Our World Amateurs roll with it to make sushi

Coming to grips with all the ingredients for making a Japanese staple means an interesting history lesson with the tuition.

I am woeful in the kitchen. For many years I was fiercely proud of my homemade spaghetti bolognaise, convinced it was of rare quality for an amateur cook. Then my wife, who is something of a culinary whiz, tried making this dish for the first time in her life. I tasted the results and instantly realised I’d been living in delusion. 

This humbling experience is bouncing around in the rear of my mind as I get off a train in Kyoto and walk towards a restaurant to meet chef Misa Oto. Despite my lack of gastronomic skills I’ve signed up to learn how to make what seems to me a very complicated food in sushi.

I don’t particularly like sushi either — I’m not a big fan of seafood in general — so much so that I stop to eat ramen pork noodle soup on the way to my lesson, rather than arriving with an empty belly. 

When I land at Ginnan restaurant and meet Mrs Oto, who is dressed in a brightly coloured kimono, she immediately asks me if I’m hungry. I decide against mentioning my noodle binge and tell her that I’m excited to eat sushi.

We sit down at a bench in one of the restaurant’s dining areas. The surface is laden with ingredients from fresh tuna to cucumber, tamagoyaki and seaweed. Before I begin to embarrass myself, Mrs Oto wants to tell me about the history of sushi. 

Contrary to my assumption, sushi is believed to have originated not in Japan but in South-East Asia, before catching on in southern China and eventually spreading to Japan in the eighth century.

At this point fermented rice was stuffed inside salted fish as a means of preserving the fish, as refrigeration was not yet invented. The best known early form of Japanese sushi was called narezushi.

When they were ready to eat the narezushi, people would remove and discard the rice before eating the fish. About 500 years ago Japanese diners began to abandon this practice and instead consumed the rice along with the fish. This style of sushi was known as namanare, which has fresh rather than salted fish.

Various forms of fresh sushi emerged in Japan over the following centuries. Perhaps the most significant of these was the maki roll, which saw sushi ingredients rolled and wrapped up inside nori — sheets of edible seaweed. It is this form of rolled sushi which first caught on in a major way in the Western world, and remains greatly popular to this day. This also happens to be the first style of sushi I’ll be making today under the tutelage of Mrs Oto.

Perhaps trying to calm my nerves, she tells me that most of her foreign guests are not very good at making sushi. “But actually it’s easy if you try a few times,” she tells me. “Just be patient and try to be gentle because you will damage it if you aren’t gentle.”

I lay out my nori flat on a bamboo rolling mat, and spread rice evenly across it. Then I place my fillings in a line on top of the rice. I start with chunks of fresh tuna, before adding some thin slivers of cucumber and a slice of tamagoyaki, a Japanese omelette made by rolling together layers of cooked egg in a frying pan. 

Now it’s time to curl up the bamboo mat and roll the ingredients into the nori.

When Mrs Oto performed this task it looked elementary, like rolling up an edition of a newspaper to swat a fly. In my clumsy, oversized hands, however, the process is far less smooth. First a piece of cucumber comes loose, then a few chunks of rice, and finally a swear word.

I apologise to Mrs Oto, for a range of things really, and retreat to my stool to watch further demonstrations. My second attempt is messy but better. The third is passable and gives me confidence. The fourth actually looks edible. I don’t try for a fifth because I’m afraid of recreating the first. 

Mrs Oto smiles politely, raises one thumb and says “OK”. 

To be honest, that’s more than I had hoped for. I’m still woeful in the kitchen.

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