Ahmed Bishara clasps a vinegared rice ball in his hand and quickly pastes wasabi on a slice of raw salmon on the cutting board before him. He puts the rice ball on the salmon, turns it upside-down and presses it tightly into shape with his palm and fingers. The entire process takes about 10 seconds.
Bishara wets his hands and tackles his next piece of nigirizushi (hand-pressed sushi), this time using a slice of kanpachi (amberjack). After three minutes his time is up. He arranges the 18 nigirizushi on his cutting board and awaits his teacher’s verdict.
Bishara is one of six non-Japanese students who enrolled in Tokyo Sushi Academy’s sushi diploma course during July and August. The academy, located in Shinjuku Ward, is the only school in Japan devoted solely to the nation’s most well-known dish. It also boasts Japan’s only sushi-making course in English.
The teacher for the day is Suehiko Shimizu, a veteran sushi chef. He instructs the class in Japanese and his lectures are translated into English. Among the other three teachers that make appearances in the course, one is bilingual and the rest instruct with the aid of interpreters. Teaching material is provided in English.
Bishara came from Cornwall, England, to take the course, while five of his classmates traveled to Japan from Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Brazil. Another eight classmates are Japanese.
Bishara, who has worked for nine years as a European and Asian cuisine chef in England, says he has had to clear tough hurdles in the sushi school.
In England, when chefs order fish from a fishmonger, they can ask the fishmonger to cut the fish in the ways they want.
“The fish are already done for you. You don’t use your knife skills. So I got a little rusty in that department,” he said. “But coming here I started from scratch. We all started from the basic level. It was a very good opportunity for me to remember my old knife skills and practice the right way of dealing with fish — from a live fish to a decorated plate.”
German student Matthias Weise says it was a challenge for him to clasp vinegared rice.
“Sometimes my hands are too wet or too dry to handle the nigiri (an abbreviation of nigirizushi),” he says. “It was also difficult for me to cut the scallops, which are big and moving and alive.”
The 26-year-old chef says the most interesting part of the course was learning how to cut the fish into slices for the top of the rice. Europeans, he says, only cut fish straight. Japanese sushi chefs, however, have special techniques of cutting.
“The shape of nigiri is long and soft. It looks very beautiful,” Weise says. “I love the shape and now I know how to make it.”
Before the examination, the students learned how to decorate the fish on a sashimi plate, by cutting isaki (grunt) and tobiuo (flying fish).
“It was very interesting because these kinds of fish are not popular in Europe,” says Weise excitedly.
The six non-Japanese chefs came to Japan to learn sushi for many reasons. Weise says he wants to learn how to prepare sushi because the restaurant he works for back home has two sections in its kitchen — European cuisine and sushi.
“I wanted to learn the skills of both sections. I want to earn more,” says Weise, who adds that a sushi chef’s salary is around 30 percent higher than that of a normal chef.
Bishara signed up for the class because he noticed that Japanese food has been becoming more popular in recent years.
Bishara’s hunch is right. Japanese restaurants, most of which serve sushi, numbered around 50 in Paris in the 1980s. According to the Japan External Trade Organization that number had shot up to around 700 in March 2009. Technological advancements in the areas of refrigeration and delivery have no doubt made good quality sushi more widely available all over the West.
Despite advancements in Europe, Bishara wanted to learn how to make sushi in the land of its creation. He searched the Internet for a sushi school in Japan and found the Tokyo Sushi Academy (www.sushitokyo.jp). While the course costs ¥860,000, he says it is a reasonable price for two months.
Weise thought tuition was a bit steep when he first saw it. But after entering the school he says he realized that a considerable portion of the cost goes to providing one big fish for each student every day. Fish often cost between ¥5,000 and ¥10,000.
After the examination, the students are given a lecture on knife sharpening. A dealer of knives and knife sharpening stones instructs the class to sharpen their knives at the end of the day and pour boiling water on them.
“The hot water kills the germs on the knives and dries them quickly,” the dealer explains in Japanese while Hajime Kitayama, a staffer at the school, translates his words into English.
Kitayama isn’t the only one helping with translation, two senior Japanese students from one of the school’s other sushi courses also lend a hand. Recognizing how globalization is affecting their trade, Japanese students join the English class to improve their language abilities in order to cater to tourists, or perhaps even open a restaurant overseas.
Teacher Shimizu says most of the students from abroad are experienced chefs of other cuisines and they are eager to branch out into foreign territory.
“They ask many questions and take notes,” he says. “They are hungry for knowledge and to acquire traditional sushi-making skills.”
While some sushi restaurants have training courses for their future employees, Tokyo Sushi Academy is the only Japanese institution open to the general public that specializes in sushi, according to the school.
Makoto Fukue, president of the school, says traditionally people who seek work in sushi restaurants must be apprenticed to owner chefs of the restaurants and spend 10 years training.
“But such long-term training doesn’t suit young people today,” says Fukue, explaining that this is one of the reasons he established the school in 2002. The school started accepting students for private lessons in English in 2003.
Fukue thought there would be increased demand from non-Japanese for learning sushi skills, so the school launched the eight-week English sushi-making course in June 2009. At that time, the school counted around 40 students on its role (both in the course and in private lessons). This year, they have had a slight increase with 50 non-Japanese students. These students are from Europe, the Americas and the Middle East.
Fukue says that although numerous sushi restaurants exist overseas, most of those chefs learned how to make sushi from non-Japanese chefs, many of whom studied in sushi restaurants in New York or Los Angeles.
These cities are where sushi was first exported to in the 1960s. The introduction of the culture even resulted in the invention of the California roll in the 1970s, a piece of rolled sushi with avocado, crab, mayonnaise and seaweed.
Since then, variations on sushi have popped up all over the world.
However, Fukue believes that because a majority of chefs overseas don’t follow genuine Japanese sushi-making practices (in terms of the quality of the food and hygiene) the quality can suffer. These practices are drilled into the students at the academy. They aren’t just tested on how fast they can make the sushi, they are tested on every aspect of the culture.
Meanwhile back in the classroom, after telling the students time is up, Shimizu carefully examines the shape of their 18 nigirizushi. He writes down their scores on a white board in the classroom kitchen. Bishara achieves the second-highest grade in the class.
“I am proud of (the result),” he says. “I think after eight weeks of daily practice I came up to a level that means I can present good dishes for my customers.”