Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Sushi Class with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

So I get this email invitation last month asking if I'd like to attend a private sushi and hand roll class being taught by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa at Nobu San Diego.

Do you even have to guess what my response was?

Now I've taken sushi-making classes before. I enjoy them even if self-awareness dictates that all I'm doing is combining seafood with sushi rice and perhaps nori, with a dash of wasabi. Hey, I've watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi. What I create is in no way sushi--not as an experienced sushi chef would claim. Certainly not Nobu.

But here I was at Nobu San Diego with eight other local food writers and Nobu himself, who turns out to be a nice, funny man, very patient, and an excellent teacher. The set up was sweet. Each of us had a sushi-making station with a little plate lined with slices of tuna, halibut, yellowtail, salmon, and shrimp. There was a second little plate to the left with imitation crab, a slice of cucumber, and a slice of avocado for making a California hand roll. And a third little plate to the right with two slices each of tuna and yellowtail for two more hand rolls. We had a black lacquer container filled with sushi rice, a mound of wasabi, sliced scallions, a bowl of water, sesame seeds (which we didn't use), a rack for the hand rolls, and a damp towel for wiping off the rice that stuck to our hands (which it did--a lot). Three of us each shared a container holding nori. Off to the sides of the tables were several deep containers of water to use to rinse and wring out the towel.

Oh, and there was champagne. Just because.

Nobu started off the session by explaining that he follows a six-step process for making nigiri. Essentially, with moistened hands you pick up a slice of fish and lay it on the four fingers of your left hand. Then pick up a hefty tablespoon or so of rice with your right hand and manipulate it into an oblong shape to put on the fish slice. Then add a smear of wasabi. I never did get the order of that quite right since it felt like I needed a third hand. In any case, using your first two fingers on your right hand, you gently press down on the rice, shape it, turn it around, shape it, turn it over, shape it again. All in six steps.

My first go at it was pretty messy. My hands weren't wet enough.

Nobu conveys the technique better in this video I took:

By the time we finished making our fifth piece, we were, well, adequate. Nobu himself laughed at the idea that we were making sushi. "I make sushi," he said, smiling. He didn't say what we had made.

But we moved on to making hand rolls.

First up was a California roll. We each took a piece of nori and placed it on our left hand, shiny side down. Then came the rice--twice as much as for a piece of nigiri. Then a smear of wasabi. Then the imitation crab--or surimi--slice, along with avocado and cucumber. Then you pull the bottom right corner over and up to the left and start rolling it from the bottom until you have a cone.

We repeated this to make a spicy tuna hand roll and finally a yellowtail scallion hand roll.

Making sushi well obviously takes far more practice than the hour we had with Nobu, but it was great fun and who wouldn't want to learn skills by one of the great masters?

Once we had made our "sushi" we ate our creations, drank more champagne, and got to ask Nobu some questions. I learned a few things to share here.

First, when you make your nigiri, work fast. You don't want the fish to get warm in your hand. Nobu says it takes him about seven seconds to make one. "It's important to do it with your heart," he says.

Don't press the fish too hard into the rice. Even in the few seconds it takes for the nigiri to make its way from the sushi chef to you, gravity will help sink the fish into the rice. Be gentle.

When eating sushi, don't use too much soy sauce or wasabi. You'll mask the flavor of the fish. If you do dip nigiri into soy sauce, turn the piece over so that you dip the fish not the rice into the liquid.

Nobu was surprisingly forbearing when it came to the "right" way to eat sushi. He lives in L.A. (with a sushi bar in his home) and recognizes that Americans just do it differently than traditional Japanese. So he doesn't have the same hang ups other Japanese chefs I've met have about our barbarian traditions--although I don't think he's keen on our habit of mixing wasabi into a bowl with soy sauce. He probably wouldn't like my parents' practice of dipping nigiri into a bowl of ponzu either. But he believes that as long as you don't mask the flavors of the fish with too much sauce or wasabi, do what you want. Live and let live.

As for what to drink with sushi, in Japan he likes to drink sake. Because it's made of rice and has umami, it's a good pairing. But in California, he likes a good chardonnay, tequila, and, yes, champagne.

Here's how I did. Don't judge too harshly.

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