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Sushi etiquette 101

If a chopstick holder isn't provided, make your own by simply tying the paper wrapper into a knot.
If a chopstick holder isn't provided, make your own by simply tying the paper wrapper into a knot.

Committing a cultural faux pas in a foreign country is understandable. But committing a culinary blunder is enough to make the culprit want to crawl under the table forever.

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I was once treated to spectacular dim sum by the Ritz-Carlton in Shenzhen, China, where I was seated next to the hotel's general manager. All through the meal, the dapper Swiss GM entertained the table of journalists, answered my barrage of questions, and smiled as I “mmm'd” and “ahh'd” over every bite. (I was showing off my food appreciation skills).

Not once did he raise an eyebrow as I dunked my dim sum into the small, shallow bowl of dark brown liquid sitting next to my plate.

Even when the waitress came by to refill my empty bowl WITH A TEAPOT, I kept chattering away and continued dipping each and every bite.

It wasn't until I finally looked up from my food and took note of my surroundings—both the table and the waitress who was, once again, refilling the tea that I mistook for soy sauce—that I realized my error.

The gracious GM never said a word. No harm was done and no international relationships were soured. But approaching a professional setting without noticing the details was my personal social blooper. I made it a goal never to be “that” girl at the table again.

Having picked up a few simple lessons in Chinese dining etiquette, the next logical step was to glean the necessary information for my other favorite ethnic cuisine: sushi.

For that, I approached Andrew Bender, an L.A.-based travel and food writer, cultural consultant, and former ex-pat, for his tips on proper sushi etiquette.

Our lesson took place at Kiriko in the heart of L.A.'s Japanese enclave around Sawtelle Boulevard between Santa Monica and Olympic. It's hard to go wrong on this six-block strip which is packed with top-quality sushi and noodle joints, Asian markets and karaoke bars, but both of us were blown away by Kiriko's laid-back ambiance and fresh, inventive menu.

Whether you're dining in Tokyo or entertaining guests from abroad, awareness of common etiquette can go a long way in crossing subtle cultural boundaries.  Even if you don't have an expert to show you the steps, avoiding a red-faced scene at the dinner table is as simple as looking up from your plate to take note of the social cues around you.

Check out the slideshow below for Andy's tips on how to savor sushi sans social snafus.

Want to learn more? Check out Andy's tours of Japan at www.andrewbender.com.

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( Photo credits: Andrew Bender)

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