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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sushi? At these prices!? Meshugeh to ask so much for a nosh, they are!

We explored two very different food ideologies today, so it felt a little disjointed, but at the end of the day, I felt very clean.

In the morning we were able to go BU's Hillel House and discuss kosher and take a tour of the kitchens at the Hillel House. I'd always had a rough idea about what kosher meant, I knew the basic rules of no pork, no meat and dairy together, etc. But the laws surrounding slaughter were always a little vague. Rabbi Polak was very helpful in giving us a more specific (yet broad) overview.

I would have liked to know more about why some rules of kosher were created to begin with, but I imagine the Rabbi would have needed a much longer session with us, and he would have had to give us all a quick lesson in religious and world history. Jenny (although not kosher herself) did explain a few things, like why meat and dairy could not be consumed together (although you can have dairy before meat, but you'd need to wait six hours if you had meat first): it would be cruel and disrespectful to mix the death of an animal (meat) with the life of an animal (milk).

I also assumed that many of the kosher laws in the Jewish faith were important means of keeping the general population as healthy as possible way back when. But I certainly appreciate the philosophy of respecting the act of killing an animal for food. I was particularly interested in learning about the special care taken in keeping the knives used for slaughtering sharp and perfect so that the blade will not tear or drag on the flesh of the animal, ensuring as humane a death as possible.

Of course, there are some rules that I can't wrap my head around - the avoidance of blood. I don't completely understand how this is possible as most cuts of meat will always have some blood remaining within it. I can't remember when I cooked a piece of meat that a little blood didn't come out of it. I think only cuts of boneless chicken or pork (which is obviously a moot point). But what about beef? I'm a little baffled by this.

Although not every company necessarily wants to keep kosher, I can definitely see the appeal from a commercial stand point. After all, most kosher rules are basic principals of cleanliness. If a factory must sanitize and clean the facility, regardless, it's a marginal difference to go the extra step and make it kosher, enabling a large group of people access to your product.

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Sam the sushi guy is probably the most energetic and frenetic of all the chefs that have come to teach us, but he made some great points and really explained some of the intricacies that come with selecting, cutting and serving raw fish.

We started by watching him do a demo of prepping and making a California roll. He cut wide, thin ribbons off by going around the cucumber with his knife, stopping just before he reached the seeds. It was great to watch and he certainly made it seem easy, but when it was our turn to prep the cucumber for our rolls, I just couldn't even come close to getting it right. A technique like that (Iron Chef did the same thing too, but with daikon) obviously takes a lot more practice and time, but I can't imagine that I'll ever get to a point where I'm doing it perfectly.

Next we were cutting the avocado. The type we used wasn't a type I'd ever seen before. It was much greener than the ones I was used to, with a much smoother skin. I guess I'd never seen avocados outside of California before, because we only have and use Hass avocados that are ugly and brown on the outside, but almost always smooth and perfect on the inside (this also explains a lot because, when I'd seen recipes before that called for avocados, they always specified they should be Hass, a specification I now totally understand). Cutting the avocados was easier, particularly since it wasn't a completely foreign technique, but it was hard to keep the slices consistent and to keep the avocado from slipping around. His method for cutting the avocado was a little more complicated than I'm accustomed too, but I think that it probably yields more appropriately sized slices for sushi rolls.

The first roll was a little rough around the edges. I don't think I rolled it tightly enough and it didn't seem to seal properly either. Sam's secret, which I've decided is a good secret, was to touch the rice to the inside of the nori before rolling the rest of the way, ensuring a good seal. Grabbing the right amount of rice to begin with was easy for me and so was creating a small mound of rice at the top of the nori sheet. What tripped me up was how difficult it was to manipulate the rice down the nori so that it evenly covered it. I constantly felt like I was smushing the rice grains down rather than lightly petting them into position. I knew what I was doing couldn't possibly be right when I saw how broken up and mushed my rice became.

After sprinkling on a few sesame seeds and flipping over the rice and nori, the filling was easy. "Crab" meat sticks, cucumber and avocado evenly distributed down the center and then Sam's secret trick: taking one corner of the sushi, pull it so that it goes over the filling and that the rice makes good contact to the bare nori on the other side. After making sure that sticks, repeat with the rest of the roll until completely sealed in.

Naturally, there are other ways of doing this, but I think for beginners this is the best method. The first roll I made, I didn't roll it properly and because I didn't stick the rice to the nori, it was obvious after I cut the roll and the filling seemed loose. My two other rolls turned out much better...

... well, except that I clearly need to work on my spatial judgment, as my cuts were no where near 1/3 of rolls. After I arranged my rolls, they looked like a weird little sushi cityscape.

The nigri pieces were (strangely) much harder to master. I never would have thought that making a little block of rice would be so difficult. I found it hard to make the rice take on the right shape and be the right size. There was a delicate finger play I didn't seem to be understanding, even though Sam must have shown me (and the rest of us!) a dozen times.

Although my hand-eye coordination seemed lacking today, I was still able to learn a lot about what good quality fish means, because it's clear that Sam doesn't use anything he doesn't believe to be truly spectacular fish. The salmon was of a quality that I'd never had in the US, I couldn't believe it.

Sam also showed us (and emphasized heavily) the importance of presentation, especially when you're dealing with something that can be considered unappealing, like raw fish. He made a platter that was just beautiful, creating shapes and art out of fish, vegetables and rice. It was all very organic but clean. He really is a very artful man.

Growing up in Hong Kong and being lucky enough to travel a lot as a kid, I've had some great food in my time. Especially sushi. In Hong Kong, the salmon is of such good quality, I generally only have sashimi and I can eat it for breakfast. Since living in the US, I've avoided sashimi because I never know what the fish will be like, so I hope to mask the fish in rolls that have other fillings that make for an interesting roll. I can't describe how happy I am to find a place that has the quality of fish I miss when I'm not in Hong Kong.

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