Love sushi? Then these are 10 commandments to live by.

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Marco Werman: Questioning authority could be a good thing, but I wouldn’t try it at Yajima Sushi. It’s a small restaurant in Tokyo that writer Tom Downey visited recently. Inside, the chef demands that you eat by his rules. He calls them his “Ten Commandments of Sushi.” Here’s how Tom Downey remembers the place.

 

Tom Downey: It’s a very small basement restaurant near a big, bustling Tokyo subway station, or train station, called Shibuya. But it’s the kind of place that you could easily miss if you didn’t know about it beforehand and if you weren’t aware that down in this basement was this kind of incredible little world of a sushi chef, and his wife, and a few little customers around their counter.

 

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Downey: One of the things that struck me immediately, having eaten at a lot of other sushi restaurants, when I entered Yajima Sushi was that Yajima-san, the chef, was really in control and command of the place like almost no where else that I had visited. So, he had me wait, and then finally he sat me down in front of him and started to serve me pieces of sushi in rapid succession, one at a time, but telling me, “Eat it right now, don’t wait,” which leads me to Yajima-san’s first commandment of sushi, which is that a full meal of sushi should take just ten to fifteen minutes. And in order to explain that to me, he placed, a piece of squid sushi in front of me and he started counting, “One, two, three,” and said to me that each second that passes without me eating the sushi means that the sushi declines. First of all, the fish is warm. Second of all, the rice and the fish start to intermingle, and if you leave it there for a while, it becomes soggy in the same way that a sandwich becomes soggy.

 

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Downey: Moving ahead to Yajima’s fifth commandment, which is, “Use your hands, not your chopsticks, to eat my sushi.” One of the things that struck me again when I first visited Yajima was that he told me to put the chopsticks down right away as soon as I went for the chopsticks and as soon as he placed a piece of sushi before me, and he told me to use my hands. It’s something you see people occasionally doing in Japan, not as much here. But it was always an optional thing, and some people like to eat sushi that way. I also always imagined it was a somewhat rougher way of eating sushi. He had a different interpretation and a different argument for why you should do that, which is that the pieces of sushi are incredibly delicate, and when you use chopsticks, you can destroy the form, because the rice starts to crumble and you start to lose the structure of the sushi. Whereas when you pick it up with your hands, you can kind of cradle the rice at the bottom and you can get the whole thing into your mouth without destroying the form and the beauty of the piece of sushi.

 

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Downey: In my first visit to Yajima, where he had me sit down for a little while and then called me to the seat at the counter, I realized that part of what’s going on in his restaurant is that he wants you to sit down at the counter at the moment when he is ready to serve you completely, serve you all of your sushi in succession, and that the moment then when you can focus totally and completely on the sushi in front of you and on nothing else. So, one of the sort of humorous manifestations of this is that he really does not like people talking when they’re at his Sushi-ya. He believes that you should come in there, you should sit down, and for the ten or fifteen minutes that he’s serving you sushi, the only thing that you should focus on is the sushi. That Yajima’s ninth commandment, which is, “Savor my sushi, but don’t chitchat.”

 

Werman: Alright, your command is my obey. Writer Tom Downey there, sharing the “Ten Commandments of Sushi” with us. I wonder if Yajima has them written on stone tablets. You can find out what Yajima-san’s other commandments are and hear Tom tell us when sushi restaurants really took off in the West. Just go to PRI.ORG. From our studios at WGBH here in Boston, I’m Marco Werman. We’ll be back with you tomorrow.