Thursday, 11 February 2010

Sushi for beginners

My introduction to sushi was something of a baptism of fire. I was a teenager and temping in Grosvenor Square. Feeling incredibly sophisticated in my new role, I decided I needed a suitably grown-up lunch to match.

I picked up a pack of sushi from M&S and took it to the park. Opening the little black box, I was surprised to see a dollop of avocado next to a few pink flecks of ginger. I scooped it up on my chopsticks and munched it. A second later my mouth was on fire. It wasn't avocado, but wasabi! In a panic, I spat it out on the grass with a gasp, much to the dismay of the city boys and girls elegantly nibbling around me.

I've since learnt my lesson, and approach the little green dollops with caution, but after my fiery introduction, sushi has come to be one of my favourite foods. Imagine my delight then, when I was invited to a sushi-making class at Tsuru, a sushi restaurant inches from my office.

Snow-flecked on arrival, I'm quickly offered a warm cup of saké – Honjozo non vintage. It has a sweet nose of vanilla and licorice with hints of aniseed. The palate is totally different - salty and savoury like a Fino Sherry. It's smooth, medium-bodied and dangerously drinkable. After two cups I switch to sesame tea, fearing my knife skills may not be at their peak if I indulge any further.

Our teacher is a tall Thai guy called Yod Bovron, who tells us to handle the rice the way we would a lover. Strips of seaweed are passed round and we work on the rough side, so the shiny side is in view when you eat it. First up we make cucumber maki rolls. Wetting our hands with water and slapping them together like Sumo wresters, we grab a clump of rice and cover the seaweed with it, leaving a space at the top for folding. It's harder than it looks, and I make a royal mess.

We then sprinkle the rice with sesame seeds and strips of cucumber. Now for the hard part: folding. Yod grabs the ends of his bamboo sushi mat, and folds the seaweed into a neat roll in three quick movements. My rolling techniques are not up to scratch and my maki doesn't meet in the middle. I turn it over and put in on the tray before anyone notices.

Next up are California rolls, which I have more success with. We cover a strip of seaweed with rice and decorate it with fiery orange flying fish eggs, that burn like jewels in the light. Flipping it over, we decorate the other side with avocado, strips of salmon sashimi and special sushi mayonnaise. I give mine a generous squirt, then roll it quickly, so the seaweed disappears, covered by the outer layer of rice. It looks mouthwatering, but we have more sushi to make before I can try it.

By the time we're onto the nigiri (strips of sashmi on a ball of rice), I'm on a roll. Yod shows us how it's done, adding a dab of wasabi to the sashimi, then squishing, poking and prodding it into shape. We're all too hungry to resist temptation, and pop them in our mouths. They're delicious. Last on the menu are the prawn tempura hand rolls. I make a bed of rice across one side of the seaweed and add asparagus, mayo and the tempura, then roll it from corner to corner like an ice cream cone.

We're given our maki and California rolls back. They look so pretty on the plate, it's hard to believe I made them. They don't stay on the plate for long, as I'm ravenous. The hand roll and California rolls are particularly delicious – must be the mayo. Sushi only stays fresh for four hours, so it's perishable personified, but if you can spare the time to make it, your tastebuds will be richly rewarded.

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