Over the past several years, sushi has become increasingly popular in Western culture. These days you can find sushi restaurants that are very upmarket as well as those where the sushi moves past you on a circular conveyor belt around the sushi chef. If you were wondering, the proper name for a sushi chef is itamae (pronounced ee tah mah ay).
Besides the idea of raw fish which tends to put some people off, using chopsticks is the other challenge many people struggle with. Although it is not complicated to hold and use chopsticks, it does need some practice as it involves fine motor skills that are not often needed otherwise.
How to Hold the Chopsticks
Take the chopsticks out of the packaging they are in. If you are in a formal setting or friend's home. It is impolite to rub the chopsticks together to remove any loose splinters. Doing so will imply your host is using cheap chopsticks. There are two main ways that people hold chopsticks, though everyone's grip is slightly different and unique.
One way to hold the chopsticks is to grab the first stick as you would a pen or pencil, but to thread the pointed end between the middle finger and ring finger of your right hand, with the upper part resting in the cradle between your thumb and index finger. Take the second chopstick and place the top of it near the first one, with the pointed end sticking through between the index and middle fingers. Use your thumb to stabilize the upper chopstick. By holding the chopsticks this way, you can use your middle finger as a pivot point between the chopsticks. Just squeeze slightly with your index finger to close your chopsticks together.
A more common method of holding and using chopsticks (illustrated in the video below) is to hold the chopsticks like a pen in your right hand with the pointed side pressed against your middle finger. The stick may also be resting slightly on the edge of your ring finger. Grab the other chopstick and press it against your index finger. Place your thumb across from your index finger on the same chopstick. Control your top chopstick by moving the index finger up and down and by keeping your thumb in line.
You Don't Have to Use Chopsticks for All Sushi
Although you would normally look at sushi as finger food, there seems to have been some growing confusion on this and most Westerners have taken to eating all sushi with chopsticks. This is not strictly necessary, so if you are not confident in your chopstick skills, you can get away with not using them for most pieces of sushi.
In general, you can eat most rice based sushi, such as nigiri sushi (which are the rice fingers topped with fish) or maki sushi (the round circles with fish or vegetables surrounded by rice and wrapped in seaweed) with your fingers if you prefer. This is the most common method of eating sushi in Japan.
However, sashimi (expertly sliced fish, without rice) must be eaten with chopsticks as eating with your hands is not only messy, your touch will warm the fish and change the taste. If you are a Westerner, it may take some years before you notice the difference, but best practice dictates the use of chopsticks. Gari, the pink pickled ginger served with your sushi is also meant to be eaten with chopsticks. Gari is meant to cleanse the palate between different types of sushi, not as a compliment to a piece of sushi.
If you enjoy wasabi, a small amount of wasabi can be added to your soy sauce; it is not meant to be spread on your sushi with your chopsticks like mayonnaise. This will most likely offend your sushi chef if you are sitting at a sushi bar. However he will most likely oblige you with more wasabi on your sushi if you have a taste for it.
In general, whether you are eating with your chopsticks or your hands, sushi is meant to be eaten in one bite. Many Westerners have taken to the sushi craze with a passion for bigger portion sizes found in many of their foods. This means the sushi that can be eaten in one bite in Japan may not be the same elsewhere in the world. Aim for getting it all in and if you can't, do it in two bites. However, the second needs to follow the first directly as taking food from your mouth and replacing it on your plate is considered rude.
How to Take Sushi from A Serving Dish
If you have ordered a platter of sushi for a group or even just for two people, it is rude to use the end of the chopsticks that you put in your mouth to pick up the food. Instead, you should use the thicker, back-end of the chopsticks to do so. After all, you don't use the spoon you just ate with to grab more green beans, do you? Think of using the pointed ends of your chopsticks to take from a serving dish as "double dipping" and you will quickly correct any bad manners you may have had in this regard.
Where to Place Chopsticks When You Are Not Using Them
Between uses or when you are finished using your chopsticks, you should place them either on a plate in front of you so the sticks are parallel to your body or on a hashi oki. This is a small wooden block which is often provided for the purposes of resting your chopsticks on. Never, place your chopsticks in rice and leave standing as this has a slightly morbid reference to the dead and funerals. You should also never pass food to people using chopsticks for similar reasons.
Once you have gotten the hang of it, you may find you want to eat with chopsticks all the time. Just order some sake with your sashimi and you should be in for a great food experience.