Sushi: the meal you always want when your 8-man decides to go out to dinner but the meal you never end up enjoying because you simply don’t have that extra cash. After all, you need it to pay for that $1.75 laundry machine that may or may not work. Perhaps you’ve wondered, just as I have, what makes sushi so expensive. Theoretically, it seems pretty simple to make. You just place rice on top of seaweed, add some fillings, roll it, and there you have it. Contrary to what it may seem, the process of becoming a sushi chef involves years of dedication and training. Traditionally, it takes at least ten years to become a head sushi chef. Thus those who have gained that title are revered in Japanese culture. Sushi prices reflect the difficulty of mastering the art of making sushi. However, as a love for sushi has spread beyond Japan, sushi schools have sprung up around the world offering shorter certification programs.
It can take over a decade to become a sushi chef. Every little detail, down to the rice, must be perfected. In Japan, those who have achieved this status are honored with the title of itamae. This translates to “in front of the board,” signifying the chef’s physical position in the kitchen. A sushi chef candidate must start at the bottom of the ladder, as a cleaner. This beginning job provides an opportunity for the candidate to prove their dedication. After the master decides they have displayed sufficient work ethic and commitment, they may move on to become a rice maker. Each itamae prefers their own balance of rice, sushi vinegar, and sometimes salt in their sushi rice and tends to keep his or her ratio a secret. Once a candidate has demonstrated the ability to make perfect sushi rice unsupervised, he or she may move on to become a wakiita. This translates to “near the cutting board,” indicative of their progress toward an itamae. The candidate may spend years as a wakiita, or apprentice. This position includes various responsibilities such as preparing the fish and other ingredients. During this time, the apprentice learns the art of combining flavors. An itamae may also allow a wakiita to prepare to-go orders if they show talent. A wakiita knows he or she will succeed in their goal of becoming an itamae if he or she is rewarded with the ability to use his or her own sushi knives, called hocho. Finally, after years of hard work, the apprentice may become an itamae if deemed worthy by the master.
While the process of becoming an itamae is quite lengthy, crafting a roll of sushi at home is not as challenging as you may think. Although it may not look as beautiful without the years of practice, I have found it to be just as satiating. All you need to begin your quest to perfect sushi is a bamboo sushi mat, a sharp knife, whole sheets of nori (seaweed), sushi rice, and the desired ingredients. Some of my favorite ingredients include salmon, tuna, avocado, egg, and Japanese pickled cucumbers. You can buy a sushi mat at many japanese grocery stores for a low price. Sushi rice consists of Japanese short-grain rice and sushi vinegar. In place of sushi vinegar you can use rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. The blog Just One Cookbook has an excellently detailed recipe for at-home sushi making, but here is a brief overview: begin by cooking your rice and then combining it with the sushi vinegar. Ensure that the rice is cool before placing it on the nori so the seaweed does not become soggy. While your rice is cooling, cut and prepare your ingredients. Lay out your bamboo mat and place half a sheet of nori on top. A full sheet of nori will create a chunkier roll but the end result is neater if you use a sheet that has been cut in half. Cover the nori with a thin layer of rice, leaving around an inch uncovered at the end. Place your ingredients in the middle of the rice. Try to ensure that the ingredients are evenly dispersed to allow for a uniform roll. Lightly wet the uncovered portion of the nori so that it will stick to itself. Using the sushi mat, roll the seaweed over the ingredients and tighten the mat around them. Finally, release the sushi and roll it completely, sealing it with the damp portion of nori. Then cut and serve with ginger and wasabi.
So, when picking your fish to make sushi at home, how do you know what is safe to eat? What makes certain fish “sushi grade?” The label “sushi grade” refers to fish that is bled, gutted, and placed on ice immediately after capture. Sushi-grade fish should be kept frozen for a week or flash-frozen at -35oF to ensure the fish is parasite-free. However, there is no government regulation determining the qualifications of the sushi-grade label, so it’s up to the seller to determine the fish’s quality. Thus, be sure you trust your seller. For reasonably priced sushi grade fish near Boston College, try Maruichi Japanese Food & Deli in Coolidge Corner.
While buying sushi at a restaurant can seem expensive on a college budget, making it at home provides a cheaper and more enjoyable experience. The next time your friend suggests going out for sushi, propose a trip to a Japanese grocery store instead. You’ll have the fun of perusing the aisles and finding other fun snacks along with your sushi ingredients. You’ll create memories with your friends and get that meal you wanted without losing the money you need to finally wash your sheets in the overpriced laundromat that is the Walsh laundry room.
Cover image courtesy of bankadviser.com