Let's face it: you've probably been caught staring at a sushi chef at least once, wondering how the heck he (it's usually a he) manages to craft such perfectly formed morsels of food over and over again – and often within a few seconds.
Anyone who has watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi knows how long it would normally take to even be allowed to touch the fish, let alone create the whole thing, but we thought 10-odd years was a bit long to just make some nigiri at home. Enter one of the 90-minute, all-you-can-eat (or rather all-you-can-make) sushi classes offered by the Tokyo Sushi Academy in Tsukiji.
Upon entering, we were welcomed by a group of chefs, including our instructor for the morning, Hiro, a very happy, chatty fellow who had lived and worked in the US for quite a few years, and our personal nigiri sensei. Our group consisted of eight people, with two other, smaller groups receiving instructions from other chefs at the same time. And for those who don't know any Japanese, don't worry: this course is specifically designed for newcomers and is held entirely in English.
We started off watching Hiro as he slowly guided us through the steps of how to shape the rice, where to place the fish and parcel of rice in your hands (hint: the rice is on top of the fish to start with...) and, ultimately, how to shape that little slice of fishy heaven.
With a pre-made, cellophane-wrapped rice parcel, we practiced a few times under his watchful eye, always finishing off with the 'sushi move' (think a slow cocktail-shaking move, but without the pressure). Hiro amicably but insistently requested we shout out 'Sushi move!' during the process. Some of us obliged, others were more reluctant.
We were then allowed to create our own sushi from scratch, with eight different types of fish to choose from (some of the selection changes seasonally). This was where the gloves/no-gloves debate flared up: professional sushi chefs use their bare hands, wet slightly with a water-vinegar substance, to mould their nigiri, but we were told to use plastic gloves – the rice is more than a little sticky.
Some tried without gloves for a bit, but reverted to using gloves after a few attempts (yes it might not look as cool, but your sushi will look infinitely better for it, trust us). Hiro sliced off some nigiri-sized chunks of our favourites for us and then watched how we assembled our first pieces, with mixed results. We thought we did a pretty good job...
While we were going at it with intense fervour, Hiro also explained how to make the egg-roll nigiri, as well as the gunkan ('battleship'). Then we were free to make as much as our hands could handle, Hiro could slice and our bellies could fit. Which was, in all honesty, probably more than we should have.
Towards the end of the lesson, we spotted a rack of costumes too – upon inquiry, it turned out we were free to try on all of them, an offer we happily took up. By then we'd made so much that we'd essentially turned into a piece of nigiri ourselves, and the full costume only underlined the fact.
Hiro was also happy to answer any questions along the way, and went into quite some depth on what kinds of salts and sauces to pair with different types of fish (scallop and yuzu is a winner). And when asked about whether women could become sushi chefs too, he swiftly replied that all the traditional 'reasons' against it (menstruation, hand temperature...) are 'BS' – it's mainly the extremely long working days (14-plus hours is common) that currently deter many women from entering the business. Oh well.
Hungry yet? The class runs multiple times a day every Saturday; reserve your spot in advance through their website.
All photos by Kisa Toyoshima