuna belly cut from wild bluefin tuna -- has long been an object of desire for aficionados, too, but serious overfishing of the species has made it taboo in many circles. Some chefs offer toro from farmed bluefin, which is (arguably) more environmentally sustainable, or from bigeye tuna.
  • Rolls should follow nigiri -- whether it's a cut roll or a hand roll. Most aficionados avoid crazy rolls, going instead for something traditional, like a hamachi negi (yellowtail and scallion) roll, or relatively simple (like salmon skin roll).
  • You might finish with eel, which is brushed with sweet, rich tsume reduction, or tamago -- pieces of sweet, layered omelet. Tamago is a source of price for sushi chefs -- many aficionados judge a sushi bar initially by its tamago.
  • Western-style desserts generally aren't a big part of a traditional sushi experience; usually it's just fresh fruit, perhaps an orange, beautifully cut.
  • Consider calling ahead next time and inquiring whether the sushi bar offers an omakase -- roughly translated as chef's choice -- tasting experience, in which you put yourself in the hands of the sushi chef, who creates a multi-course tasting based on what's in season and exciting him at the moment. It can be a fabulous way to discover new tastes.
  • When you leave the sushi bar, show your appreciation if you had a good experience. "Arigato gozaimasu" (pronounced ah-REE-gah-toh goh-zai-mahss) -- which means thank you very much, or "Oiishi deshita" (oh-ee-shee deh-shtah) -- which means it was delicious, is a nice way to show your respect for the culture. That can help establish a stronger rapport when you return.


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