My First California Roll

photo by Albert Law : www.porkbellystudio.com
photo by Albert Law : http://www.porkbellystudio.com

We were standing at the sushi bar. Toshi stepped forward and stood in front of the long cutting board.

“First, wet your hands in this bowl of water. That’s very important because otherwise, your hands will be full of rice. If and when that happens, just wash your hands in the sink and start over.”

There was a sink, right in the middle of the sushi bar. Water was running continuously so all the chefs could wash their hands quickly.

“Then grab some rice – about this size.” Toshi showed me a rice ball that was the size of a tennis ball. I imagined it was more rice to fit in a rice bowl. It looked big, or more rice than I thought it would go into one a Roll. He placed it on the top left the corner. “Now, start spreading, oh I almost forgot, remember to place rice on the back side of Nori.”

Though most Japanese should know this, Nori has shiny smooth side and rough, not the shiny side. Shiny side is the outside, and rough/not-shiny is the inside. No matter what roll you are making – inside out, seaweed out, hand roll – rice always goes on the rough/inside.

“Spread the rice using the only left hand, like this.”

Toshi begun to press and spread the rice from left to right of Nori. The rice moved, as if it was like play-doh or some soft bread dough.

“At the same time, make “U” shape with your right hand to guide the rice so that you cover only the top half of the nori.”

His hands moved very quickly. I already felt like I forgot many of the steps. It looked as if the rice was coming from his right hand.

“Your right hand is more important. I mean, both of your hands are important. In the beginning, many people think it’s the left hand that is doing all the work and forget to move the right hand, so you must remember to use both hands the same time. It’s a little bit like playing piano.

Only the top half of the Nori was covered with sushi rice.

“From here, spread the rice on the top and cover the bottom half, starting from the right end, center and the left. Also, keep in mind to make the rice nice and fluffy. When you press the rice too hard, you lose the texture, and the rice gets mushy. That’s no good. The texture of the rice is one of the most important things in Sushi. When you are finished spreading the rice, sprinkle some sesame seeds and turn it over so that rice is down, Nori is up.”

I remembered that part because I have seen it enough times. Toshi continued.

“Place some crab mix right in the center. As a matter of fact, put it hair below the center. It’s easier to roll that way. Then some cucumber strips and avocado slices.”

Toshi put then all the ingredients neatly, all the way across the nori, horizontally.

“Now we are ready to roll it up.”

Toshi grabbed the bottom end of nori with both hands and started to curl up and tuck in the top end before sealing the roll first; then another ninety degrees turn, so the seam is facing Toshi, not to the customer side.

“Pick up the makisu/bamboo mat and place it over the roll.”

All the makisu had the plastic wrap to prevent rice from sticking to it. You may wonder what did they do before the plastic wrap in Japan? Well, they did not have to because traditional Japanese rolls are all Nori out, so rice would never touch the mat. Since California roll is an American invention and rice outside, we must cover makisu with plastic. Otherwise, it will be covered with rice.

“Just squeeze the roll gently over makisu a couple of times, as you slide your hands left and right.”

When Toshi removed the makisu, there was a beautiful long roll, sitting on the cutting board.

“Cutting is difficult. You can move the knife back and forth like a saw and cut through. An experienced chef can do this with a single stroke like this.”

He quickly moved the knife forward once, pull back, and the roll was cut into two.

“The wrong way is to force your knife down, which will smash the roll, like this. Make sure your knife is wet before you cut, so wipe with your towel, blade facing out, not toward your palm. Never place the knife into the bowl of water because that is dangerous. When you have your bowl of water, that is OK to do that, but because we are sharing the bowl, never dip your knife in the bowl because when we get busy, you may accidentally cut other’s hand. Now, you try it.”

I was nervous but excited at the same time. I picked up a sheet of nori and put it down on the cutting board. I wet my hands in the bowl of water, took off the rid from the rice warmer, grabbed some rice, unsure if I had the right amount in my hand or not. I rolled up the Sushi Rice in my hand to form a tennis ball and my hands were already sticky, rice sticking to the palm of my hand. I quickly put down the ball of rice on nori, washed my hands in the running water.

Many people think Sushi Rice is “Sticky” Rice. However, it is (mostly) short grain rice. Japanese rice is short grain, and that is what Sushi Chefs use in Japan. The reason it is “sticker” is that Sushi Rice has Sushi Vinegar, which has Rice Vinegar, Salt and Sugar. Sugar is what bind each grain of rice together, like glue and also, makes it extremely challenging to handle with your hands. Wetting your hands is a must, but when your hands are too wet, rice will start to break apart. When handling, you need to find the happy medium – not too dry, not too wet hands.

I started to spread the rice with my left hand and it just did not spread at all. I kind of mushed the rice. Rice was uneven on the sheet of nori. It was spotty. By this time, my hands were ricey again. Not good, not good, I said to myself silently. I must have tried it several times, each time getting a better handle of sushi rice, until I was able to place some crab, cucumber, and avocado to roll it up. I picked up makusi and applied some pressure to form a roll, then cut into six pieces, just like Toshi told me.

My California Roll looked nothing like the one Toshi made. His California Roll was round, fluffy, cut evenly, the same height and had the same amount of fillings in each piece. Mine? Uneven rice, fillings, height, a sad looking California Roll.

How to make Inside Out Roll

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We are standing at the sushi bar. Toshi stepped forward and stood in front of the long cutting board.

First, wet your hands in this bowl of water. That’s very important because otherwise, your hands will be full of rice. If and when that happens, just wash your hands in the sink and start over.”

In the middle of the sushi bar was a sink with water continuously running so all the chefs could wash their hands quickly.

“Then grab some rice – about this size.” Toshi showed me a rice ball that was the size of a tennis ball. It looked big; more rice than I thought it would go into one California Roll. He placed it on the top left the corner. “Now, start spreading the rice using only left hand like this.”

Toshi started to press and spread the rice from left to the right. The rice moved as if it was like play-doh or some soft bread dough or something.

“At the same time, make “U” shape with your right hand to guide the rice so that you cover only the top half of the nori.”

His hands moved very quickly. I already felt like I couldn’t remember all the steps. It looked as if the rice was coming from his right hand.

“Your right hand is more important. I mean, both of your hands are important. In the beginning, many people think it’s the left hand that is doing all the work and forget to move the right hand, so you must remember to use both hands the same time. It’s a little bit like playing piano.

Only the top half of the nori was covered with sushi rice.

“From here, spread the rice on the top and cover the bottom half, starting from the right end, center and the left. Also, keep in mind to make the rice nice and fluffy. When you press the rice too hard, you lose the texture, and the rice gets mushy. That’s no good. The texture of the rice is one of the most important things in Sushi. When you are finished spreading the rice, sprinkle some sesame seeds and turn it over so that rice is down, Nori is up.”

I remembered that part because I have seen it enough times. Toshi continued.

“Place some crab mix right in the center. As a matter of fact, put it hair below the center. It’s easier to roll that way. Then some cucumber strips and avocado slices.”

Toshi put then all the ingredients neatly, all the way across the nori, horizontally.

“Now we are ready to roll it up.”

Toshi grabbed the bottom end of nori with both hands and started to curl up and tuck in the top end before sealing the roll first; then another ninety degrees turn, so the seam is facing Toshi, not to the customer side.

“Pick up the makisu/bamboo mat and place it over the roll.”

All the makisu had the plastic wrap to prevent rice from sticking to it. You may wonder what did they do before the plastic wrap in Japan? Well, they did not have to because traditional Japanese rolls are all Nori out, so rice would never touch the mat. Since California roll is an American invention and rice outside, we must cover makisu with plastic. Otherwise, it will be covered with rice.

“Just squeeze the roll gently over makisu a couple of times, as you slide your hands left and right.”

When Toshi removed the makisu, there was a beautiful long roll, sitting on the cutting board.

“Cutting is difficult. You can move the knife back and forth like a saw and cut through. An experienced chef can do this with a single stroke like this.”

He quickly moved the knife forward once, pull back, and the roll was cut into two.

“The wrong way is to force your knife down, which will smash the roll, like this. Make sure your knife is wet before you cut, so wipe with your towel, blade facing out, not toward your palm. Never place the knife into the bowl of water because that is dangerous. When you have your bowl of water, that is OK to do that, but because we are sharing the bowl, never dip your knife in the bowl because when we get busy, you may accidentally cut other’s hand.”

Gin-san

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You may have heard of a story about the training of sushi chefs in Japan: an apprentice spends first three years doing nothing but errands and cleaning the restaurant, doing dishes, only then, he is moving onto doing rice for another year, two and three years and finally, he is allowed to touch fish, which means that, even after working for five years, you still don’t know how to make nigiri or sashimi.

To many Japanese, it’s perfectly understandable to go through such a rigorous training. Japanese see the value in hard work, devotion, and determination. To be a true master, one needs to master himself and every step in his training is important. Small things matter. 1mm of difference in a day seems nothing, yet in five years, it is 18.25cm, which is about the size of your feet. Mastering the art of sushi is an accumulation of daily practice and never ending improvement, focusing on efficiency, discipline, attention to the smallest details.

I was working at a sushi restaurant in Hollywood, CA, five days a week. I only had two years of experience as a sushi chef. I knew how to fillet basic fish like Tuna, Salmon, Hamachi after working at my first sushi restaurant on the infamous Sunset Strip. Unlike some of the Japanese sushi chefs who went through the “traditional” training in Japan, I started to practice making sushi rice one week after I started working, making rolls after one week, making nigiri and sashimi in three months, allowed to touch and fillet fish after ten months or so.

However, working with other sushi chefs who have more experience than I did, made me feel I wanted to improve my skills. I still did not know how to fillet lots of fish and I was slower than other chefs in making nigiri and sashimi.

I figured that the only way to improve my skill was to work at another sushi restaurant on my day off. I looked at classified ads on paper (it was back in 2002)  and found a place in Long Beach called Sushi of Naples (now closed). The restaurant was located on the street with many shops close to the beach. The street and the neighborhood felt like a small quiet resort town. It took me good one hour by car to get there, however, since I only had to drive down twice a week on weekends when LA traffic was light, I did not mind at all. After all, it felt like a mini vacation going there.

On my first day, I met Gin-san, who was the head sushi chef at the restaurant. He was a small but energetic person. He explained to me the set up at the sushi bar and the restaurant. The sushi bar stretched from the entrance to all the way the back side of the restaurant: about 10 yards or so.  Above the sushi bar was the second floor with more tables. Behind the sushi bar and below the second floor was their kitchen, where they made fried and cooked dishes as well. They also have some Latino chefs who made sushi for the tables. There were three to four other sushi chefs who took care of the sushi bar customers. They were all Japanese. The restaurant had about 70 seats all together.

Gin-san told me that he started his training at fifteen, becoming an apprentice at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo. He lived at the owner’s house, which was the second floor of the restaurant. He slept, worked and ate with the owner’s family and other apprentices at the restaurant. Gin-san’s story, sounded just like the ones I’ve heard before, but he was the very first sushi chef I’ve met, who went through that type of traditional training.

His day started at six in the morning. After getting up, the first thing Jin-san did was to clean up the restaurant floor, then tables in the dining area, sushi bar, bathroom and the kitchen. For the first year, his job was to take care of errands around the restaurant, delivery sushi orders, and doing dishes, cleaning, and organizing. Also doing occasional shopping and just about any small and big chores around the restaurant. The most important thing was to keep everything clean: kitchen, dining room, in front of the restaurant, outside and around the restaurant, tools, knives, uniforms: everything must be perfectly clean. Because he was so busy doing chores, he had no time to practice sushi. (Well, even if he had time, he was not allowed.)

Why would you become a sushi apprentice only to do cleaning and small chores, as if you are a forced labor, a non-Japanese person may think. Traditionally, Japanese value discipline and devotion. One way to find out how much commitment a person has is to let him go through rigorous training and small chores, which, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with the real training.  However, fundamentally, all those “small” things will strengthen and train one’s discipline, which ultimately shapes the course of one’s career. Discipline will help to build a solid foundation for lifelong training. If you are unable to take care of small things, how could you take care of big things? The way you do one thing is the way you do everything in life.