“Look at the difference between the short grain rice and basmati rice. Rub it between your fingers – the short grain rice is much harder. You can wash the short grain thoroughly and it won’t break. When it’s cooked and you add seasoning, then it is sushi rice. Now it’s just rice.”
Seven pupils sit in a London kitchen, passing around two bowls of uncooked rice. The house is airy and spacious, and natural wooden cupboards give the impression of shōji, the sliding wooden doors in a traditional Japanese home. Japanese chef and cookery teacher and author Reiko Hashimoto is introducing the ingredients one by one at the start of her sushi and sashimi class.
Quickly she moves onto the next item, dashi stock – a core ingredient in Japanese food and miso soup. “Smell the stock granules – they are really fishy.” Her nose wrinkles, “People think miso soup is vegetarian, but it isn’t. You can make it vegetarian, but then you have to cook it differently. No dashi.” She points to a large bottle of yellow liquid “For sushi rice, we use ready-made sushi seasoning. We could make it ourselves with vinegar and sugar but we don’t,” she pauses to think. “For tempura, we use ready-made ‘tempura flour’… In Japan we like to leave things to the experts.”
For sushi rice, we use ready-made sushi seasoning... In Japan we like to leave things to the experts
Although Hashimoto moved to England over 20 years ago, Japan is still her home. “Sushi is our national dish. The main dish I remember from my childhood is chirashi sushi, a ‘scattered sushi’.” She stresses the difference in food between Tokyo and Kansai style cuisine – the south-central region of Japan, where she grew up in Kyoto, 400km to the west of Tokyo. “In Kyoto, chirashi sushi is very different from what you see here. Dried shiitake, fish cakes, bamboo shoots, are cooked in a very sweet broth, chopped finely, and mixed together with the sushi rice. It is topped with cooked eggs, colourful things. You can keep it the next day as well. Tokyo-style is sushi rice with raw fish, and needs eating the same day”.
Rice is the focus of her memories, and in this class, her teaching. Back in the lesson, Hashimoto discusses cooking methods, pitfalls, and where you might go wrong. Cooked sushi rice is ‘sliced and folded’ to mix in the sushi seasoning in a handai, or hangiri – a large bamboo dish. An assistant fans the rice to help it cool.
“Everyone, even young housewives would have a handai today – the bamboo helps to absorb moisture. Ceramic changes the texture of the rice – and when you add the vinegar to the rice in a hot steel pan, that’s the worst. If you mix the rice properly but then don’t fan it, the rice will become like dumplings.” A rice paddle is handed to someone in the class “No, you’re not watching. Slice, and then fold. You’re just folding”. Hashimoto shows the channels she cuts through the rice with the paddle, drawing deep parallel train tracks in the surface. After three lines, she draws a long sweep, lifting a third of the rice and folding it towards her. Then she starts to slice again. Next time the pupil manages a little better. The rice is perfect. Each grain moist, sticky, and separate – delicious.
However, Hashimoto wants us to understand what we’re eating, “Look at the beautiful ivory shine on the sushi rice… unfortunately all that comes from the sugar. I’ll tell you a secret – sushi isn’t healthy. It’s white rice, and lots and lots of sugar. I like to eat healthily but food has to be tasty. Usually people ask lots of questions about making sushi rice “Can you use brown rice and brown sugar?” Probably. “Can you use honey?””, she laughs. “I don’t think so”.
“I teach the traditional methods. I like sushi. With brown rice, it’s not sushi – just seasoned brown rice. But, If you want to use brown rice – or honey – then why not”, Hashimoto chuckles.
I teach the traditional methods. I like sushi. With brown rice, it’s not sushi – just seasoned brown rice.
In spite of her warnings, if there ever were an advert for the Japanese diet, then Hashimoto is it. She has just turned fifty but could easily pass for someone twenty or thirty years younger. She is fun, lithe and giggly – perhaps not much changed from her days working on Cathay Pacific flights as an air-stewardess in First Class, in her early 20’s. Health is important to her – she is astounded by British attitudes to food, still seeing herself an outsider.
“I can’t believe the British make sandwiches for school lunches with crisps and chocolate. That’s so unhealthy! Why do they need desserts? I used to make bento boxes with fish, vegetables and a carbohydrate. Now that’s healthy.”
“People ask why the Japanese are so slim. You think we eat so little, but actually Japanese people eat a lot – carbohydrates, protein, vegetables. Yes, we use sugar in our cooking, but we don’t really eat desserts and confectionery. ”
In the class, we start to roll our sushi – dipping our hands in water to stop the warm sticky rice from sticking, bamboo mats feeling their way around nori sheets. “No, you filled it too much, the seaweed shrinks when it sits. That’ll open before you eat it”, “you’re pressing too hard, you’ll squash the rice”. Hashimoto judges us instantly – eyes of perfection, instruction and criticisms flying. Everyone manages at least one perfect roll, learning a little more each time.
People ask why the Japanese are so slim. You think we eat so little, but actually Japanese people eat a lot
Hashimoto has been teaching Japanese cookery for over 10 years. “I was the first person to run a sushi and sashimi class in the UK. When we moved here, I wanted to work, but my boys were in their early teens. I wanted something part time that I could do from home. I started to cater Japanese dinner parties – just doing one or two, just pocket money. Eventually people said ‘do you teach’? At that time sushi was just starting to take off. Yo Sushi had opened its first restaurant. Now if you google, there are so many sushi classes. But then, there was nothing.” She describes her early classes as we sit down at a long table to eat.
Elegant Japanese crockery is laid out, a jug of sake is passed round, and the layers of sushi and sashimi we’ve made presented on colourful platters in the centre of the table. People – including me – often think making sushi isn’t worth it, too fiddly, and perhaps best left to the experts. Yet it’s impossible to eat all the sushi we’ve made in two hours. Back at home the next day, I make a simple tuna and cucumber maki roll for lunch, from ingredients in my store cupboard. And enjoy a balancing salad of wakame seaweed on the side.
Reiko Hashimoto is a Japanese chef, cookery teacher and author of Hashi: A Japanese Cookery Course. Her classes are held in South London. For more information see her website http://www.hashicooking.co.uk/