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A Line or Two: A Sushi Rescue

Years ago, I wrote a Japanese cookbook. I was a young guy getting started in the writing-and-editing racket who had majored in Japanese in college. The project was low-end; it was understood that the book would go immediately to remainder tables (the book-biz equivalent of direct-to-video).

I drew most of my recipes from Japanese cookbooks and culinary histories rather than any actual, you know, cooking experience. Later, however, I was to spend a good deal of time in Japan, having a great time on the eating end of Japanese food.
Hence my ambivalence about my own expertise where Japanese food is concerned. I love it; I have written about it for remainder tables; trying to cook it scares me. Good Japanese food is fast, fresh, unforgiving. No heavy sauces to cover up your mistakes. And what would be the fastest, freshest, friskiest, most challenging thing to make? Sushi, of course.
Last week, my wife enrolled us in a sushi-making class, and I couldn't decide if I was in for fun or terror.
Chefs Abode and Sugimura-Sensei
It was to be held at one of the metro's newest cooking schools, Chefs Abode, in Lilydale, just across the river from Saint Paul. Owners Pamela and Blaine Kirchert and cooking-school consultant Stephanie Jameson launched the place in November 2011 with the express intention of giving students real hands-on experience rather than demonstrations alone. They have a roster of eighteen high-end local chefs who come in and encourage participants to actually get their hands dirty.
So I had to try making sushi rather than just hearing about it, reading about it, or writing about it. How badly I wanted to do well--Japanophiles like me hate to look silly doing Japanese things: we're heavily invested in our supposed mastery. But I had never so much as picked up a bamboo rolling mat (maki-su) or laid rice on seaweed. I was in profound danger of looking like a fumbly gaijin (foreigner). Because I would be a fumbly gaijin, albeit one who could pronounce the names of all the ingredients correctly.
The first half-hour of the class didn't do much to settle my nerves. Teaching chef John Sugimura is an intense, ironic, masterful guy who knows sushi--I mean knows it as in being able to explain in detail how to scrape tuna skin in between threads of gristle to get morsels of just the right consistency for spicy tuna. Knows it as in being practically a fish veterinarian, practically a rice grower as well as a rice user. He can talk rice wine vinegar all afternoon. I did not want to mess up under the eyes of John Sugimura!
When John started demonstrating with snappy aplomb the simplest but most difficult-to-execute roll of the night, the hosomaki (nori seaweed, rice, and tuna or cucumber) and describing it as "absolutely unforgiving," I pictured myself with rice grains all over my fingers, my nori split, my roll insanely askew. I would have to take the small, sharp Japanese knife with which my station was provided and commit seppuku (the formal name for hara-kiri).
Roll, Jon, Roll
After hanging back and watching my wife, Laurie, do a good job on a piece of spicy tuna futomaki, I realized that I could no longer delay my attempt at the hosomaki. I tried to summon years of sensitivity to Japanese culture, years of learning characters, translating Japanese poetry, working in a Japanese office, riding the Tokyo subway, visiting temples and shrines, learning about the Noh drama and avant-garde Japanese art, and will them into the sort of calm and mastery one sees on the faces of great potters or wood-carvers or kimono-material dyers.
I laid my nori sheet down. I started spreading rice. The rice was too sticky--I had forgotten to wet my fingers. There was too much rice! I had forgotten to put the nori on top of the rolling mat! Rice all over my fingers! Everything out of sequence! What was the damn sequence?
It was the worst-case sushi scenario.
It was one of the rare instances in which reality proved to be worse than my anticipation of it.

But by this time, John had sensed disaster and come over. And instead of being an imperious expert, he was an encouraging and sympathetic helper: Clean your fingers. Take a toothpick and thin the rice out. Slide the maki-su under the seaweed. Looking good.
And then he showed me how to roll: not by rolling, exactly, but by gently connecting the nori to itself, shifting the maki-su subtly, pressing, and opening. And the roll that was revealed was tight, pretty, and…well, Japanese.
"See? You just have to get in there, make mistakes, and get a feel for it," said John--words that could stand as the best general life advice anybody ever gave anybody.
Chefs Abode
805 Sibley Memorial Highway
Lilydale, MN 55118

Photos, top to bottom:

Chefs Abode, in a minimall in Lilydale

John Sugimura presents: tuna!

Jon Spayde having a little more success with California rolls

John Sugimura and Jon Spayde photos by Marcus McGee
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