There was a little problem with our trip to Japan.
For most of the trip, we felt like observers, not participants.
It was like we were window shoppers, not understanding the display. Like wanting to jump into the ocean, but being held back by a sign that read, “No swimming.” Like my brain was trying to process a thousand pieces of information a minute with nobody to ask “why?” or “how?”
That feeling of being an observer pushed a wedge between seeing and understanding that I so desperately wanted to bridge. Japan, with all its colors and all its sounds and all its people, sometimes felt… empty.
Enter Yuka Mazda, petite stature wrapped in a sunshine-yellow apron dotted with caricatures of sushi.
Yuka and her sushi making class transformed us from observers to participants. She filled that empty void with energy and expertise and Far East fare.
The minimalist kitchen in her home served as the classroom for an afternoon of creating. The agenda: steaming rice, cooking miso soup, making soba sauce for chilled tofu, preparing wasabi, crafting sushi, and reflecting with a matcha tea ceremony.
“Game over!” she chided playfully, proclaiming our sushi ruined if we opened the lid of the cooking sushi rice. Patience. Patience to allow the rice to bloat into soft, sticky pearls. The rice, which so often I considered an afterthought, proclaimed center stage. The preparation required team effort: someone to hold the wooden hangiri mixing tub, someone to rapidly stir the rice and vinegar, and another to cool with an accordion hand fan.
Rice, in Japan, is a culinary staple. And if you’ve ever dined in Japan, you know the rice tastes different. That’s because the rice in Japan is not the same as other rice around the world. The rice is held to high quality standards and according to our teacher, you don’t find these prime ingredients outside of Japan – unless you’re dining at Michelin restaurants.
Scooping a small handful, Yuka weighed the rice, removing and adding grains to achieve the optimal amount. Like a masseuse, she shaped and massaged the rice with delicate, intentional pressure to form a perfect shape to serve as a bed to the sashimi.
We mimicked Yuka, awkwardly manipulating our untrained fingers. Tiny rice grains, the humble beginnings of cuisine that define a culture.
As we worked the rice, each student took a turn to make wasabi. At my opportunity, I followed the gestures, rubbing the wasabi root rhythmically against leathered shark skin. With each motion, soft jade paste gradually scraped off the root.
It didn’t stab the sinuses like the “wasabi” back home. The wasabi I know back home is grainy-textured horseradish, dyed sickly green.
This wasabi was different. This was REAL wasabi. Wasabi with a delicate flavor, a muted bite, meant to complement the sushi, not overpower it.
Yuka arranged the remaining ingredients – bold and colorful, paint for our palettes of sushi art. Orange salmon streaked with pale marbling, shiny bulbous ikuro, deep pink tuna, bright yellow egg cake, dark evergreen nori, and spring green fillers like cucumber, avocado, and something else that looked like a leafy chive.
Sourced from the Tsukiji Fish Market that morning, Yuka provided the finest, freshest ingredients. That chunk of tuna? Easily $100.
There were rules to follow too: salmon and tuna never belong in the same roll. Don’t taint the fish with your dirty fingers.
She retrieved her knife, visually worn, but sharp as a samurai sword. She instructed how to hold the knife while cutting into the thick, fleshy chunk of tuna. Gentle force, but allow the knife’s weight to pull the cut. Do not saw the sashimi. It sliced like a warm scalpel through a stick of soft butter. Quality. That was key. One quality knife comprised Yuka’s sushi arsenal.
Yuka encouraged minimalism, advising that one good knife is enough. She shared where to buy the best knife in the world (hint: right there in Tokyo).
And with our learning minds directing our fumbling, novice hands under Yuka’s instruction amid rich stories of sushi culture and sushi etiquette, we created wonderful bites of sushi art.
Too pretty to devour, we ate our sushi as deliberately and mindfully as we made it, welcoming every flavor and every texture to introduce itself to our curious palettes.
Before the goodbyes, we sat in quiet reflection as Yuka whisked matcha in steaming water for a traditional tea ceremony. I looked around the room, an intimate setting, at the additional couple and middle aged solo female traveler. All six of us gathered around the table, centered in the perfect backdrop to experience Japanese culture, Japanese tradition, and Japanese food: Yuka’s kitchen.
I reflected, remembering my feelings before this sushi making class.
Through food we learn, grow, understand. Just like our basic instinct is hunger, we have the human hunger to belong. There was something wrong with our trip to Japan. For much of our trip, we floated. We wondered. We observed. By experiencing Yuka’s cooking class, we created. We learned. We participated. We tasted. We belonged.
Fun Facts About Sushi / What I Learned about Sushi
Beyond making sushi and eating sushi, the other reward from this sushi making class was learning about sushi culture and sushi etiquette. Some interesting fun facts I learned:
Sushi rolls are actually supposed to be square, not round!
According to Yuka, the premier sushi rice (like the rice we used) can only be found in Japan – it isn’t exported.
Wasabi in the U.S. is not the same as wasabi in Japan. In the U.S. horseradish is used because wasabi root is ridiculously difficult to grow, expensive to ship, and can’t survive the long haul.
The closest to authentic Japanese sushi in the U.S. would be a Michelin-rated restaurant.
It takes years to become a sushi chef. Perfection is required. That wasabi root we rubbed on sharkskin? An apprentice may take an entire year doing that activity every single day, until the perfect wasabi is achieved.
Your sushi chef will add wasabi to your sushi if it is needed. No soy sauce is needed on some maki or nigiri, especially if it already is “sauced” for you by the chef. When in doubt, don’t do it (or ask the chef). When we ate breakfast for sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market, our chef would advise us whether we should or not (very helpful!).
Pick up nigiri with your hands and dip the fish side into soy sauce. Never soak the rice in soy sauce.
In Japan, salmon is considered a low quality fish.
Take Yuka’s Japanese Cooking Class / Sushi Making Class in Tokyo
Clearly I consider this the best experience of our entire Japan itinerary. Taking a sushi making class in Tokyo is bucket list worthy. My recommendation is to take this class at the beginning of your trip. This will afford you the opportunity to ask Yuka for advice or ask questions about etiquette before you feel like an observer as I did.
To book a sushi making class, visit Yuka’s Japanese Cooking School website.
Yuka offers more courses in addition to the sushi making class we took, including gyoza & wagyu beef, teriyaki, and okonomiyaki. Cost depends on the course. The sushi course is most expensive. We paid approximately $80 USD per person.
Yuka provides everything. Just bring yourself.
The class is many hours long. Eat a solid snack. Don’t arrive starving as it’ll be a while until you eat the sushi of your labor. Don’t overbook your day with activities as this will encompass a majority of the day. The sushi class we took lasted five hours (9a-2p). Worth every minute and we were grateful to not have another activity scheduled for the day.
Although I’m not sure if it’s routine, Yuka did offer to take us to the market after class for a brief tour. Another reason to keep your afternoon free.
If you do decide to take the class, I implore that you arrive early to the meeting place, or else you’ll be on your own to find her home. Remember that this is a private residence and addresses in Japan are a complicated thing. Sharing personal experience here — we were late to the meeting spot, the taxi couldn’t find the address and dropped us off at the fire department, the fire department had a hard time figuring it out (even while looking at a giant map on the wall), and lucky for us, Yuka saw us from her window wandering the street. Whew. Will be a tardy lost fool for sushi.