Turning Japanese: Japanese sushi

This blog post is going to be slightly different (and a lot longer than usual), because the food within it was not prepared in our own kitchen. Instead, our foray into the world of sushi was courtesy of Miranda’s grandparents, who bought us a sushi making lesson as a wedding present, and Yo! Sushi, who hosted said lesson. That’s how last Sunday, instead of running the London Marathon in the cold (which was obviously Plan B for the day), we sat in the warmth of the County Hall branch of Yo! Sushi and learnt all about sushi (once we eventually got through the door after arriving too early).

617a Ash pre-sushi class compressed

618a Pre-class selfie compressed
(Being early meant time for some pre-class photos!)

We’d actually found out before we arrived that ‘sushi’ simply means ‘vinegar rice’ and that is how the word has come to be used as a catch-all for all the different varieties, like maki and nigiri. What we were surprised to learn from Helen, our instructor, is that the origins of sushi aren’t Japanese at all – they’re Chinese! It dates back to the 8th century or even earlier, when the Chinese would use fermented rice as a means of preserving fish. This then travelled to Japan, where it eventually evolved into the tasty morsels we know today. Nori (seaweed) wasn’t introduced until its invention (in sheet form, that is) around 1750.

The other important thing we learnt at the start of our lesson was about the rice preparation: as its name suggests, this is the key component of successful sushi. We didn’t make any ourselves, as it takes too long, but we were given the recipe to take home.

Sushi rice preparation

400g short grain rice (this might be labelled as ‘sushi rice’, which is exactly the same thing, but probably more expensive)
440ml cold water
75ml sushi rice vinegar

1. Wash the rice thoroughly in a sieve to rinse off the starch. This will probably take at least 5 washes. After this, allow the rice to drain for 30 minutes.
2. Place the rice into a heavy based pan and add the water and a tight-fitting lid. Bring to the boil and boil for 5 minutes.
3. Reduce heat to low and cook for a further 10 minutes.
4. Remove the pan from the heat and leave for a further 10 minutes without opening the lid.
5. Put the rice on a flat tray and spread it out evenly. Slowly add a little of the sushi vinegar whilst using a spatula to mix it into the rice with a folding action. Continue until all the vinegar has been incorporated.
6. Once the rice is at room temperature, it is ready to use.

The first thing we made was cucumber maki, in order to introduce us to the rolling technique. This was straightforward: place the nori on the rolling mat, add a layer of rice (leaving a two-finger-width gap along the top of the nori), sprinkle with sesame seeds, add a strip of cucumber and roll up, shaping into a square once rolled. We then passed our completed rolls to Helen, who chopped them up into six bite-sized pieces using a big, not-health-and-safety-compliant-for-students knife. Tempting though it was to taste a piece, it was only about 10:15am at this point so we resisted.

619a Cucumber maki compressed

620a Instructor Helen cutting maki (health and safety) compressed

Next was nigiri, which roughly translates to ‘pile of rice with stuff on top.’ * We learnt how to shape the rounded logs of rice in the palms of our hands, then made four different variations. The first, salmon, was very straightforward – all we had to do was place the slice of salmon on top of the rice (with optional dab of wasabi underneath). Second was omelette: we took our rectangle of omelette and placed it on the rice, but because it’s not sticky like salmon, we needed to wrap a small strip of nori around the whole operation to keep it all together. This nearly backfired for Miranda when her rice mound started to fall apart, but we got there in the end! The third type was gunkan, or ‘battleship’ sushi (so named because of its appearance). For this one, we had a piece of nori that was taller than our block of rice. We wrapped the nori around the sides of the whole block of rice, which created the ‘battleship’, with a sort of wall around the riceless space at the top of it. This space was filled with marinated seaweed. Finally, our fourth nigiri was inari, which means the rice was placed inside a pouch made of deep-fried tofu. This was fun, because once the edges were folded in neatly, it looked like a little boat. We were supposed to leave it as it was (like in the picture below), but the guy sitting with us filled his with surimi (fake crab), so we copied (like in the pictures further down).

* This might be made up.

621a Maki and nigiri compressed

Next on our learning menu was a hand roll, a variety of sushi that we weren’t familiar with. Instead of the more traditional cylindrical shape, this one was folded up into a cone. We filled one corner of our sheet of nori with rice, then put a couple of slices of salmon and avocado and some mayonnaise and sesame seeds on top. All we needed to do then was fold/roll it up so that the nori made a cone shape. Because of the salmon, mayonnaise and rice, it was recommended that we eat this one straight away, and we didn’t need to be told twice. We’re both quite ‘snacky’ cooks, so preparing all of that yummy food without nibbling on any had been difficult!

623a Salmon and avocado hand roll compressed

622a Ash with his salmon and avocado hand roll compressed

Whilst we were aware of the California roll, we didn’t know much about its origins, which was rectified as we commenced making it. Apparently Japanese chefs tried to introduce sushi in Vancouver, but people were turned off by the outer layer of seaweed. In effort to combat this, the roll was turned ‘inside out’ (with the rice on the outside) so that the seaweed was hidden. This new invention was so popular with Californian visitors to Vancouver, it was dubbed the ‘California roll.’ It then evolved into its current form in California itself, when the tuna from the original recipe was replaced with avocado.

Making the California roll was easier than we thought it would be, and this is because of the stickiness of the rice. You start off by making it in the normal way (nori on the mat first, followed by a layer of rice – with a three-finger-width gap left at the top of the nori this time – and a sprinkling of sesame seeds), but then flip it upside down so that the rice is on the bottom. Somehow, the rice doesn’t disintegrate during the journey! Once the nori is on top, you add a generous strip of surimi, two slices of avocado and a line of mayonnaise, then roll the whole thing up as though you’re making maki. It’s then cut in the same way too – and it all stays together! We had no choice to snack on a couple of these slices too: our generous hand with the rice meant that our California rolls were so chunky they didn’t all fit in the takeaway container we were given. Oh well. There was soy, wasabi and pickled ginger on the table for us to eat with our sushi too.

625a Making California roll compressed
(Sorry there aren’t more ‘in process’ pictures – we were wearing gloves which made photography difficult!)

630a California roll compressed

That was nearly the end of our sushi lesson. The final thing we did was make an avocado maki, ‘to practise our rolling skills.’ We actually thought the rolling was the easiest part of sushi making, so didn’t really need the practice by that point, but we were quite happy to take a bit more sushi away with us. And as you can see by the picture below, we did have a sushi feast in store that evening! We did have the option of staying in the restaurant and eating it straightaway, but it wasn’t even lunchtime yet and we wanted to save it for dinner.

636a Sushi at home compressed

So that was pretty much the end of our lesson, which was not only enjoyable, but also inspired us to stop talking about making sushi at home and actually do it. We now have two rolling mats after all!

Two more things happened that day before we ate our creations. In reverse chronological order, firstly, Ash kept being a good husband in working towards getting our kitchen painted and back in one piece. Much more entertaining, though, was the fact that we took a walk along the South Bank after our sushi lesson, and Miranda stopped to watch an Australian street performer. Immediately after Ash commented, ‘I don’t know whether I can be bothered with this,’ the performer grabbed him and dragged him ‘on stage’ to be a volunteer in his act, which involved Ash and another guy tying the performer up in 42 feet of metal chain and padlocking it, as well as taping his thumbs together and handcuffing him, while he manoeuvred his body into the frame of a tennis racket. He then somehow managed to escape from it all in less than two minutes (behind a curtain, sadly, so we couldn’t see how he did it). Anyway, it was very impressive, and involved Ash ‘performing’ on the South Bank for about half an hour.

632a South Bank compressed

633a South Bank compressed

634a South Bank compressed

635a South Bank compressed

Our day ended at home with our sushi feast, a bottle of sake and a couple of downloaded episodes of Ninja Warrior. As for the sushi, it was delicious. Our favourites were probably the avocado maki, inari and California roll – surprisingly, considering neither of us has much time for either tofu or fake crab! As we said earlier, this is definitely something we’ll make again in some form (the beauty of it being that you can put pretty much whatever you like in it) – after all, we’re now sushi masters. Our recipe booklet from Yo! Sushi says so.

637a Sushi, sake and Ninja Warrior compressed

638a Sushi feast compressed

Until next time: sayonara!

One thought on “Turning Japanese: Japanese sushi

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