If you knew sushi…
Our new favourite lunch is more than just rice and a slice, finds Tiffany Hancock
Already more popular than egg-and-cress sandwiches, sushi is fast becoming the nation’s favourite lunch. So it seems surprising that so few people know how to make it. It hardly looks complicated: boil a bit of rice and slap some raw fish on top. But a two-and-a-half-hour class in sushi-making at the Japan Centre in London showed me otherwise.
Perched just off Piccadilly Circus, the Centre is a homage to all things Japanese, with a basement shop that sells everything from rice and noodles to soy sauce and seaweed. Upstairs is the restaurant and probably some of the best Japanese food in the country. This is where the owner of Nobu comes to dine with his manager. Both restaurants use the same fish supplier, although the sushi here costs a fraction of the price at Nobu.
Apart from the quality of ingredients, the real distinction is in the detail. The rice used is all milled on site and it is boiled in water that has been filtered twice. An electric rod is used to ionise the water and change it from being acid to alkaline to improve the taste.
It might sound overly perfectionist but, as Tak Tokumine, the owner, emphasises as we begin the class, getting the rice right is crucial. First off, don’t even think about using anything other than Japanese sushi rice, preferably from a Japanese food store.
Tokumine’s disdain for the Japanese produce on offer in British supermarkets turns out to be a recurring theme. He explains that the rice is usually just standard rice that can only be called sushi rice once sushi vinegar has been sprinkled on to it after it’s cooked. “The reality is that it’s very poor quality,’’ he says. ‘‘In Japan the name of the brand of the rice is how we judge quality. Koshihikari and Tamanishiki are good names.”
Tokumine also advises against buying fish in supermarkets. The tuna, he warns, is often “gassed” to make it look pink and fresh. Sushi enthusiasts should head instead to their local fish market or order from a Japanese fishmonger. “The British are a meat nation, while Japan is a fish nation,’’ he says. ‘‘Your meat is better but our fish is superior”.
When I taste my first piece of hosomaki, a tiny cylindrical roll filled with salmon, I realise that Itsu and Yo! Sushi will never have the same appeal again. This rice is soft and sticky with a gentle kick of vinegar while the melt-in-yourmouth salmon is full of flavour and has a silky texture. It’s like comparing the very best beef fillet with a McDonald’s burger.
I can’t take all the credit: the rice has been prepared in advance so the class can focus on technique and presentation. Recreating rice of this quality might take some practice, although we’re given detailed instructions on when to adjust the heat and add the sushi vinegar.
After preparing our first hosomaki, the class of eight moves on to different types of roll. The man next to me, a financial advisor in his mid-50s, experiences a Damascene moment with his tiny cone-shaped temaki roll. Having struggled, and failed, repeatedly at home with sushi cookbooks, the guidance and extra advice (there is roughly one chef to every two students) make all the difference.
We’re also given advice on how best to eat the end product: tucking in appears to be a minefield of bad manners. For starters, always be sure to dip the fish rather than rice into your soy sauce. If you drop lots of rice into your sauce, you risk becoming a social pariah. As Tokumine says: “It’s ugly and not proper. Everything in Japan must be neat and straight.”
The same couldn’t be said of all the sushi I make, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the taste that counts. As for aesthetics, practice will hopefully make perfect.
A sashimi or sushi course at the JC Sushi Academy in the Japan Centre costs £140 and takes place on the second Tuesday of every month. The Japan Centre is at 212 Piccadilly, London W1 (020 7255 8255; www.sushi-courses.co.uk). The price includes ingredients to take away. See www.hotcourses.com for details of other sushi courses nationwide.
On a roll: Tiffany Hancock learns the finer points of sushi with chef Kaori Kunitake