Many of us are used to tipping or being charged for a service or goods tax at restaurants, as well as paying a cover fee to enter clubs or certain bars with live performances. But at some places in Japan, I found that there were small additional charges made without my knowing. Was it for the lack of ambient music, the smoky air conditioning, or the human touch in handing out wet towels? When I got wind of the practice of a seating fee, in the form of an amuse bouche that cannot be refused, I was befuddled. Why should I have to pay for a seat seeing as it wasn’t a concert or anything like that, and much less pay for something I did not order?
Otoshi お通し (also called tsukidashi 突き出し in Kansai, West Japan) literally means “to pass”, and is somewhat reflective of a small bite to occupy the time between placing the order and when the food arrives. Usually found in Japanese bars called izakaya 居酒屋, these hors d’oeuvre sized dishes are surreptitiously put on the table of any customer who takes a seat, regardless of how much he orders. Izakaya used to be small bar counter hole in the wall bars, where seats were very limited and owners could not afford to have people sitting there for hours on end nursing the same drink. Hence this practice was introduced as a seating charge of sorts. Some also attribute this to the passive aggressive nature of the Japanese in getting customers to pay even if they did not touch the otoshi, as a “service” was deemed to have been rendered.
Otoshi more often than not include chinmi 珍味 or “delicacies”, and vary by the day. They range from the delicious, to the weird, to the downright nasty. They are not the typical appetizer, and are an extremely acquired taste to say the least. For example, shiokara 塩辛 or “salty spice” is squid marinated in something so overpoweringly salty and spicy that it comes off pungent and almost putrid. Hijiki seaweed braised with abura-age (beancurd skin) and edamame (peas) is another popular choice, in addition to tofu, marinated beansprouts, taro or assorted tsukemono 漬物 (pickled vegetables). Some relatively strange ones include pig’s ear cartilage with plum sauce and raw baby squid.
Now that we understand the purpose behind otoshi, it doesn’t sound that bad after all (if it’s a proprietary and not chain izakaya that does it)! It seems embarrassing to ask for it to be removed, although recent trends show that people who order more than a soft drink do ask if the otoshi can be done without.
The elicited response varies, but it’s worth a try. Kanpai 乾杯!