What do I do with a rolled towel? Is it proper to eat sushi with my hands? How do I even use chopsticks?
These may be some of the questions that come to your mind when you’re eating a Japanese meal. You need not worry, though, as we have compiled some simple tips to guide you through your dining experience. With the etiquette guide below, you can dine with confidence and savor the scrumptious dishes offered at the best Japanese restaurants you choose to dine in.
Japan is known for its delectable cuisine. It has overtaken France when it comes to the most number of Michelin-starred restaurants. As of 2018, Tokyo is hailed as the city with the most number of 3-starred dining establishments in the world.
Authentic Japanese cuisine takes such pride in combining taste, quality, and aesthetics that Itamaes (cooks or sushi chefs) or Shokunins (someone skilled at a profession) usually practice moritsuke or the art of food preparation. The meticulous care taken when preparing food comes from the inherent mindfulness typically practiced by the Japanese people. That is why whether you eat in high-end Japanese restaurants or the more informal Japanese izakaya, it is important to observe unique dining etiquette.
While some dining rules are not strictly observed even by the Japanese, it is best to be mindful of your manners. This is so you can avoid offending others (perhaps your Japanese host or other more conservative diners) as well as maintaining a level of decorum and class. Just as you observe good table manners when eating at steak restaurants, high-class cafes, or other top-tier dining establishments, you should also pay attention to your conduct when eating at Japanese restaurants.
Here are some simple tips to guide you through enjoying a Japanese meal:
1. Before a Meal
Typically, traditional Japanese restaurants will have tatami mats laid out on the floor accompanied by low tables and chairs. It is customary to remove footwear when sitting on tatami mats. Other more modern Japanese restaurants will have Western-style seating.
The eldest guest or the guest of honor will usually be seated at the center of the table that is farthest from the entrance. Formal occasions may call for seiza or the formal way of seating by tucking your legs under your buttocks. Since this manner of seating may be uncomfortable, your host may ask you to sit comfortably. You can do so – but only after your host does – by putting your legs to one side (for women) or sitting cross-legged (only for men). Never stretch your legs out directly in front of you.
You usually greet your host or other guests with a slight bow and quietly sit at the seat assigned to you. Polite custom dictates that you should give compliments to the appearance of the food before touching it. Wait for the host or the eldest person to start eating and say itadakimasu (their version of bon appetit, roughly translated as “I humbly receive”). This is done by softly putting your hands together in front of your chest (as if praying) or gently on your lap.
2. During a Meal
Once the host starts eating or drinking, you can also start enjoying your meal. If you’re unfamiliar with using chopsticks, it is best to do research and practice before going to the restaurant. The proper use of chopsticks alone has resulted in a lot of faux pas so it is best to familiarize yourself with the basic rules.
For example, you should use chopsticks to pick up most of the food served, except for sushi (which can be picked up by hand). Used chopsticks should never touch the table. Instead, use the chopstick rest. Do not rub your chopsticks together, play with them, cross them into an “X,” dig through a bowl with your chopsticks, drag a bowl or dish towards you, transfer food from chopstick to chopstick, spear food, stick the chopsticks upright into the rice, or use your chopsticks to point at people.
When eating sushi, pour a thin layer of soy sauce on the dish. Traditionally, the fish side is dipped lightly into the sauce, a tiny bit of wasabi is placed on the fish side, and the sushi is eaten in one bite.
Soups are eaten with chopsticks by picking up the bowl closer to your lips and lifting the solid pieces into your mouth. Once the solid parts are finished, you can pick up the soup dish with both hands and drink the broth like a cup of tea.
3. After a Meal
It’s considered proper to finish all your food, down to the last grain of rice on your bowl. You should also return all your dishes where they were placed before the meal started, such as putting lids back on bowls or laying your chopsticks down on the hashioki.
To give thanks for the meal, people usually say go-chisō-sama deshita and do the same hand motions like at the start of the meal.
The one who invites is usually the one who pays for the meal, although at times, it also depends on the rank of the person. Tipping is normally not practiced, but if you do tip, 10% is considered fine.
There are still other detailed rules when eating Japanese meals especially when it’s in a formal setting. Traditional tea ceremonies have their own set of guidelines, for example. However, there are general practices, such as the ones mentioned above, that should be remembered when you are out dining at a Japanese restaurant.
In addition to the specific ways of eating or handling food, basic manners like chewing quietly, refraining from blowing your nose at the table, or not burping loudly should be practiced. Also, avoid using your chopsticks to get food from a communal dish. Use the serving utensil or the other end of your chopstick to do so.
Regardless of whether you are eating in a Japanese restaurant or any other dining establishment, it is always good to observe good dining etiquette. Your deportment will speak well of your character as well as contribute to an easy and relaxed mealtime.
Chiara Bisignani is the F&B Marketing Executive at Saadiyat Beach Club. She oversees website maintenance, PR requests, marketing initiatives and all general guests’ enquiries for the company’s destinations of KOI Restaurant & Lounge, Boa Steakhouse and Caramel Restaurant and Lounge in Abu Dhabi.