Cooking classes abound in Paris. Debbie K, a kawan of mine and fellow food enthusiast orgnized one at her favourite sushi bar, Comme des Poissons. I was very excited to be included in her mailing list because a cooking class at this prestigious sushi bar is trés difficile to come by. I was told that there is a long waiting list amongst the Japanese housewives in Paris, dying to learn how to make sushi rolls the right way. Yes, even Japanese housewives are eager to learn from this sushi chef. What more honour can there be than for Kino san to welcome gaijins like me to his humble resto?
Apron in hand and eager to start, I head off to the rue de La Tour in the seizieme for a 10 o’clock start. No sooner had I arrived, I saw Kino san bounding up the road to open his sushi bar ready for today’s lesson. His sushi bar only sits 10 pax at a go and Mondays are when he does some R and R. This Monday though, he unlocked his resto/bar for the ladies of the ISP (International School of Paris).
The lesson begins full swing in Japanese with Debbie K san translating. Kino san says a mouthful in Japanese and Debbie K san says two words in translation and so this goes on until end of class.
The first and most crucial thing we learnt that morning is that the gohan in any sushi roll is the most important ingredient. Mais oui, I thought, sushi is rolled rice, n’est ce pas? But what Kino san meant was this: the rice and the sushi vinegar that goes into the rice has to be made fresh just before the sushi is rolled. He would rather be complimented on his rice than on the ingredients that he puts in the rice – his words. Of course, the ingredients have to be fresh too especially the fish that goes into the sushi.
The rice has to be Japanese short grain rice and this can be purchased in any Japanese grocery store or at the Chinese supermarket, Tang Fréres in Paris. He recommended this brand:
Premium Japanese Rice
This rice is grown in California, incidentally, where the soil and climate are conducive for rice harvesting.
Rice harvested in the autumnal months are more moist than that harvested in the spring/summer months, Kino san explained and this knowledge is crucial in determining the amount of water to be used when cooking the gohan. Rice is the staple food in Asia and features predominantly in every meal much like potatoes are in Europe and America. My mother taught me that the correct amount of water to add to washed rice is up to the first knuckle of your index finger and no more. So if you divide your index finger into thirds, it is the first third from the base of your finger nail.
The rice kernels have to washed very well. That means that the water has to be clear before the rice can be cooked in the rice cooker. Look at the water at the start of the rice washing process:
Stir vigourously whilst washing to release the starch from the kernels. Then pour out the cloudy water and start all over again. Some people have a special number that they stop at, like my mother who counts up to 6 times. But really, if you’re not too number obsessed, then wash the kernels til the water runs clear:
This works for any type of rice you’ll be washing in future. Basmati and Thai Jasmine rice have lesser starch content and do not require that much washing. Rice is ready to be cooked once the water in which it is washed runs clear. Then measure your water as explained above or if you prefer, 4 cups of rice requires 4.4 cups of water (amount of rice x 1.1). As you know, I am not one for exact measurements because cooking is all about trial and error. My family has cooked the aghak-aghak (guess-guess in Malay) for generations and the recipes that my parents have shared with me are mostly based on this way of cooking…and our rice is always cooked just right with the first-knuckle-of-your-index-finger measurement.
The rice cooker: Kino san advised a Japanese made one but in reality, the one I have that has been manufactured in China works just as fine.
Sushi rice has to be cooled before sushi making. Here, you’ll see Kino san fanning his rice after he has added his secret potion of rice vinegar mix:
Fanning the Rice
Of course, he declined to name the proportions of sugar to mirin to rice vinegar and simply advised us to buy this:
The secret potion
Mixing the rice is very important to ensure that it is thoroughly coated with sushi vinegar. The Japanese word for this action is cutting. As I watched Kino san, I realized that he was slicing through the mountain of rice several times. It is important not to break the cooked rice kernel. Then he waits:
Waiting by the Rice
I love how patient the Japanese people are. They understand the beauty of the adage that Rome was not built in a day and that grace and patience achieve results.
When the rice was at the right temperature, maki making begun. First, it is important to surround wrap your mat. This prevents any excess rice from sticking to the grooves in the mat and makes for easy washing. I wish someone had told me that before…. but you learn something new everyday.
Then place a piece of nori at the edge of the mat nearest you and wet your hands in a bowl of water that you should have already prepared next to you along with a wet tea towel. This is to ensure that the rice does not stick to your hands and that you don’t waste any rice by wiping your hands with the wet tea towel and throwing the excess rice back into the rice bowl or trough. Kino san explained that much respect and regard have to be shown to the number of days that it takes to grow rice which is 88. The kanji for rice and also the chinese symbol for rice can be pulled apart to make up the number 88 in Japanese and Chinese characters.
Rice equals 88
So “waste not and want not” was what he meant. It was humbling to see this great sushi chef savouring every grain of rice not wanting to waste even a single kernel whilst showing us how to make maki.
Did you know that nori has a dull side and a shiny one? Well, Japanese people eat with their eyes it has been said. Presentation and plating is very important in Japanese dining. So the shiny side is what you see when the sushi is rolled with the seaweed facing you.
Kino san showed us how to make the expert sushi, that is, with the rice enveloping the nori. First, spread the gohan on the dull side of the seaweed, then nudge it towards you gently with your fingertips until the rice reaches the base of the nori square.
Nudging the rice towards the sushi chef
Then you do a flip of the nori/rice parchment and voilâ, the seaweed side is now facing you. Spread a thin film of wasabi in the middle of the nori
The Green Stripe
and then begin placing your filling.
When that is done, it is time to start rolling. Place your thumbs at the base of your mat and push both mat and sushi towards the middle of the mat over the ingredients.
Like So desu
Press gently but firmly down to secure the filling and then roll once more to the end of the nori. Dahdum! you have your first maki made!
To say that it is difficult would be lying and to say that it is easy would also be fibbing. Practice makes perfect is what I can say….. Correct practice, that is. Don’t be put off by the stickiness of the gohan, with time, the rice will no longer be sticking to your hands. Just look at those perfect sushi hands of Kino san in the picture - sans riz!
I’ve purchased my sushi making ingredients and mat and tonnes of surround wrap. I’ll be trying this out with the kids. I bet, they’ll appreciate better the sushi that they’ve made themselves and I don’t have to be ordering livraison from the local non-Japanese Japanese anymore….
Japanese Grocery Shops
Kioko, 35 rue des Petits Chaps 75002
Jujiya, 46 rue St Anne 75002
Nanaya, 81 Ave Mozart 75116
Kanae, 118 rue Lecourbe 75015