“In the uncertain ebb and flow of time and emotions, much of one’s life history is etched in the senses.”
― Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen
I cannot tell you exactly when I developed this fascination with Japanese culture but one thing I know for sure is that it was some time in my teenage years when I first started getting obsessed with languages and the power of words. I remember reading about these onomatopoeic phrases, or sound symbolism in Japan, when a sound describes a myriad of senses or emotions. For example, zupu — a feeling you experience when sinking into something soft (hmm, how often does that happen, you may ask?) or dororon — falling under a magical spell. Doki-doki is the sound of a fast-beating heart and nuku-nuku describes feeling cosy and warm.
Japanese-speakers say that it is hard to describe feelings in their language. They often employ various tools to convey subtle meanings and connotations, and these include poems based on certain rhythms, meticulous flower arrangements, and even food. Combinations of food and drink, I hasten to add.
A couple of weeks ago, suffering from a particularly acute bout of obsession with all things Japanese, I signed up for a sushi-making masterclass in central London. It was to be accompanied by sake-tasting — a combination that, in my book, is an instant winner in a line-up of fun and well-spent evenings.
Our evening at Inamo St James kicked off with sake-tasting. I like how you prioritise, Inamo — first things first.
Ninki Ishi Junami Sparkling Sake. Fermented in the bottle under a low temperature to trap the carbon dioxide and create a gentle fizz. “Ichi” means “one” in Japanese, and on the nose you will find a savoury note, while the palate has a fresh sweet-and-sour character. (You can tell who was taking notes during the class.)
Inamo’s French-sounding-and-looking manager was skillfully describing different varieties of sake and serving them with gusto.
One more? No need to ask.
and BA-DUM CHING! Drum roll and cymbals, I now have my favourite sake! Akash Tai Shiraume Umeshu, a luxurious plum liqueur made by preserving plums in the finest of Japanese sakes — premium ginjo sake made from Yamada Nishiki rice.
In Japan, umeshu is considered to be a therapeutic drink. Practically, a medicine.
Sadly, no picture, I was too busy enjoying the drink but you get another snap of the Frenchman, how about that?
After being duly and fully fuelled, our cheerful group of 10 was escorted downstairs to the kitchen for our sushi-making class with Chef Jon.
My working station with sushi rice, chopping boards, sharpest knives I’ve seen in my life, and a bowlful of wasabi.
Po is at the ready too.
We started with nigiri — a type of sushi made with sushi rice and fresh fish. The trick is to use no more than 10-12 grams of sushi (I have no idea either) and fresh fish sliced and artfully place on top of the rice.
See that tiny blotch of wasabi in the corner? It took me a good while to form it into a presentable shape.
Break for a snack: seared salmon maki with cream cheese.
Back to business: learning about Grade A Nori and getting hands-on instructions from Chef Jon. For one roll of my rainbow hosomaki, I used 40 grams of rice, three types of fish, some avocado, and cucumber.
Who is a good student?
The trick was to make sushi for your cooking partner — apologies to Po who was polite enough to nod approvingly while tasting my pathetic creations.
Beautiful Po with her beautiful sushi.
To say that we both tremendously enjoyed the evening would still be an understatement. It was tasty, bubbly, friendly, and simply wonderful! What would be the onomatopoeia to describe the elated feeling you get after having a glass of warm sake and tasting luscious sushi that your friend lovingly made for you?
I loved learning how to make sushi with Chef Jon — a native of Philippines. I asked him if his loved ones are okay after the recent Typhoon Haiyan that left entire communities flattened and thousands dead. Even if his immediate family are safe, it could be another 4-6 months before Jon hears from the rest of his friends in more remote corners of the country. The worldwide response has been overwhelmingly generous but at this point, every penny counts. I make my donations through British Red Cross who make it really easy to contribute: http://www.redcross.org.uk/Donate-Now
I finish this post with another quote by my favourite Banana Yoshimoto: “Everything in life has some good in it. And when something awful happens, the goodness stands out even more–it’s sad, but that’s the truth.”