Crash course in sushi will leave you wanting raw
I adore sushi. My first experience of it as a teenager was a revelation: the silky fish, the sticky rice, the papery seaweed punctuated by the salty soy sauce and the nosehair-burning sting of wasabi, Japanese horseradish.
Sushi restaurants are my special treat – but I have never dared try to make it myself, until I discovered a Cornwall-based chef offering tutorials.
Hiromi Bunday runs Sushi Ichiban from her St Austell home. She makes and sells sushi to restaurants, cafes and local markets, but she will also come to your home to show you how to make it, bringing the building blocks with her.
I got two sushi-loving girlfriends together for a session, and Hiromi started straight in – with rice. It may surprise you to know that the word sushi actually means "vinegared rice", and in this centuries-old recipe, the Asian staple plays a central role.
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Hiromi measured out the shortgrain rice (called Japanese or sushi rice in stores) and took it to the sink.
"Rather than wash the rice, we say polish the rice," says Hiromi, pressing the butt of her hand into the grains repetitively until the cloudiness started to wash away.
She showed us how to measure the water – with the thumb tip touching the rice, it should reach the first wrinkle – and how to turn off the heat after the bubbles, or "crab's footsteps", disappear.
Having taught us something new about rice, Hiromi went on to teach us something new about omelettes – hers she carefully rolled up in a small square pan, like a window blind. The result was a neat little brick, perfectly rectangular. We clapped when it came out of the pan.
I heard a story that in Japan, a sushi apprentice spends his first three years just learning how to make perfect rice, before he's allowed anywhere near the fish. I don't know if that's true. But Hiromi did say that it takes about eight years to learn the craft properly.
"I want to teach people about sushi," said Hiromi, originally an English teacher from Kobe. (She met her husband David at Essex University). "Sushi isn't just about raw fish if you don't like it.
"You can put anything on top – cooked fish, egg – or whatever you want. It is only since refrigeration was possible that raw fish has become commonplace, even in Japan."
Hiromi told us that in Europe, all raw fish must be frozen before it is served, as a hygiene measure. She gets her top-grade fish from Kernow Sashimi at St Martin near Helston.
As the rice nears doneness, Hiromi takes out her wooden sushi mixing bowl and dampens it. Into this she tips the rice, and over it her vinegar mixture: rice vinegar, sugar, and salt, blended overnight.
"It has to be hot when you pour in the vinegar," she said. "But then it has to cool."
She douses the rice with the vinegar mixture and zigzags a wooden paddle through it, cooling it vigorously with a fan. "This is the children's job," she smiles, and one of us duly takes over.
When the rice is exactly the right temperature – not too hot, not too cool – we will make nigiri, the oblong balls that are the building blocks of sushi. "Nigiri means squeeze, as you do shaking hands," says Hiromi. She dips her hand in water, takes some rice, and with three deft motions, produces a fat pellet. We are not so successful, but we keep at it.
Once our nigiri is made, Hiromi provides the toppings, perfectly cut to shape. She has brought shrimp, salmon, squid, cooked octopus, and of course the omelette, cut in neat rectangle shapes. They perch appealingly atop our rice balls.
We move on to rolls. Hiromi gives us flexible bamboo mats and sheets of nori, sheets of dried seaweed. The rolls are surprisingly straightforward: a layer of rice, something colourful for the middle (the carrot and spinach together look pretty), and roll, tucking the leading edge of the nori inside as you go. These long, fat cigar shapes are halved and halved again, until there are eight bite-sized segments.
California rolls are next: crab sticks and avocado wrapped in nori with the rice inside-out, finally covered in sesame seeds. These too are surprisingly easy to assemble. The key, once again, is getting the rice right. We finish up with inari, sweet deep-fried tofu fashioned into pouches for stuffing rice.
"Presentation is very important with sushi," Hiromi tells us – this is after all, a high-day and holiday treat, even in Japan. We arrange our sushi artistically on our platters and add the soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger that accompany the dish.
And the flavour – the flavour! A symphony in the mouth, a choir of angels singing, a party on a plate. It was looking distinctly dubious whether our husbands were going to have a look-in at the platter we had all prepared to take home.
It was gorgeous, and much better than shop-bought, particularly (you guessed it) the rice. But will I be brave enough to make it on my own? Maybe. One thing's for sure, I'd better get practicing with rice…
Hiromi is available for catering, demonstrations, or the full tutorials. Prices vary – a tutorial is from about £20 per head to include ingredients and materials. See www.sushiichibancornwall.co.uk or call 01726 77966 for more information.