Our teacher for the practical part of our Tsukiji experience is the irrepressibly cheerful Naoko Kawagoe who is ably assisted by her colleague and translator, Aya Maeda. Kawagoe-sensei has all the bubble and energy of a TV chef, and her enthusiasm is catching. We can’t wait to start.
Whilst we were shopping the two ladies had accomplished much of the preparation work for the half a dozen dishes that we will make this morning: nigirizushi, temarizushi, makizushi sushi rolls, niku dofu simmered beef and tofu, seared bonito steaks and miso soup.
The open kitchen at the Tsukiji Cooking School and the classroom with its large tables is the perfect environment in which to learn to cook, clean, well lit, spacious. Kawagoe-sensei sets us off with niku dofu, simmering the white blocks of tofu in mirin, soy sauce, sake and dashi stock, with thin slices of top quality beef and thinly sliced negi scallions. We add shirataki, thin ribbons of konnyaku konjac ‘noodles’.
From my writing on Japanese cuisine over the years, I know that explaining konnyaku, which is often translated into English as the rather unappetizing ‘Devil’s Tongue’ or ‘Elephant’s Foot’, can be problematic. Aya-san is, however, more than up to the task. “It’s a paste made from the root of the konjac plant, largely used for its consistency – it has no taste of its own – and the fact that it is zero calorie. It’s great for dieting”.
With the niku dofu under way and its delicious aroma filling the room we turn to that old Edo favorite, nigirizushi. Though it is now a worldwide phenomenon, sushi began as the convenient food of choice for the laborers and artisans working on Edo Castle. Relatively quick to prepare, it was portable, tasty and it could be eaten anywhere, including standing up.
Residents of Kyoto, still smarting from that decision to move the nation’s capital to Edo, are even today somewhat sniffy about the working class origins of Tokyo-style sushi, preferring their own temarizushi, sashimi and dining seated on tatami mats. The minute they get off the bullet train in Tokyo, of course, they rush to eat it just like the rest of us!
Nigirizushi, literally ‘pressed sushi’ is also known as Edomaezushi, ‘sushi made in front of Edo’, and we make it by creating sushi rice, adding vinegar to the gleaming white rice while still hot, then cooling it by fanning the mix with uchiwa fans emblazoned, what else, with Tsukiji Cooking School’s own logo. Traditionally this is a job given to children, and much hilarity ensues as we compete like kids to see who can fan longest and hardest. Soshi is the winner.
There are many possible neta or toppings for nigirizushi. Today Kawagoe-sensei has chosen the very finest, freshest chutoro, the best cut of Tsukiji-bought fatty skipjack tuna. It’s the finest in Japan, and thus we can say with some certainty, the finest on the planet.
We then turn our attention to making temarizushi. These are the tiny, ‘sushi balls’ that originated in Kyoto, and deemed suitably small and delicate for meals served to the young trainee geisha known as maiko. They are particularly simple to make, as you place neta and then rice on to a piece of plastic wrap, twist it tightly so that it forms a ball shape, then, voila! A rice ball. I am pretty pleased with how my shrimp and avocado and smoked salmon and caper sushi turn out.
All, however, will not always be so successful…
For a while our attention moves away from sushi. Kawagoe-sensei shows us how to thinly slice garlic and roast it in a mix of cooking oil and soy sauce until it turns golden brown and crispy. We remove the garlic, turn up the heat, and drop bite-sliced blocks of the chutoro fatty tuna into the spitting, mix. Using chopsticks, we repeatedly turn the tuna until all six sides of the fish have been seared in the oil, whilst the interior remains raw. This technique is known as aburi. We then place the tuna to one side, with the garlic, and return to our other preparations.
The final sushi preparation of the morning is makizushi, rolled sushi. This is the sushi that requi
res the most preparation, and as I shall find out to my cost, the most physical dexterity. Firstly we must make dashimaki egg roll to provide the filling alongside tuna, avocado and the aromatic, mint-like aoba shiso leaves. Dashimaki is akin to a kind
of Japanese egg omelet, but it is cooked in a small, rectangular frying pan, and as the egg mixture begins to harden you must jerk the pan abruptly upwards so that the egg mix falls back on itself, folding inwards, a process that is repeated until you have a perfect omelet roll. Kawagoe-sensei makes it look easy, but it’s a little tricky to get the rhythm right. Chaiyan and Soshi do great. I somehow manage.
The next step however is a different story. Sensei shows us how to place the dried nori seaweed sheet on to a special bamboo rolling mat called the makisu. On top of this you place the vinagered sushi rice, the dashimaki and other ingredients, then you simply roll the mat away from your body, constantly keeping the pressure on with your thumbs until you have rolled a perfectly cylindrical sushi roll that you slice and serve with soy sauce.
Chaiyan and Soshi turn out perfectly nice looking examples. Liran’s is a small masterpiece, looking like it could adorn any Tsukiji sushi shop’s showcase. Mine, on the other hand is a catastrophe. As I start rolling the makisu, I can sense that all is not going well. The middle of the roll seems to be spilling ingredients. I press harder, but this only serves to knock the whole creation further out of shape. I ease off the pressure, but then more ingredients bulge out the sides. Liran dives to the rescue. Perhaps four hands can save it?
Alas not. My makizushi looks like it has been run over by a delivery truck. I place the ungainly structure on the plate, and students and teacher alike peer at it with curiosity. Then everyone dissolves into laughter. Me too. Clearly I should stick to writing about sushi, not making it.
Thankfully, our final cooking task of the morning involves a task in which I have considerable experience: creating miso soup, and for that we must extract dashi stock. My wife, a Japanese chef, refers to me, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I suspect, as ‘Professor Dashi’, and the stock making duties in the Ashburne household now fall to me.
I love blending together seaweeds, katsuobushi, yakiago flying fish, dried mushrooms and other secret ingredients to create my own unique dashi stock. Yes, I’ll admit it, it’s more than a little geeky, but it makes me happy.
Kawagoe-sensei teaches us a simple dashi extraction of kombu kelp, soaked in advance in water for around an hour, and katsuobushi. We make sure to not let the mix boil, cooking over a moderate heat for several minutes, before extracting the seaweed before filtering the mix through a cotton cloth. Great clouds of steam fill the cooking studio, and a wonderful smell permeates the air. Soshi, engulfed in a cloud of ‘dashi steam’ exclaims ii nyoi desu ne! ”This smells fabulous!”. We add the dashi to awase red-and-white miso, with tofu and sliced negi scallions. And thus our Tsukiji meal is complete. Only one thing remains. We must eat.
Over the space of a few hours we have created a veritable feast. We are more than happy with the results. The tofu and beef are cooked to perfection. The sushi is wonderful, and despite its hideous appearance, even my makizushi tastes superb. As we eat sushi, slurp our miso soup, and sip on some Aomori sake served by Aya-san, an appreciative silence descends upon the group. This is what it has all been for. My own favorite is the seared aburi-style bonito, served in its garlic sauce, the perfect contrast of the raw and the cooked, the delicate and the flavorful. With the cold dry sake it tastes divine.
Learning to cook, and shop, in Tsukiji is a unique and highly fulfilling experience. It is part history lesson, part cultural study tour, part practical learning and a massive amount of fun. The staff at the Tsukiji Cooking School love what they do and their highly professional yet relaxed and easygoing manner make the time fly by.
We bid our farewells. Chaiyan is flying out to Bangkok that afternoon, LIran to Israel the following morning. Soshi and I will soon return to our homes in Japan. Our lives, cultures, languages and experiences are all very different, but in one corner of old Edo we have come together one morning to learn, to cook and to feast together. Monsieur Victor Hugo, at least in spirit, was with us too.
Photos © John F. Ashburne.