I have made my own maki sushi once before, about four years ago. The rolls turned out pretty good, but I haven’t tried it since.
Maybe it was having to throw out my sushi mat because I forgot to cover it with plastic wrap and found it near impossible to get all that sticky rice from adhering to the bamboo slats. Maybe it was the work of preparing the ingredients. Unless you’re a trained sushi chef, I imagine it takes a bit longer for the cucumbers to be perfectly cut, for the rice to be perfectly sticky, for the tempura to be appropriately cooked.
The sushi-making class at Sushiya-US, 2882 E. Dupont Road, takes all that preparation out of the equation. And they serve you sake samples, so it was a no-brainer to try the class. (Try the peach sake. Always, the peach sake.)
About 35 people attended the class in early April, and students spread out at four stations. Each table made a different roll: shrimp tempera, California, spicy tuna and cucumber.
Each station had a plastic wrap-covered sushi mat, made of slim bamboo slats, that is completely flexible. The mat is used for rolling the maki (Japanese for “roll”) and for making sure the roll is tight enough so all the innards don’t slop out onto the table. There were chopsticks and a small tray of pickled ginger and wasabi, plus a box of sushi-grade disposable gloves making its way around the class (“sushi-grade” so nothing would stick to them).
Jordan Nix, a sushi chef at Sushiya-US, and Kim Giwan, executive sushi chef and owner, led the class on the step-by-step process – but first, employees passed out chopsticks and taught novice users how to hold and eat with them. For those who couldn’t get the hang of it, the staff passed out a starter set, which had a joint at the far end of the sticks, turning them into something like tweezers.
To make sushi, Nix says, begin with a sheet of seaweed. The ingredient is a dark green-black color, and it is brittle. I found myself treating it like a flat, skinny pane of glass, determined not to break it but somehow certain I would manage to sneeze and explode the seaweed into a hundred little shards.
Nix then instructed everyone to take a baseball-sized handful of sticky rice – labeled sushi rice or short-grained rice, and cooked with rice vinegar, salt and sugar – and mat it down on the seaweed. I attempted to cover the seaweed and keep the layer of rice even and, in retrospect, should have used less rice. Too much meant I could barely taste the yummy spicy tuna inside, and it made me feel a bit like a chipmunk, trying to eat my maki pieces.
Also, I was surprised at how perfectly the rice stuck to the seaweed. It was almost like shaping Play-Doh. Shouldn’t the rice flake off?
When the rice layer was in place, I flipped the seaweed over, so the rice was against the table, and arranged the ingredients along one of the longer edges of the seaweed. It looked like a stripe of food – crab, cucumbers and avocado for a California roll, for example, or cucumbers and a spicy tuna concoction for a spicy tuna roll.
The rolling is the trick here. Nix advocates rolling with his hands, as it is easier, but Giwan uses the bamboo mat for his roll to be more precise. To roll with your hands, make sure the sushi filling is a stripe along the center of the seaweed. Take the edge closest to you and roll up and over, being sure to cover the entire filling. As you continue to roll away from you, the opposite edge of the seaweed should complete the roll with a slight overlap.
A young boy at my table turned the rolling into something of a contest with his mom, and he proudly proclaimed his roll better. Mine just looked wrong, with a seaweed seam running lengthwise down the roll. All it needed was a zipper.
When the roll was complete – it resembled a rice-covered tube – I used the bamboo mat to shape the roll, draping it over the maki and squeezing – hard enough to round out the roll but not so hard the insides shot out either end.
Making the cut
Nix and Giwan used different knives to cut the sushi. Nix’s was stainless steel, something likely more common to home chefs. Giwan’s was iron and was made with a slight curve especially for sushi – it slid into a rough, wooden case for transport. Frankly, I wouldn’t use Giwan’s knife for anything – it appeared too apt to mistake a finger for a sushi roll (which happens – Nix shared that it’s not uncommon for a sushi chef to earn his share of bloody nicks and scrapes).
When slicing the sushi roll into pieces, Nix advised against pressing down hard with the knife, which smashes the sushi’s stuffing. Instead, he used long, smooth strokes, almost like a see-saw. With this technique, Nix cut through the sushi with only two strokes.
With everyone in the class making two or three rolls, there were handfuls upon handfuls of sushi passed out for tasting. It wasn’t quite the same quality as sitting down to dinner – there’s no better way to appreciate the perfectly proportioned ingredients in a sushi roll than to taste one where the avocado has poked out the end like a tail, the tempera shrimp is hanging on for dear life and the rice layer is an inch thick.
The class, which seemed to run a little long (8 to 10 p.m. on a weekday), was fun and, according to server Jennifer Pan, pretty mild compared to previous classes, which can get rowdy with laughter. This is definitely a class you should attend with a friend or three.