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Sushi Etiquette for the Conscientious Eater

People eating vegan sushi.

My story is nothing new: it’s been difficult balancing my own moral stance on sustainability with social etiquette and manners. In fact, going to any restaurant with friends or a family dinner has resulted, more times than not, in awkward conversations about my personal choices.

Sushi restaurants perhaps prove most awkward of all; you very often can only have vegetable rolls if you don’t want to skimp on your sustainability philosophy, and even then, the vegetables are rarely organic or local. I’ve met rolling eyes and scrunched up noses, even blatant accusations of elitism. How caring for one’s planet and other creatures that walk, fly, and swim on it is elitist is beyond me.

Over time, I’ve come up with more graceful ways of introducing my philosophy to others and avoiding those awkward confrontations that all too frequently help no one.

Be discreet.

No one at the table wants to hear that what they just ordered is going to ruin the planet, just like no one eating a corn-fed t-bone steak wants to meet the cow. Ignorance is bliss, although this is frustrating for more conscientious eaters who can’t turn off their brains.

If you feel you’re in safe enough company, you’re encouraged to spread the word about ocean sustainability. You should even have extra copies on hand of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide, tucked away safely in your purse in case you come across opportunities to educate those willing to change.

Still, we all have friends with whom we don’t see eye to eye. Wait until another time—when you’re not in a restaurant—to broach the topic and tread carefully. Never talk about it when your friend or family member is in mid-bite of blue fin tuna. You’ll lose respect from them and appear to be self-righteous and ill-mannered, even if you don’t think so.

Rather than preaching, approach the topic as if you’ve discovered something you think they’ll find interesting rather than something of which you’ll have to convince them. Instead of, “Hey, you should take a look at this; this is what I’ve been doing,” try, “Hey, have you seen this? This is pretty crazy. Look what I found on the Internet.” Be ready to back up your position, but give it time, too. Nobody wants to be told that what they’ve been eating for the past twenty-plus years has been hurting the planet, although some take it better than others.

Ask the sushi chef or waiter/waitress where their items come from.

Is the salmon wild Alaskan or Atlantic? What kind of crab is in your sushi roll? Are the scallops farmed? Again, be discreet, since other people at the table will wonder why you care and you’ll have to explain your stance on sustainability, which to them might appear elitist and self-righteous. If it makes you feel better, follow the waiter/waitress and ask him/her quietly away from your table. Explain that you didn’t want to make present company feel ill at ease, and he/she should take the hint to give a response in an equally discreet manner.

Still, depending on the individual, your friends or family might not care what you eat as long as you don’t pester them about their choices. Still others might be interested in changing their order once you tell your story, although I can say from personal experience that this is unlikely.

Ask the sushi chef or waiter/waitress to bring you the rolls you want sans unsustainable fish.

You might get a weird look, but many American sushi rolls these days have anywhere from two to ten ingredients. Removing one or two of them might not even change the taste.

Bring your own chopsticks or do the Japanese thing: use your fingers.

It’s a mistake to think that eating with your hands is impolite in Japanese culture. In fact, eating sushi with chopsticks at a sushi bar is an insult to the chef. It begs the question: are your fingers too good for my sushi? Just be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before and after eating.

Heather is a freelance writer and the resident blogger for GoCollege.com, an informational website offering tips about online colleges.

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by maritacosma

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