Food Corner: The Art of Sushi Adopting a DIY approach to sushi-making, Nina Lamparski ends up with sticky rice on her hands, and seeks some advice from the professionals. The scene was sad, tragic even, forcing me to avert my eyes in shame. There it sat, a miserable, misshaped blob of green, its white gooey insides spilling across the kitchen counter. “Please stop looking at me like that,” I begged. “In fact, stop looking like that full stop.” But my first self-made maki sushi, refused to morph into something edible. “I’m sorry,” I muttered as I picked up the soggy remains and marched them towards the bin. Everything had started out so well. I had bought short grain rice, sushi vinegar, nori papers and a bamboo rolling mat at Akuruhi, a well-stocked Japanese food store on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard. Given my novice chef status and the dubious 50 AsiaLIFE Cambodia
quality of raw Cambodian fish, I’d decided to prepare a vegetarian filling of avocado, cucumber and egg omelette. After a short trip to Lucky Supermarket, where I also picked up Japanese soy sauce and wasabi, I returned home with bursting shopping bags and confidence. Then things went rapidly downhill, despite my best efforts to follow the website’s step-by-step instructions. “1. Pour the rice into a bowl, add cold water, squish the rice, drain and repeat until the water runs clear.” Check. “2. In a thick-bottomed pot, bring three equal parts of rice and water to boil over a medium flame.” Got it.
“3. Turn down the heat, cover with a lid and cook for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and steam for another 15 minutes.” Done. I’d also prepared the socalled ‘zu’ mixture of vinegar, sugar and sake, to be added to the cooked grains once they had been placed in a wooden bowl, salted, dried with a small electric fan–and received a free shoulder massage. “4. The sushi rice is now ready for rolling.” No, it wasn’t. Instead of being fluffy and moist, my sour-tasting concoction had a gooey, sticky texture, which turned rubbery and hard while I struggled to fold, mould and press the maki into shape. I’m convinced I
heard a tiny snigger coming out of the seaweed heap. Teetering on the edge of extreme frustration, I decided to drown my short-lived culinary career at the bottom of the sake bottle and seek professional help. A meeting with the owner of funky Japanese eatery Yumi, chef Caspar von Hofmannsthal, confirmed what I had learnt the hard way only days earlier. “Sushi takes a lot more than cutting a bit of fish and adding rice,” he explains. “A sushi chef will spend the first four years of his training just making rice and not even get to touch a fish.” This revelation made me feel a little bit better. But why is the Japanese approach so difficult to master?
“There are lots of different factors to be considered,” says von Hofmannsthal who spent years exploring Asian cuisine thanks to his Hong Kong-based mother. “You need to cook the rice so that it’s starchy enough to stick together and doesn’t fall apart. You need to get the sushi vinegar seasoning right and know when to add that mixture to the rice, which can’t be too wet or too dry. You need to know how long to let the rice sit afterwards and when it has reached the right temperature. You have to concentrate on one and one thing only, and do it over and over again until you reach absolute perfection.” As for the fish, von Hofmannsthal said he steers clear of serving raw seafood because it’s too hard to find “great quality” in Cambodia. “You just never know how long it’s been sitting in a box by the time it receives custom clearance and you don’t want to mess around with that,” he explains. “There’s also the issue of availability, even for dry foods. Some days, the suppliers have what you’re looking for, at other times it can take up to two weeks before you find the ingredient you want. You have to adapt the menu to what’s available.” For radical sushi purists like Kyoto-born Emiko T. Kimura, depending on local market fluctuations is not an option. The mastermind behind the elegant Origami restaurant imports her fish from Japan. “I place three to four orders per week and it’s not often that I have any leftovers,” says the 62-year old chef. “I am very strict about the ingredients that I use, and you cannot find sushi- or sashimigrade fish here.” Kimura’s decision to purchase overseas reflects a common worldwide trend: much of the global supply of sushi tuna is shipped or flown around the globe in nitrogendriven freezers as cold as -70°C, according to journalist Sasha Issenberg in his 2007 book The Sushi Economy Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy. The good news is that, if transport regulations have been respected, you shouldn’t
be able to tell the difference between defrosted and freshly caught fish. So why is sushi so complex to prepare. Kimura gives me a long, pensive stare. “I don’t know. Japanese food is very simple and yet I’m always wondering why it is so hard. Some of my Cambodian kitchen staff have been with me for a long time and they still can’t get it right.” Without warning, she pushes back her chair, gets up and begins to sway back and forth like a cobra, twisting her hands in hypnotic, fluid motions. “When you make sushi, it’s like a dance,” she says. “It takes many, many repetitions. I taught myself how to make it four years ago when my husband died and I had no choice but to learn.” Even in this modern age, finding a female sushi chef remains a rarity. Although the number is slowly on the rise in places like the US, Japan continues to be dominated by men wielding the knives. The main reasons for women’s slow progress are anchored in traditional beliefs that their hands are too warm to handle raw fish or sushi rice; that their perfume and lotions mess up the food; and that the monthly menstrual cycle interferes with the delicacy of ingredients. Kimura clearly didn’t seem to be bothered by any of this as she stood in front of me performing her nigiri-making ritual. “Other Japanese chefs here in Cambodia have offered to teach me how to cook and then said, ‘I have nothing to teach you. Your technique is perfect,’” she explains. Does that mean that even a novice like myself stands a chance of eventually mastering the art of sushi? There it was again, Kimura’s long, pensive stare. “You can learn how to make sushi good enough for at home, no problem,” she starts. “But forget it if you want to be a professional chef. That takes talent.” Before my ego crumbled like dry wasabi, I bid the eccentric chef farewell. Until Phnom Penh gets a Japanese cookery school, I’ll stick to what I’m good at–eating sushi made by professionals like Kimura.
Kimura @ Origami
Yumi AsiaLIFE Cambodia 51