I made sushi at home the other day for the first time ever. And it didn’t go that badly, surprisingly. I wouldn’t have thought so just 24 hours earlier.
At that point, three-quarters of the way into executive chef Mike Smith’s sushi-making class at Blue Wasabi Sushi & Martini Bar in Gilbert, I was feeling like my chances of replicating all this chopping, rolling and slicing on my own were slim to none. In fact, it seemed like most of us in the class were thinking the same thing.
“It justifies the price (of sushi), what you pay in a restaurant, once you see all this, how much work it is,” says David Kwasny of Gold Canyon. He and his wife, Summer, are there with friends Harold and Terri Willis, visiting from Cedarburg, Wis.
We’re up to our wrists in goopy “krab mix” and sticky rice, following along as Smith guides us step-by-step in what’s turning out to be a very hands-on class.
Our first clue that we aren’t going to be spectators: The chef arrives, passing out some of the craziest-looking knives I’ve ever seen. Mine is as long as my forearm. (Word to the wise: If you have a sharp knife you like for chopping veggies at home, bring it; you’ll be more comfortable.)
Smith, who’s young and sports a mohawk, put us quickly at ease, and we jump right in, getting a feel for what cooked sushi rice should look and feel like. We help mix in rice vinegar to impart subtle flavor, “chopping” the rice with a flat tool that looks like a paddle. Smith tells us what kind of rice to buy when we try this at home and urges us to give our rice time to “bloom” once it’s cooked, rather than work with it immediately.
We roll our makisu, or bamboo sushi mat, in plastic wrap, making it easier for novices like us to keep our rice from sticking to it. We chop English cucumber, avocado and mango, and we practice smashing fistfuls of rice into rectangles on our mats. We use our hands to squish imitation crab meat together with sesame oil, mango and sriracha — the innards of the California rolls and Wango Mango rolls we’ll be making.
“There’s a lot involved,” admits Blue Wasabi owner Jim Moran, who hangs out for much of the class to help pass out materials or whisk away rubbish. “It’s not like cooking a steak.”
Indeed. In our two-and-a-half hours with Smith, we experiment with delicate yellow and pink soy paper, in addition to the standard dark green nori, or seaweed, sheets that help bind the rice around the filling. Smith shows us how to shape rolls into hearts and fan avocado slices atop caterpillar roll. We get a quick course in how to make and eat nigiri — rice topped, in this case, with raw salmon. Smith shares tips on finding fish “good enough” to use for this purpose at the supermarket, and tells us how his team preps the fish behind the scenes at the restaurant, making suggestions for how to replicate the process on a smaller scale at home.
The whole time, we’re free to sip beverages we’ve ordered off the menu and gobble up the sushi we make. Most of us wind up taking extra home in boxes.
“This would be a really good first date,” says Corissa Sifuentes of Gilbert, the student stationed across from me. It would also be fun for a group of friends.
Smith, who’s been making sushi for nine years, knows the process can be overwhelming.
“Sushi chefs are meticulous because the ingredients we work with are really volatile. We have to have high standards,” he says. “If you watched me during a busy happy hour service, you’d be like, ‘There’s no way I can do that.’ You’d be so discouraged.
“So, the stuff I’m showing you is the easiest stuff to do. We’re breaking it down, making it clear and concise, showing you some tricks and giving you some training wheels so you actually will try it at home. Because in the beginning, just spreading the rice with your bare hands is hard.”
It takes most of his new hires six months, he says, to get a feel for the proper moisture level on their hands, and about two years to perfect their rolls.
Which is why I’m kind of surprised when, on my usual trip to the grocery store the next day, I realize I have everything I need to make sushi but nori and imitation crab. (I’m not quite ready to serve raw fish at home.)
I plop them in my cart, and within the hour I’m cooking rice, chopping veggies and making a wrinkled, sloppy attempt at covering my makisu, a souvenir from the class, in Saran Wrap.
In the end, my homemade spicy crab and mango rolls look less like Smith’s pieces of art and more like a trash bags torn open by roving javelinas — but they taste great. And I’m already itching to try again soon, though, yes, going out for sushi is much easier and, as Kwansy said, much more appreciated now that I’ve seen how it’s done.
If you go
What: Learn the basics of sushi rolling in a two-hour, hands-on class with executive chef Mike Smith of Blue Wasabi Sushi & Martini Bar.
When: Classes are scheduled monthly; call the restaurant or follow it on Facebook or Twitter for dates.
Where: Blue Wasabi, 2080 E. Williams Field Road, Gilbert
Cost: $49 per person, includes sushi to eat and a sushi mat to take home
Information: (480) 722-9250 or BlueWasabiSushi.com
More than sushi
Blue Wasabi also hosts spirits classes. “As a martini bar, vodka and gin are our main ingredients, and sometimes people don’t realize vodka and gin are all different; they each have their own distinct flavor profiles and properties. We’ll go into some background on how they’re made, do some tastings, and go into making some traditional martinis,” says owner Jim Moran. Call the restaurant or follow it on Facebook or Twitter for class dates and to register.