By Annemarie Dooling, Yahoo! Travel
For more than 200 years, this rice and fish meal has been a staple of Japanese cuisine, and no matter where you eat it here, it is a foodie rite of passage. I traveled through Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima in search of the perfect plate of sushi, along with food expert and Australian MasterChef contestant Hayden Quinn. Ten days of sashimi, soups and tempura later, we had a pretty good idea of what constitutes the most amazing meal in Japan; we were hooked on fresh sushi.
If you’re eating sushi in Japan, your trip needs to start at the Tokyo Fish Market. The Tsukiji Market runs 24/7 and is the largest wholesale food market in the entire world. Narrow, winding walkways along a crowded warehouse show off overflowing buckets of long-legged spider crabs, writhing squid, and enormous tuna fresh from the water and cut with hand saws. The market is a spectacle, with more than 60,000 employees and an earnings value of $5 billion annually. I want to give you fair warning. This is not a tourist attraction.
Walking away from the giant slabs of tuna and toward the outdoor stalls of vegetables and fruit, you may notice a brown and green stick of something completely foreign, but with a slightly familiar bitter odor. It’s wasabi in it’s natural state. It is completely different from the version we eat in the States. While the green paste that ends up on our plates is more of a mixture of horseradish and food coloring, in Japan you might be given a big hunk of natural wasabi and a small grater with your dinner so that you can create your own bit of paste your meal. A little bit of this stuff goes a long way.
In the center of Tokyo, Quinn and I took a class taught by one of Japan’s only female sushi chefs; it is believed that because the temperature of a woman’s body is warmer than a man’s, she is not the ideal candidate for sushi-making.
Our chef surprised me from the start with a plate of thick slabs of seafood, much meatier than the pieces I’d seen during sushi meals at home. The pieces of fish that are cut to make sushi are extraordinarily different than the chunks we are used to munching in the Western world. These are confident, hearty, meaty slabs. With slight dabs of wasabi, they are placed gently across small balls of sticky rice — a drastic difference from the starchy pieces we eat at home, which can be more rice and accoutrements than actual fish.
The most notable difference for me is the lack of the ‘sushi roll,’” Quinn said after his third sushi meal in a row in two days. “The majority of sushi is the small, bite-sized nigiri sushi … but not once did I see salmon used in sushi preparation.
I highly recommend watching the chefs make your sushi in Japan. The speed and concentration of a Japanese sushi chef is second to none. You’ll hear that the Japanese are a meticulous people who put a lot of care and concentration into everyday tasks, but their food preparation is on another level. The cuts of fish are perfect, the rice is rolled with care, and even the utensils are chosen with insight. “Our incredibly talented sushi chef was using a classic Yanagiba, or Japanese slicer, which is used specifically for filleting long pieces of fish,” Quinn explained to me. “The interesting thing about this knife is that is has a one-sided edge perfect for slicing fish. They are right- and left-handed, as the cutting edge needs to be on the outside of the slice.
When it comes to eating the sushi, you’re doing it all wrong. During sushi creation, the slightest dab of wasabi is placed between the rice and the fish — and that is the only wasabi that should be used. Piling it on top of your roll, or swirling it into a bowl of soy sauce is a big no.
But that isn’t the only condiment that’s being used incorrectly. “One thing I never knew was that the pickled ginger is to be used as a palate cleanser between selections and not as a garnish,” adds Quinn. As for your chopstick skills, you are officially off the hook. Sushi should be eaten by hand, as the best rolls are just too delicate to be eaten with the tricky sticks, and you should be able to eat a piece in just one big bite. Same goes for passing a piece to a friend. Drop the sticks and pass your plate instead. Chopsticks are to be used for your big bowls of rice, but never, ever stick the chopsticks straight into the rice bowl, as it’s a major sign of bad luck. One more thing — don’t rub your disposable sticks, called waribashi, together unless you want to offend your chef; after all, top-quality chopsticks never produce splinters.
Rice should be sticky, but not too sticky, and enhance the delicate flavors of the fish. The rice side of your sushi should never touch a soy sauce bowl, instead, dip fish first. When you’re done with your delicious meal, wrap your disposable chopsticks back into the wrapper they came in, or place them together over your bowl, but whatever you do, do not cross them when you lay them down.
When it’s time to leave your food, do just that. Walking, talking, and eating in public in Japan is considered rude, and you’ll rarely find public garbage cans anyway. Before you leave the restaurant, as a thank you to your chef, you might want to bow as a show of appreciation and say, “Gochisōsama deshita! (Thanks for the feast!),” but expect him or her to bow back. Big shows of gratitude are one of the great aspects of Japanese culture, so go ahead and get into a long bow-off, adding an “arigato (thank you)” or two.
This article originally appeared on Yahoo! Travel and is republished here with permission.