~ By RICHARD FOSS ~
One of the pleasures of the sushi bar is the display of artistry – the deft, sure strokes of the knife that turn humble ingredients into works of art. I have sat enraptured watching a cucumber sliced into a butterfly nearly as delicate as the real thing, and admired the abstract art of California rolls whose geometric purity inspired thoughts of Euclid.
I never thought I could learn to make sushi myself until one evening when I was dining at California Beach Sushi in Hermosa and saw a flyer for their sushi classes. Skeptical about this fumble-fingered roundeye learning anything useful in a three hour class, I called the school and was reassured that no exceptional dexterity was required, and students would indeed learn to make several kinds of sushi in one afternoon. I showed up at the California Sushi Academy on Ocean Avenue in Venice along with my Japanese-American friend Kat. We were carrying our best kitchen knives and an apron apiece and wondering if we were about to make fools of ourselves.
The classroom reminded me of my high school chemistry lab, the same rows of workspaces with steel sinks, a whiteboard, and a rack of equipment in the corner. Instructor Danielle Chase greeted us as we came in and checked the knives we had brought. Mine didn’t pass because it was too dull and the wrong shape, but she loaned me a knife for the afternoon. Surprisingly little equipment is needed to make sushi, but we found that a really sharp knife is indispensable.
As soon as the students were equipped with appropriate cutlery, the class began. Danielle gave us a historical overview and then appropriate etiquette for making and consuming sushi. I found it amusing that sushi chefs always greet each other with “Good morning,” regardless of the actual time. The exact reason for this tradition is unknown – perhaps some long ago sushi master had a bad sense of time and nobody wanted to correct him. In any case, it is always morning in a sushi restaurant, and each person entering the kitchen is greeted with a shouted “Ohayogozaimas!”
Next was the first element of sushi, namely making and flavoring the sticky rice that gives sushi its name. (The word sushi literally means rice flavored with vinegar, and has nothing to do with fish. Raw fish served without rice is called sashimi; vinegared rice topped with anything, even beef, is called sushi.) Making the rice that perfect combination of fluffy and sticky is an exact science, and we took notes as Danielle and a team of helpers stirred the rice and added vinegar, sugar, and a pinch of salt. They used a huge cedar basin, wooden paddles, and paper fans for cooling. Later on at home we used a metal bowl, a plastic rice paddle, and some cardboard and got roughly the same effect.
While the rice cooled we learned a bit about our knives. I have been cooking since I was a teenager and never thought about how I was holding my knife or what movements I was using to cut things. It turned out I was doing it wrong. When I tried the different technique it suddenly felt right – I had more control than before. It didn’t hurt that the school’s blade was noticeably sharper than anything in my drawer, and I silently vowed to take my cutlery for a tune-up.
We started knife practice on cucumbers, trying our best to make equal strips. My first few pieces varied widely, but they became more even and graceful. We set the cut cucumber aside and switched to avocados. Then we set our knives aside for a moment and started learning about the art of handling rice and the dried seaweed called nori to make a sushi roll. This was actually more complicated than the knife work, and involved dampening our hands to the exact point where the rice wouldn’t stick but the nori would not get soggy. We had to put a thin, even layer of rice on the nori, add the fillings and then carefully wrap it into a California Roll. If we did it right the roll would close with the contents perfectly centered.
We couldn’t see the results immediately. First we had to shape the roll into the traditional rounded square using a flexible bamboo mat, then cut the rolls gently without deforming them. Here was where sharpness really counted – when I tried to use the knife I brought from home it flattened the roll, while the borrowed knife glided right through. We laid the cut pieces out so we could see the cross-sections and stood back to admire our handiwork.
My first roll didn’t have that symmetrical perfection, but it did close and didn’t look at all bad. It was neither the best or worst in the class – one student had centered his crab so precisely that he might have used a micrometer, but the Asian woman across from me had too much rice and couldn’t close hers. My friend Kat beamed like a proud parent at her nearly perfect first try. Whether or not the placement was perfect, they all tasted just fine. Like any hands-on cooking class, the students eat well. Danielle told me that the average student in the three-month professional course gains about six pounds. Some students have been known to barter their class projects to friends and local vendors for coffee, phone calls, and other items.
While we ate our first efforts, I seized a chance to talk with Danielle. She had studied French and Italian cooking before coming to the sushi school as a student. She liked the place so much that she stayed, eventually becoming the school’s director. She said that over half of the students who take the beginning class are so excited about making sushi that they come back for a more advanced course. some even signing up for the three month professional class. Some caterers and chefs take the class so that they can feature sushi on their menus, but most students are non-professionals taking the class to refine their appreciation of the cuisine and make it for family and friends.
Having eaten and no longer suffering the torture of only looking at beautiful food, we proceeded with inside-out rolls, the large rolls called futomaki, handrolls, and beautiful rainbow roll topped by stripes of fish. Meanwhile, Danielle continued to lecture and although I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable diner I learned plenty. By the end of the three hour class we had all improved greatly, imagining the reaction when we showed up at the next party with a pile of fresh fish, a knife, sushi mat, and a rice cooker.
Since having that first party experience, I can confirm that making sushi is a great way to impress your friends as well as enriching your local fish vendor – you need the very freshest fish to make sushi, and it isn’t cheap. It is still cheaper than ordering out from a restaurant, and the skills we students learned will apply to more than just Japanese food. I now have a new appreciation for the art of the sushi chef and watch even more carefully as I dine out, alert for things I can try at home. I’ll probably be back for the advanced class, because the more I learn, the more I want to know. I will never make sushi professionally, but I’ll be able to give my dinner guests an even better show, and I’ll enjoy every minute of it.
You can reach the California Sushi Academy at 310-581-0213 or at www.sushi-academy.com.