It has been interesting to see how sushi etiquette customs and traditions loosen up here in the United States compared to when I lived in Japan.
If you have read any of the rantings and ravings on my website on some of the debatable sushi etiquette rules, you know that I can get quite passionate about them and the appropriateness of some of them in different social situations, geographic locations and settings.
What the Experts say and What Actually is, Sometimes Differs…
It seems to me that the “experts” seem to think that these rules always apply to all situations; or better yet that “one size fits all”. This observation is based mainly on the fact that they don’t ever mention any scenarios that state otherwise.
To me, the rules can vary depending on the situation.
Let’s take an example.
One that readily comes to mind is the “rule” about not mixing wasabi with your soy sauce…
In the purely traditional sense it is considered a “No-No”.
The more proper way to get your “wasabi fix” is to either request your chef to add a little more to your sushi during assembly or to just swipe a little onto your sushi with your chopstick after actually getting it and dipping it into your pure, untainted, virgin soy sauce.
The two previous methods being preferred to the more barbarian one of mixing wasabi straight into your soy sauce and dunking your sushi into it under the glaring eyes of a now possibly irritated or insulted sushi chef…
So, I know what you’re thinking… Am I guilty of this horrendous sushi sin?
Well, I have to admit it. You can label me at least an occasional barbarian… And that’s all you will get out of me for now…
Is there actually a point to this story being that the title of this article is about “Sake and Sushi” not “Wasabi and Sushi?”
Yes, I actually think there still is.
When I was growing up, my mother (who is Japanese), would make sushi for us. Did my mother put wasabi in her soy sauce? Yep, she sure did. When she had her Japanese friends and relatives over at the house, did they put wasabi in their soy sauce? I dare say that I do recall that most of them did too…
So what’s up with this “No wasabi in the soy sauce” rule then?
Well, as far as I can tell, Japanese people are human too. In an informal setting like the home, they seem to do what they like. This is kind of like putting ketchup in your pinto beans at home in the Deep South. There (in the Deep South), if you like ketchup in your pinto beans, then by golly-ghee-whiz you drown your beans in ketchup.
Take the same two previous scenarios just mentioned and put everyone in either a 1st class sushi bar in Japan or a 5 star restaurant in the U.S.
Now… Would these same people have done exactly the same thing?
Hmm. Probably not all of them. The social situation in this case would more than likely have altered what each person would have done. Well, unless you are totally socially inept or a complete Neanderthal…
So in these cases, quite possibly, the social situation would have influenced the end result…
The Sake and Sushi Conundrum
So, let’s ask the original question again.
Is it proper to drink sake with your sushi?
The traditional answer is No. It is not.
The reason given is because sake is made out of rice and sushi is also made out of rice; albeit sushi rice. Tradition and/or the experts say that this causes the flavors to conflict taking away from the experience of enjoying either one or both.
I have to actually say that I agree in this situation… (I know, I know… and you thought I was a rebel… ). But honestly, to me either green tea or beer goes better with sushi.
So when it comes to Sake, what is proper then?
Typically, if you want to drink sake with your meal, then drink it with your sashimi (meat only – no sushi rice).
Sashimi, if eaten, is usually taken before the main sushi meal as kind of like an appetizer.
If you want to have sake, have it then. That is also when sake is traditionally acceptable too.
But you may be asking yourself, “What about in a different social situation, like with the wasabi example given earlier?” Ah, so you see where this is going, do you?
There is no clear answer, but let me leave you with an observation.
Sake and Sushi in the U.S.
There is an interesting twist to this story.
I happen to be fairly active in wine and sushi social groups (totally separate groups) and one of the recent activities that seems to be quite popular in both groups are sushi and sake outings in sushi restaurants.
You get to try different kinds of sushi and sake and in my experiences, they were usually served together. No sashimi was involved.
Yes… although traditionally incorrect, the experience seems to be quite socially popular… at least in the U.S.
Obviously, the sushi restaurant was OK with it… Heck, it was something that they offered. And the sushi chef must have been OK with it too. He sure kept the sushi and the sake flowing…
So, Do You or Don’t You Drink Sake with your Sushi?
So here we are back to the original question again. What is the final takeaway here?
I think it actually comes somewhat down to personal choice.
If you want to follow tradition, then don’t have sake with your sushi but instead have it with your sashimi beforehand or drink it before your sushi arrives.
If you live in the U.S. and you don’t care about tradition and the possibility of conflicting flavors, then go for it. Have your sake and sushi too. At least you won’t be alone since sushi and sake tastings seem to be becoming quite popular in sushi restaurants across America.
Well, at least at the ones that I have been frequenting recently…