Sushi looks simple enough, but making it is an act of fine balance. In Japan, sushi masters study for years to learn the exact method for spreading rice on the nori (seaweed), which when done correctly should take only six movements. The idea is to spread a tennis ball-sized amount of sushi on the nori and press down on it without squishing it; when looking at a roll, you should be able to see individual grains, not a solid block of rice.
When we take the Westin Chaoyang Beijing’s new sushi-making class, the chef explains that sushi is 60 percent visual. From the beginning, the process must be kept as pure as possible; the more you handle the ingredients, the more you alter the natural appearance and flavor of the sushi. The three key elements are the freshness of the ingredients, how the rice is cooked, and how the sushi is rolled. If even one element is off, you might end up with a roll that falls apart or tastes rubbery.
The term “sushi” encompasses a variety of presentations, but many Westerners equate the term with makizushi, which consists of cooked, vinegared rice rolled by hand into a cylindrical shape. Fillings like seafood, vegetables, and meat can also be added.
During our class at Mai Japanese Restaurant, the chef begins by explaining how to cook perfect sushi rice. The process involves washing the rice six to seven times, soaking it in cold water, drying it out, then sitting the rice in water again before cooking. Once it’s cooked, it must also be left in the pot for about 10 minutes without removing the lid.
We make makizushi and norimaki (smaller cylindrical rolls), which are shaped with the help of a bamboo mat known as a makisu. We begin with a cucumber nori roll to practice our technique. Once the rice is spread (in more than six movements, I must admit), we add a long strip of cucumber as our filling and begin to roll. Next up is a larger nori roll, which we fill with cucumber, omelet strips, mushrooms, and crab mixed with mayonnaise. This roll is trickier; the contents spill out at one end.
Our final lesson is an uramaki “inside-out” roll. Unlike other makizushi, the nori is hidden beneath an extra layer of rice and, optionally, an outer coating of roe or toasted sesame seeds. We lay the nori down, gently press down, then flip the whole thing over while holding our breath. Thankfully, mine stays in one piece. All in all, it is a fun and informative cooking class, and I know enough of the basics now to give it a go at home.
Mai Japanese Restaurant 舞日本料理
RMB 380 per person (plus 15% surcharge), half-price for kids aged 4-12, free for kids under 4 (includes set menu dinner, Japanese tea, and all ingredients and materials). 3-5pm, first Saturday of every month. 2/F, The Westin Beijing Chaoyang, 7 North Dongsanhuan Beilu, Chaoyang District (5922 8880, email@example.com) 朝阳区东三环北路7号金茂北京威斯汀大饭店2层
Photo: Courtesy of the Westin Chaoyang