Running a food and travel company like BonAppetour has its perks – I get to meet amazing chefs and local hosts as we expand into new cities. This time, we were expanding our presence in Tokyo. The Japanese have a passion for cooking and culture which they match with a warm enthusiasm for sharing.This made it a delight to meet them, and gave much meaning to what we do at BonAppetour.
It was my first time to Tokyo – a city that I had heard so much about. The city is renowned for its culture of respect and obedience, which shines through in every thing they do – from food to architecture.
My first host was Anne, a lovely lady who has been living in Tokyo for more than 20 years. Originally from The Phillippines, her love for Japan and its culture was evident in our conversations and in her actions. In Feb 2014, Anne made the bold decision to coordinate cooking classes and food tours for travellers, taught by a talented Japanese chef, Naoko-sensei.
Anne invited me to a demo session when I was in Tokyo, an invitation I was all too happy to accept. The kitchen was at Azabu Juban, a short 2 minute walk from the subway station.
Upon our arrival, Anne introduced us to Naoko-sensei, our host for the day. Naoko-sensei was a charming lady with a sincere smile that made me feel instantly at home. She was still preparing for the session when I arrived, but she led me around the room, introducing me to the various ingredients, while making sure that everything was set up well. She gave me a cup of hot, soothing, green tea, as we waited for the other guests to arrive. The way she conducted herself said volumes about her depth of understanding of the Japanese culture.
Today, we would be learning to make two popular types of sushi – Maki sushi and Nigiri sushi.
Maki sushi or Nori-Maki sushi is a type of sushi roll where fish and other ingredients are enveloped in rice and nori seaweed. It is this type of sushi that most would commonly envison when they think “sushi”. Nigiri sushi on the other hand, is hand-shaped instead of rolled, and the fish and other ingredients are placed on top of the rice instead of within.
Maki sushi is difficult to make, but as the ingredients are rolled into the center of the sushi, visual presentation is less important. Nigiri sushi on the other hand, may be easier to make,but because the ingredients are spread on top of the rice, their arrangement and appearance needs to be visually perfected – requiring great care and attention to detail.
We were joined by four other guests that evening – a mother and son from Texas, and a mother and daughter from Pakistan. Before beginning, we washed our hands and gathered around Naoko-san, who then began her lesson.
STAGE 1: RICE
We began with the sushi rice – how to cook it, why it is so fragrant, and the ingredients required to accentuate the rice aroma. We all had a hand in mixing the rice with the vinegar in a shallow wooden bowl, and gently tossing the rice while cutting into it vertically with a spatula. Naoko-san showed us how we should fan the rice so that it would cool quickly; fanning causes the gelatinization of the rice surface to give a glossy finish.
STAGE 2: SUSHI MAKING
We started off with the more challenging Nori-Maki sushi, and got ready to use our hands to roll it all up. It was then that we understood why it takes years of training to become a sushi chef! The application of force must be delicate yet firm; it definitely takes lots of practice to master the art.
Naoko-sensei was amazing! She made the whole experience so much fun, she saved our Maki sushi from breaking apart with her skilled fingers, while encouraging us and making us feel so accomplished at the same time. By the end of the lesson, Naoki Sensei had us feeling like we too could become sushi chefs!
At the end of the afternoon, we parted ways, happy to have shared an enjoyable day learning about an integral part of Tokyo’s food culture. The experience was an eye-opener, allowing us to discover interesting insights about the life of locals whilst making instant friends in a city that I visited for the first time.
This hands-on experience with learning about Japanese food made us feel that although we would be leaving Tokyo in a couple of days, the lessons gleaned from Naoko-sensei over those short few hours would stay with us for a very long time.