You could make a very compelling argument that no country on earth has food quite like Japan. Whether you’re after something super fancy or cheap and cheerful, Japanese cooking can cater to absolutely everyone. The nation has more Michelin stars than anywhere else on earth and unrivalled collection of artisanal culinary experts. There’s a reason why almost any chef will tell you that you don’t really know food until you’ve been to Japan.
As its food is so famous, it’s inevitable that many of us think we know what to expect when we eat Japanese. In reality, we almost always end up committing some sort of unspeakable crime against the cuisine because we don’t really know what we’re doing. That ends here. To avoid any future embarrassment and help you understand the difference between your natto and your nigiri, here are seven things we all get wrong about Japanese food.
1. Soy Sauce
When you arrive in a sushi restaurant, it’s tempting to pour yourself a big puddle of soy sauce and drown every one of your dishes in it. This is a mistake. Excessive soy sauce can overpower the delicate fish and leave you with a salty, soggy mess. While you’re at it, don’t mix it with wasabi. That’s as weird as it is wrong.
On the subject of wasabi, people often think that the green goo we get overseas is indicative of Japanese cuisine. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, most of what we think of as “wasabi” is just horseradish dyed green - for the real thing you’ll probably have to take a trip to Tokyo.
Contrary to popular belief, not all raw fish is sushi. Rather than refer to the seafood “sushi” actually describes the lightly vinegared rice that is used for rolling. If you’re fish appears without any accompaniment, it is most likely “sashimi” rather than sushi.
There are few things more satisfying than deconstructing a sushi sandwich of rice and fish and stuffing it with pickled ginger, before putting it back together and eating it. Unsurprisingly, this is a big no no. Ginger is actually intended to cleanse the palate and help to digest oily fish such as mackerel.
Since miso soup is, obviously, a soup, it can be tempting to try and tackle it with a spoon. However, most Japanese people will advise forgoing a spoon and sipping straight from the cup, as miso is much thinner than a typical soup.
Anyone who’s tried to tackle a big bowl of soupy noodles knows eating ramen without making a mess is almost impossible. Fortunately, you don’t actually have to worry about being polite. In Japan, it is considered common courtesy to loudly slurp at your noodles as you eat, and it also helps to cool them as they enter your mouth.
Enjoying a warm glass of sake is, for many people, the perfect way to wash down any Japanese dish. As it turns out, sake drinking is governed by strict protocols that almost all of us are ignoring. For instance, not only should you never pour your own sake - instead waiting for your fellow diners to do it for you and reciprocating in turn - but also, not all sake should be served hot.
With a food culture so rich and complex, it’s inevitable that outsiders sometimes get things wrong. At least now we should all be a little bit better equipped to not totally embarrass ourselves next time we feel like some sushi.