23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 67

Q. I recently suffered the embarrassment of being taken by

a potential employer to lunch at a sushi bar. Boldly accepting the challenge of chopsticks, I found devouring the delicacy with any kind of grace impossible. It was a choice between taking an entire sushi roll in the mouth at one time or attempting doglike chomps (which weren't always successful as the seaweed layer was rather tough). Either way the spectacle was uncivilised, and I suspect that I didn't land the job. I would be most grateful to know where Japanese etiquette stands on this matter.

H.B.G., Melbourne, Australia A. Some sophisticates, such as Nicola Formby, have sufficient buccal expertise to be able to consume a whole roll gracefully in one mouthful. Meanwhile Nicola's boyfriend, A.A. Gill, claims that 'the only chic way to eat sushi is with your own perfectly dexterous fingers rather than two wooden pseudo-fingers. And it is polite in Japan to let the person on your left suck your fingers clean for you afterwards.' Let us take what Gill says with a pinch of ginger because, as Far Eastern expert Murray Sayle kindly informs readers, `No Japanese would countenance eating with their fingers.' He adds. 'There is no Japanese etiquette on this subject because the "sushi roll" that the reader describes is unknown in Japan. All traditional Japanese (and Chinese) food is chopped into pieces suitable for being lifted to the mouth with chopsticks. This applies to the form of sushi that is prepared by rolling rice, fish and other ingredients in sheets of dried seaweed (nori) and then chopping the resulting cylinder into bite-sized portions. However, American sushi chefs, perhaps fearful of losing unskilled fingers, omit the chopping stage, and serve a kind of non-covered sausage shape which I believe is called a California roll. That the reader found the "seaweed layer" rather tough confirms that this was, by Japanese standards, a low-class place using cheap cooking sushi intended for baking in rice-flour biscuits.' For readers faced with this dilemma, who do not wish to appear ignorant of (spurious) Oriental custom by calling for a knife and fork, or to show up their prospective employer's ignorance. may I suggest treating the sushi rolls as escargots, pronging the bundle with one chopstick and extracting the contents with the other.