My parents, who are both Japanese, spent a great deal of my childhood trying to assimilate my siblings and me to American culture, especially through cuisine. My family experimented with classic American meals, such as macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, and spaghetti. My parents enrolled me in tap-dancing lessons because they believed it would give me better coordination in sports. Because Japanese culture also values punctuality and pristine appearance, I arrived at all of my school dances 30 minutes early with a clean, pressed shirt, and snappy, wrinkle-free pants. It was all about trying to be a typical American.
But there was one thing that my parents let me hold onto from our Japanese culture—the food, especially sushi. Love of good Japanese food was embedded in our souls, thanks to my bachan (grandmother). She taught me that the best food takes patience. It’s something that I came to understand and appreciate only with age and years in the restaurant business. Thanks to my jichan (grandfather) and bachan, we ate traditional Japanese food every week. Dishes such as sushi and sashimi became just as normal as meatloaf and cheeseburgers. We also ate just sushi rice in a bowl. We mixed in fish cake, peas, cut up nori, tamago (sweet egg), koko (pickled radish), and cucumber. It was just as good as the futomaki rolls Bachan would make, and we couldn’t get enough of it.
I looked forward to making sushi, a tradition my grandmother taught me with great pride. The pungent odor of rice wine vinegar, wafting from the kitchen, woke me up early in the morning. It was always just the two of us on Sunday mornings, my bachan and me. I eagerly joined her in the kitchen and watched for hours as she fanned the rice, kneaded the rice-wine vinegar mixture into the rice, and slowly cooled it, then adding more rice-wine vinegar, a touch of sugar and salt, here and there, and tasting as she went, until she thought it was perfect. And it was perfect.
There was no recipe, although I asked for one many times. She would simply say, “tatatatata,” and then show me what to add to the rice and what to savor on my taste buds. I participated with the greatest intent of both pleasing her and making the best rice possible. I grew up to know sushi as rice, rather than what most Americans interpret as raw fish.
The rice, I came to learn, is so critical. Did you know that accomplished sushi chefs spend years trying to perfect the rice before they continue with additional training?
As I got older, my bachan would let me only fan the rice cool, but I was not able to participate in adding ingredients. She made me feel like I was performing the most important part of the process. I came to realize it is important that sushi rice be respected as much as the ingredients in it. It is an art: putting the whole product together, layer upon layer, adding to the base flavor of the rice.
The best sushi starts and ends with the taste of the rice.
Eventually, she showed me how to make the rice-wine vinegar mixture for the steaming rice. There was no written recipe. The recipe was the time spent making it with her, and the tasting. Always tasting. This process with Bachan has helped me tremendously in the restaurant business. It helped me to keep an open mind. I taste food, wine, and beer on a daily basis. I am always researching and exploring new tastes and ingredients.
Today, I don’t make sushi very often at home. But when I do, I don’t roll it. I make the rice and then add some ingredients, such as fish and nori, and mix it all together like a raw stir-fry. I am always trying to channel my grandmother—her patience, her care, and her focus on the rice.
Because of her, sushi will always be about the rice. I love searching for great sushi rice. When I go out for sushi, I often order just a bowl of the sushi rice to see how much culinary effort was put into the rice. Because once you taste good rice, there is no going back.