If you’ve never heard about soy sauce on white rice being rude you probably chuckled at the thought of it like I did when I was first researching this topic. But trust me, it actually makes sense! Growing up in America and eating out at westernized Asian restaurants, ordering steamed rice was rare. And still is. Almost everyone orders fried rice for their meal or their side.
If I ever ordered steamed rice it’s because I thought it was the “healthier” option. But obviously, plain steamed rice is bland so like any person I added salt in the form of soy sauce (light sodium of course) and little did I know I was being “rude”. In some Asian cultures, like China and Japan, it’s considered disrespectful or unsophisticated. This may sound strange to you but there are solid reasons on why it’s viewed this way. There’s history to take into account and cultural respect.
So put away your soy sauce and grab a snack while we dive into it!
Rice is bland, why avoid using soy sauce?
In East Asia times were hard during the Song Dynasty. Money was difficult to come by and rice was a major crop of the poor. During the mid 1500s rice became a staple food of the lower class. For years on, rice was seen as the poor mans meal while only the wealthy could afford meats as their main dish. So to get by with the only meal they had, they poured soy sauce on their rice to give it flavor.
Nowadays, it’s used as a side dish to accompany your main courses like meats and vegetables. In some families and restaurants in China, rice is served in individual bowls to each person at the table and the main courses are communal. It’s basically family dinner in America except the main dishes aren’t passed around the table.
So if you’re seen adding soy sauce to your rice today, you’ll more than likely get a few stares.
How to avoid the stares.
A lot of works goes into the cooking of the main dishes. It’s like this in any culture! So it’s almost disrespectful to the chef or your host to pour soy sauce on your side dish of rice. It’s like putting ketchup on pizza in Italy or going to a 5-star restaurant in America and ordering the market price steak and pouring A1 all over it.
Also, if you’re eating out in public and are seen pouring soy sauce on your steamed rice, it could be viewed that you can’t afford meat and vegetables. The illusion of wealth is big in China, same goes for many Asian cultures, so when you’re eating out in public you would want to flaunt your status. In fact, in most restaurants you won’t even see soy sauce on the table! You’ll also probably get some funny looks if you ask for it.
I know it sounds silly now, but think of it how a lot of generations in the US refuse to eat left overs. It’s something they grew up on or their parents grew up on and it reminds them of a time when financials were hard and things weren’t so great. So when in Rome, or in Beijing, respect the culture and try using rice as the side carb instead of tainting it with soy sauce.
A little tip if you’re planning a trip to Asia.
As for me, I’m a huge fan of rice. Steamed, fried it doesn’t matter. But a lot of people don’t necessarily care for plain rice and if this is you and you’re planning to visit Asia, here’s a tip to avoid coming off as disrespectful, picky or poor (if you’re nervous about your social status) and getting stares from across the restaurant!
Again, like any person serving a meal, the main dish has a lot of time, patience, practice, pride and love put into it. Because the main dishes are seasoned well, and many times are on the saucy side, take a bit of meat or veggies then scoop the sauce from the main dish to eat with your rice! Think of rice as the foil for the main course to offer texture and mouth feel with each bit of meat or vegetable.
It’s also there to act as the starch of the meal. Disrespecting the rice is like skipping on potatoes in an American meal. And I’ve never heard of anyone skipping the potatoes.
But what about fried rice?
Fried rice in China was intended to be a small meal in itself. So why do we see full bowls or stuffed to-go boxes of fried rice from our Chinese and Japanese restaurants? It’s all just Americanized. Rice in Japan is also very different from what we are served here. It’s sweet and sticky and believe it or not, tastes pretty great without soy sauce.
Think of the rice on America sushi rolls. It’s a sticky short grain rice that is super addictive! Compared to fried rice which is usually a long grain like Jasmine or Basmati.
Pouring soy sauce on Japanese rice could also cause it to fall apart which ruins it’s perfectly sticky texture.
Even with sushi?
Japan is another country where soy sauce or shoyu shouldn’t be poured on your side of steamed rice. The rice is meant to be bland on purpose to accompany your meats and fish. However, you may be served a small side dish of shoyu to dip your meat or fish into.
Sushi is obviously a huge thing in Japan. Though, it is served very differently than what you’d see in the US. To traditionally eat sushi you would sit at the bar and eat each piece as it is served. If you’re lucky enough you might even get fish fresh of the boat! You also would never dip the rice portion of your sushi in soy sauce. This is definitely seen as rude or insulting to the chef.
Most traditional sushi in Japan is what we know as nigiri. Nigiri means “two fingers”. It’s served as a little bundle of rice draped with a thing slice of raw fish. Contrary to what we’re shown in western cultures, you also don’t eat your nigiri with chopsticks. Here’s your chance to eat with your hands, so gently pick it up between your middle finger and your thumb. The chef may recommend soy sauce for this next step but remember, never on the rice side. Instead, you are meant to dip the fish side in soy sauce and the fish side also goes on your tongue. This guarantees that you get the full flavor and freshness of the fish vs saturating the rice in shoyu (soy sauce) and missing out on the purpose of sushi!
It takes most sushi chefs years of vigorous training and school (between 2-20) to earn their title Itamae, which means professional chef. So the least we can do is respect our chef and the precious food he/she has prepared for us!
Will I be shunned for pouring soy sauce on my rice?
Maybe not shunned but like I said before, you’ll probably get some funny looks and furrowed brows. And to let you in on a secret, a lot of people will do it in the privacy of their own home! Just not out in public where they are victims to judgment. And when it all comes down to it, do what you want!
Would I suggest giving plain rice a chance if you’re visiting? 100%. If it was me, I’m going to respect and experience the culture I’m visiting so that I can truly immerse myself on my trip. But if you’re ordering take-away at your hotel or if you’re in America, don’t be afraid to indulge in salty sodium goodness.
Plus, even iron chef Masahar Morimoto created a neo-Japanese style of cooking that is definitely not traditional. I got the extreme pleasure of experiencing one of his restaurants while visiting Napa in 2018! Here are some pictures from my trip.
Couldn’t tell you what the name of my martini was now, but it was delicious! Then we ordered a variety of sushi rolls, sashimi and nigiri.
Next is an appetizer I cannot find on the menu anymore but it was a type of fried octopus or squid. I’m usually not one to order octopus or squid because of the texture but this was melt. in. your. mouth. Then we we ordered the duck confit fried rice with a sunny side up duck egg. DELICIOUS.
We also ordered oysters for an app and then more sushi which was stacked slices of fish, each with a different topping. And behind it in the smaller dish are little squeeze tubes of different sauces to experiment with!