Americans’ 6 worst sushi-eating habits, according to a star Philly chef

Don’t put that pickled ginger on your fish!

Bluefin akami (tuna) nigiri at Royal Izakaya

Bluefin akami (tuna) nigiri at Royal Izakaya

Jesse Ito
danya

Jesse Ito grew up with sushi flowing through his veins. His father Masaharu “Matt” Ito ran Fuji Restaurant, for decades considered one of the region’s top destinations for Japanese raw fish cuisine. Jesse spent his childhood behind the Haddonfield sushi bar, and spent his teen years learning his father’s craft.

It’s not just his young apprenticeship that makes Ito, now 28, an authority in the field. Over the past year, he’s honed his skills at Royal Sushi & Izakaya, which he and his father own with restaurateurs David Frank and Stephen Simons.

Five nights a week, Ito lords over the elegant back room of the Queen Village joint, slashing through silver, rose and copper slabs of seafood and laying his handiwork over carefully molded beds of rice. His counter is omakase-only; guests choose a 10-piece or 18-piece tasting ($65 or $125) and Ito does the rest. It’s also booked full weeks in advance, and the occasional cancellation fills up quickly.

He’s enjoying himself immensely — as evidenced by his lack of vacations (a four-day leave in April has been his longest break so far). But as he’s watched guests enjoy more than 70,000 pieces of nigiri (!), he’s racked up a few pet peeves.

“Overall, I don’t like yelling at guests,” said Ito, who was honored as a Billy Penn Who’s Nexter in May 2016, “so I mostly stay quiet. But there are a lot of things I see people do that — well, I’d like to inform them. Maybe this is an easier way.”

Here’s Ito’s take on people’s six worst sushi-eating habits, and what to do instead.

Aburi sake (torched salmon) nigiri at Royal Izakaya

Aburi sake (torched salmon) nigiri at Royal Izakaya

Jesse Ito

1) Putting pickled ginger on top of the fish

That pile of pickled ginger that comes with every maki roll you’ve ever bought? It’s apparently meant to be eaten separately, between bites, not with the sushi itself. “It’s a palate cleanser,” Ito explained. “You shouldn’t be eating it with the fish, because all you’ll taste is ginger.”

2) Adding too much soy sauce

Like many higher-end sushi chefs, Ito slicks each piece of nigiri he makes with just enough soy sauce before he serves it: “I brush everything, to eat as-is.” However, Ito acknowledged, everyone’s palate is different, and some might enjoy more salt.

If you’re interested in adding some soy sauce, he suggests, instead of “dunking” the whole piece in, flip the sushi on its side and dip the fish in the sauce, not the rice. “Rice is like a paper towel,” he noted. “So it’ll absorb a ton of liquid, and break apart.”

3) Mixing wasabi with the soy sauce

At Ito’s sushi counter, the pile of bright green wasabi offered to each guest is fresh-ground root, not the reconstituted powder served at most sushi houses. It’s much more pungent — eating it almost gives you a miniature high — but also more delicate. Yet time and again, Ito sees guests sit down and immediately dump their wasabi in soy.

“If you put fresh wasabi in soy sauce,” he said pointedly, “you waste it.” How best to eat it? Dab some on the fish, or better yet, “put it directly in your mouth.”

Sanma (mackerel pike) nigiri at Royal Izakaya

Sanma (mackerel pike) nigiri at Royal Izakaya

Jesse Ito

4) Biting nigiri in half

Or trying to bite nigiri in half, really, because Ito points out it’s not usually easy to get a clean chomp. A lot of the fish has a very firm texture — “not chewy, but not easy to bite through” — so people end up kind of gnawing awkwardly on the flesh instead of enjoying the textures and flavors of the combined piece. And after the struggle, he observed, “they usually end up popping the whole thing in their mouth anyway.”

5) Not eating the sushi immediately

“Temperature control is very important,” Ito said, expressing frustration with guests who leave nigiri sitting out in front of them for long stretches of time, no matter what size bite they eventually take.

Ito’s rice, which is made in fresh batches for each tasting, changes in both temperature and texture as the evening progresses according to plan. It starts out warmer, which makes for a more loosely packed mound that suits the lighter fishes and shellfish that open the meal, then cools off and becomes a firmer bed for the fuller tasting fish that close the night.

6) Describing a fish as “fishy”

Maybe a particular piece of seafood Ito serves has a very briny taste, or carries a flavor intensely reminiscent of the ocean or seabed from whence it came. If so, that’s on purpose — and describing it as “fishy” comes off as derogatory.

“I know what people mean,” Ito said. “A stronger flavor, or more gamey. Everyone uses it for mackerel. But the word has a very negative connotation to it, for fish that’s rotten or bad. My fish is as fresh as it can be. It’s a huge insult.”