Published for the Oakland Magazine website, a few moments ago!
OAKLAND, CA (July 20, 2011) — There’s a reason why sushi chefs look so cheerful behind the counter — they start their shifts with a shot of sake.
Or at least that’s what Ozumo sushi chefs told a group of 12 eager students at the restaurant’s first-ever Sushi 101 class last night, right before clinking glasses.
The classroom — a converted private dining room — was well equipped with neon cutting boards, wet towels, pristine gift bags and glistening strips of sake (salmon) and maguro (tuna). Alongside, nori (seaweed sheets), kaiware (daikon radish sprouts), crab meat, sliced avocado, julienned cucumbers, jalapenos, wasabi and fresh ginger beckoned. It took all my willpower not to throw the nori aside and dive into the raw goodness immediately. I could call it deconstructed sushi and win respect that way, right?
Wrong. All respect would have to be won through my sushi rolling abilities, which meant listening to the experts. Weyman Li, Oakland Ozumo sous chef, led the class with a smile and twinkle in his eye. We were going to get messy, he warned. We were going to have fun, he assured. We were going to fail, but that’s just how we learn.
Luckily the daunting tasks of preparing sushi rice and mis en place were done for us — surely we students would have cut our hands off had we tried to imitate Li, who peeled and cored a cucumber with a long and obviously dangerous sushi knife in seconds.
That just left the actual rolling process, and here is what we learned:
– Rice is the most important aspect of preparing sushi rolls. Sushi rice is made by combining cooked rice and vinegar — it might be tempting to smash it all together, but think of it like cake batter, or beaten egg whites, and gently fold it.
– Get your hands wet. Not just your fingers, as I quickly learned, but your palms, and maybe even your wrists for good measure. The rice is sticky, and I found only one effective way to remove leftover rice from my hands — eating it. But, I guess that’s not so bad.
– Futomaki, the thick sushi roll with lots of ingredients inside, is the easiest for a beginner. Your eager eyes will want to include sake, maguro, avocado and crab all in the same roll, and let’s face it, that just isn’t going to fly with a standard maki roll. Li wisely told us, with all of our rolls, to place our desired ingredients onto the nori, and then remove one.
– It’s easier to complete the actual rolling process on a damp cutting board, rather than in the sushi mat. Place the mat on top of the roll to tighten and shape it.
– Sushi isn’t just for eating — it’s an art. That means the presentation is vital. Slicing the roll into even pieces with a super sharp sushi knife is necessary to achieve a nice, leveled look. This, combined with perfect centering, is how you know a roll was done right. And of course, dollop some wasabi and ginger (none of that artificially pink stuff) on the side.
At the end of the one-hour lesson, servers kindly brought out three of Ozumo’s signature rolls: the Ozumo (grilled unagi, cucumber, snow crab, tuna, avocado), Bucho (tempura shrimp, crabmeat, avocado, tobiko) and Sekiwake (spicy tuna, tobiko, tempura flakes, salmon, yellowtail). Perhaps it was meant to be inspiring, or perhaps it was meant to bring us easily excited students back down to earth (we have a long way to go to master the art of sushi), or perhaps it was to present us with the ultimate dilemma: do we bring home the wonderfully ornate sushi to enjoy later, or do we proudly take home our not-quite-failed experiments to show the family, or do we take home the Sekiwake and try to pass it off as our own creation? Personally, I knew my family could not be fooled, and packed away a little of everything.