Lifestyle | CHILD'S PLAY

Teens can sharpen their cooking skills with Japanese recipes

Once my kids hit their teens, it became increasingly challenging to find family activities to do together. Aside from the occasional movie night, both son and daughter grew resistant to hanging out with their old man on weekends … or any other time for that matter.

Of course I’ve supported their nascent autonomy, but I also miss one-on-one time with them. Keeping up with their interests is tricky, too, as their tastes seem forever in flux. Yet there is one constant in the life of a teen: hunger. With this in mind, I often use food to draw them out of their rooms and into an afternoon with Dad. Food tours usually work, but since 2013 the perennial favorite for us has been cooking classes. We’ve taken cooking lessons while traveling in many Asian and Latin American locales, starting when the kids were around 7 and 10. Now that they’re older, I value cooking classes even more. It’s a nice way to learn about a culture while practicing an essential life skill: preparing food for yourself and others.

I contacted AirKitchen, a website that connects locals to teach culinary skills to travelers or whomever is interested. Prices vary depending on the instructor, the dish being made, and the materials required. From learning to make ramen in Hokkaido to wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) in Fukuoka Prefecture, AirKitchen offers a wide variety of classes across the country. My daughter loves sushi and we live in Osaka, so I knew just what to search for. After a few clicks, I signed up for a “Sushi Chef Experience!” with instructor Hitomi Nakano.

That weekend we meet Hitomi, who prefers us to use her first name, at Tachibana, a sushi restaurant that she and her husband manage. Many AirKitchen classes are in the homes of the instructor, but for this class we would work in an actual sushiya, with a wooden bar, low seating and all the tools used by professionals.

After some quick introductions, we follow Hitomi into Osaka’s Kuromon Ichiba market, which is just around the corner to the restaurant. A maze of over 150 stalls, shops and street vendors, the market has been serving the public since the Edo Period (1603-1868). Today it supplies fresh fish, seafood and vegetables to the city, catering to high-end chefs and little old ladies alike. Hitomi cuts through the crowd to her usual vendor and we follow. Under her direction, we select hefty chunks of tuna, salmon and flatfish. Then we choose some crab legs and scallops. How about shrimp? My eyes are drawn to the huge red ones, then to the tiger prawns so fresh they’re still wriggling about. When we hesitate over which to choose, Hitomi grabs two of each.

Once back at the restaurant, we wash our hands and put on traditional staff uniforms selected from a nearby rack. As we do this, Hitomi lays out our bounty and then beckons my daughter behind the counter, where the two of them begin making sushi rice. First they slowly mix in rice vinegar to cooked rice. Next they fan it, which cools it and adds luster to the grains. Then it’s time to break out the blades. Sushi knives are extremely sharp, and Hitomi shows us how to hold them, demonstrating the first cut of each fish before we take turns slicing our upcoming meal.

After molding sushi rice, Hitomi instructs how to place a piece of fish atop the mound. | JASON JENKINS
After molding sushi rice, Hitomi instructs how to place a piece of fish atop the mound. | JASON JENKINS

It is interesting to see the different cutting techniques. For example, with tuna, the knife enters at around a 45-degree angle, whereas the salmon requires that the blade begin perpendicular to the table and then switch to nearly flush with the cutting board to properly remove the skin. We repeat this process with each item from the market, wiping the blade rhythmically before moving on to the next ingredient. We learn that the shrimp is left to last, since the red pigment in their shells can taint the color of other items. This we see in action, when a little surprisingly our plastic gloves almost instantly become pink when handling them.

With the fish cut and prepared, we return to the rice for a lesson on making nigiri sushi. With Hitomi’s help, we learn how to pinch, push and prod the rice into perfect pedestals to place the slices of fish. I add wasabi to mine, while my daughter defers. Hitomi guides us through each step, including blanching the crab and blowtorching the eel. Handing a blowtorch to a teen always makes for a memorable afternoon.

Fresh off the boat: Nigiri sushi is placed in pairs on a boat plate before being served at Hitomi’s 'Sushi Chef Experience' lesson. | JASON JENKINS
Fresh off the boat: Nigiri sushi is placed in pairs on a boat plate before being served at Hitomi’s ‘Sushi Chef Experience’ lesson. | JASON JENKINS

Once everything is prepared, Hitomi pulls out two boat-shaped trays, and like a culinary Noah’s Ark, we board various pairs of nigiri two by two. We start with tuna up front and work backward, adding salmon and the rest of the fish before filling in leftover spaces with shellfish, eel and salmon roe. Then it’s time to feast — we’d earned it.

The class a success, I plan for us to dig deeper into Japan’s culinary world. This is one activity I know the kids will always have an appetite for.

For more information on AirKitchen’s cooking classes in Japan, visit airkitchen.me.

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