Hotel brings out the sushi chef in anyone
Japan’s most iconic food, sushi has spread worldwide in many forms. It is rooted in a rich history, and to partake in the real stuff – to make as well as eat it – is an intimate glimpse into Japanese sentiment, tradition and culture. A hotel in the heart of Okinawa City offers the ideal opportunity.
I recently met Nobumasa Irei, head chef of Sushi Shuna at the Okinawa Grand Mer Resort Hotel. The 33-year veteran of “wa-shoku,” Japanese cuisine, was my teacher and guide into the world of handmade sushi.
Now I love cooking; but “to have sushi” has always meant putting on my going-out pants and happily shelling out a few thousand yen for the culinary experience. Great sushi touches all senses, a presentation of aromas, textures, flavors, and if you’re lucky, great conversation. Homemade sushi was not in my repertoire. My Japanese classmates said it wasn’t often made in their homes either.
“The last time I made sushi I was probably in middle school,” said classmate Megumi Savoy. She described her last sushi-making experience as less than perfect. “My hands were too small, so I couldn’t roll it tightly enough.”
Not to worry, the class proved to be both enlightening and fun.
Chef Irei greeted us in his whites, bowing respectfully before introducing himself and leading us to the center of his restaurant. There we found a table prepped for the course at hand, complete with traditional tools of the trade.
Irei began with a brief introduction of topics we would cover for the 30-minute course, passing out English recipe and reference sheets. We donned apron, cap and gloves, and an assistant appeared with a “sushioke,” a specifically made wooden bowl, full of perfectly steamed white rice.
The chef set off teaching the intricacies of making “sushimeshi,” vinegared sushi rice. Naturally sweet, balanced tartness and wonderfully chewy, sushimeshi is the canvas for additional touches of color and taste and texture.
Hand me the paddle, pour in the vinegar, and get to mixing! No, absolutely not, unless you want to end up with a gummy mass.
Irei explained that the act of “cutting” the rice is just as important as the quality of ingredients. Using the edges of the wooden rice paddle, he gently cut and folded the sweet vinegar into the rice, preserving each grain’s integrity, promoting cooling and a mild fermentation, coaxing the mixture into a shimmering pearly white. Next came assembly.
On this day, the subject was the California roll (classes can be arranged around other sushi as well). Spread the sushimeshi on seaweed sheets called “nori” and add fresh lettuce, cucumber, avocado, tuna and crab. Then roll. Thankfully the “makisu,” a threaded bamboo mat, was created just for this purpose.
Savoy presented the group with a beautifully plated California Roll, dressed in wasabi mayonnaise. I had something edible, and our classmate Saori Tamanaha exclaimed, “I’m going home to make this, and have a sushi party!” We sat down to a lunch of our creations, completed by crispy tempura, Okinawa soba, fruit, and of course, delightful conversation with our chef.
“Most of the students that join our class are tourists staying at our hotel,” Irei explained. Visitors from China, Korea and even Japan make up the bulk of the participants, but the chef extended his welcome to the American community on Okinawa as well. “Sushi rolls are a great snack for home parties.”
Once students get over the initial how-to, they’ll be teaching others how easy and fun sushi making can be.
“It’s all in the roll – once I put on that apron and chef’s hat, I felt like I could do anything,” Tamanaha said. “Maybe I’ll open a restaurant tomorrow.”
Rolled Sushi Classes
Where: Tokyo Dai-ichi Okinawa Grand Mer Resort
Cost: 2,000 yen per person (includes lunch)
Vegetarian and kosher menus available