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When did sushi get so macho?

Sushi is definitely a guy thing. Why, is something of a mystery. Sushi teacher Mineko Moreno, co-author of Sushi For Dummies, thinks men are attracted to sushi because they perceive it as edgy, even dangerous, with exotic ingredients (raw fish! seaweed! octopus!) that are about as far away from the midweek meatloaf as one can get.

Piling on ever-escalating quantities of pale green wasabi only adds to the perception of danger. (Some fish, like the illegal fugu, can actually be lethal if improperly prepared.) Even without the threat of death by nerve poison, what better suits the weekend kitchen warrior than going one on one with a foreign cuisine?

Another theory holds that our obsession with sushi really arrived on the ornate, medieval coattails of the 1980 blockbuster Shogun.

Thanks to Shogun, in the American imagination, Japan immediately became the locus of ancient wisdom, elegance and culture, subtlety and sophistication – all the things that we were told we lacked.

More important, at least to half the audience, was that those samurai warriors were bad. One could not miss the fact that armies of tough, sword-slinging samurai appeared to be living on little more than rice, fish and attitude. If they could kick butt fueled only by little bits of food, well, so could the red-blooded American male; and so began the transformation of sushi from snack to power food.

In the intervening years, what began as a challenging encounter with Japanese food has evolved far beyond its early cult status- and morphed into the good, the bad and the ugly.

Americans grabbed onto the sushi concept, altering and fusing, creating new-wave sushi styles – some good, some ugly, and some just puzzling. (A personal ersatz sushi experience involved a boat trip to Catalina and chunks of flaming Spam at the hands of a noted amateur sushi aficionado who insists, to this day, even after watching smoldering coals of pork fat hiss and sink to the bottom of Avalon Harbor, that grilled spam makes the very best sushi.)

To the rescue (and not a minute too soon) comes Sushi for Dummies (Wiley, 2004) which may be the definitive book on sushi for barbarians. Written by Japanese food expert Mineko Moreno and San Diego food writer Judi Strada, the aptly named and clearly written Dummies is obviously filling a need. Published in 2004, the book is going into its third printing and will be translated into Spanish.
Moreno has taught hundreds of sushi-making classes in the last 27 years, leading a lonely struggle against soy sauce abuse, wasabi assaults, soggy nori and – worst of all, in her view- the unforgivable sin of bad rice: sticky, mushy, hard, tasteless rice.

“Bad rice,” she cautions, “is a big, big failure in Japan.”

On the surface, there is not much to sushi. Rice, seaweed, a little fish and vegetables. According to Moreno, there is nothing very difficult about making sushi, either. It is merely an accumulation of details: simple steps and techniques, each of which has to be done absolutely perfectly. Anyone who has studied sushi making under Moreno cannot help but sense her devotion to the smallest of details, an attitude she endeavors to pass on to her students.

At a recent class at the Sur La Table cooking school in Carlsbad, she shares her definite ideas about what sushi is, and is not. “Sushi is not raw fish!” she tells the class firmly. “Everybody thinks that, but they’re wrong. Sushi is rice. Rice with vinegar.”

Moreno is an avowed missionary of rice, elevating this most primal of foods to a position of near-mystical relevance. To her, a good rice cooker is more important than a new pair of shoes, a comparison that draws laughter from her students.

“In Japan, we learn that rice is more than food. Rice is something sacred, and spiritual,” she tells the class.

Slim in an immaculate white jacket and apron, her hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, Moreno delivers the sushi gospel to her latest crop of acolytes. Tonight, they will learn how to make- and eat – good sushi.

The eating part is important. “Soy sauce abuse is an insult to the chef. Like wasabi abuse, very bad!” she scolds the class, who twitch guiltily in their seats.

Over the next hour, Moreno goes into infinite detail about the proper cooking of rice, simultaneously peppering her cooking instructions with insights into Japanese culture and language, folk tales and superstitions, slang, proper conjugation and cooking technique, right down to the correct bevel on the edge of the sushi knife.

Chatting about what’s stylish in Tokyo these days (different sea salts from around the world, instead of soy sauce) she demonstrates a myriad of essential, but deceptively simple rice handling techniques: The correct way to wash rice (stir clockwise and drain 6 times,) the pause before pouring off the water so the rice settles, and not a grain is lost (2 seconds,) She demonstrates the correct way to add water to the rice cooker, using an precise spot on the back of one’s hand to judge the correct amount of water. The right way to wipe and tear the piece of konbu for the pot, and the precise method to cool, stir and fan the finished rice.

“But you don’t have to measure everything,” Moreno insists, adding a healthy shot of sake straight from the bottle to the rice cooker. “This is not baking!”

No one is fooled. It is obviously this wealth of infinitesimal detail that adds up to perfect sushi, and the students watch attentively. At one point, while she fans the cooling rice, Moreno says, jokingly, that the fan used does not have to be red, though odds are that every student now owns a red fan.

After an hour of rice and sushi lore, Moreno sends the class on a short break while the rice cools. “Don’t be late coming back from break,” Moreno cautions them. “You have a lot of chopping to do.”

She sets to work laying out the area where the students will practice rolling sushi. “I love to teach, “she says, perfectly aligning a towel with the edge of a mat and setting a small bowl just so at the right corner. “ But I don’t want to just teach recipes. I want to teach skills.”

Though she teaches classical Japanese sushi making, Moreno herself is far from traditional. “Japanese women are trained to be fantastic cooks and wives,” she laughs. “Not sushi chefs. The sushi world in Japan is very macho, tough and competitive. You start the day before dawn in the cold, at the fish market and work late into the night. Not many women do it.”

The Tokyo native loved cooking from an early age, and took many Japanese cooking classes. She graduated from the Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo with a degree in French literature, and married Manuel Moreno, a Frenchman with Ecuadorian roots. Later, she became a professional flower arranger and taught both Japanese cooking and flower arranging in one class, a kind of domestic one stop shopping. The family moved to San Diego in 1973.

She started teaching in Japanese cooking in her San Diego home in 1977. In the beginning, Moreno taught sushi as a very small part of an intensive three-day class on Japanese cooking and culture, for seasoned cooks who wanted to expand their general knowledge of Japanese food. These days, she focuses almost exclusively on sushi: basic sushi, sushi and martinis, advanced sushi, sushi parties at home.

Moreno says,” It’s very different now. Many of the people who take my classes today don’t even know how to cook.

“I think that many people like sushi but find it too expensive, so they come and learn to make it at home. I have many men in my classes, and they all say their wives and girlfriends send them to learn how so they can make it at home for them. And maybe some people are just curious.”

Tonight’s class at Sur La Table in Carlsbad bears out her observations. Two women claim they cannot cook at all, but love sushi, and plan to send their husbands to another of Moreno’s classes. One couple, self-diagnosed ‘sushi freaks’ confess to being Japanophiles, enamored of everything Japanese. Of the two single men in attendance, one is going on a two-week fishing expedition to Mexico and has big plans for really fresh fish.

The other shrugs.” I really like to cook, and I cook a lot at home,” he says. “I saw someone rolling sushi at a party and it looked cool. So here I am.”

Oddly, the sushi that Moreno teaches to home cooks in the United States is almost never made in the Japanese home. “You go out to eat sushi,” Moreno explains. “Sushi is restaurant food, because they get a better variety of fish and better fish than the home cook can buy.” If she were teaching in Japan, she would teach differently too. “A more sophisticated style of sushi, different style than this, which is very basic.”

The class hurries back from break and don clean white aprons. Soon they are busy washing vegetables, slicing, dicing and chopping ingredients, toasting sesame seeds, pitting and peeling avocados (they are never scooped.) Some are put to work grilling salmon, skewering shrimp on bamboo skewers, or cutting sashimi grade tuna with one smooth, even slice of the knife (a single technique that takes Moreno 10 minutes to explain and demonstrate.)

At last, it’s time to roll sushi. The class gathers around the stove like TV pathologists around the autopsy table. Moreno demonstrates toasting the nori sheets, quickly passing both sides over an open flame.

“Crunchy nori makes yummy sushi,” she observes. She hands around the nori sheets and directs the students to fold them in half, and then cut along the fold.

“Turn bumpy side in, so black flakes don’t fly everywhere!” she says, then demonstrates how to form a hand roll, using perfect rice, crunchy nori, sesame seeds, crabmeat.

“Don’t put too much stuff,” Moreno cautions. “Like a taco, if you put too much, it doesn’t work.” She deftly forms a perfect cone and watches as her students make their first hand roll. When everyone is finished, some look more like dark green cigars than cones.

“That’s okay,” Moreno assures them. “Cigar shape is more traditional, but the cone is more flashy. You did good, everybody. Now eat! Sushi must be eaten right away.” The students bite into their handiwork.

“Wonderful,” say the women who do not cook.

“It’s delicious,” says the fisherman. Everyone is beaming with pleasure.

After the long rice lesson, the transformation of students from curious and clumsy to successful sushi rollers gives everyone a giddy sense of mastery.

As the evening progresses, they learn more style and techniques, from spicy tuna roll to the feat of derring-do that is the ‘inside out roll’, becoming more skilled with each attempt.

Moreno surveys her class with satisfaction. “I am a very picky person,” she says, with some pride. It seems less like an apology than a declaration of the way things in the sushi world ought to be, no matter who is rolling it.


Mineko Moreno notes that her sushi classes have a higher percentage of men in attendance than the usual cooking class, a phenomenon worth exploring:

  • 2,000 years ago – Sushi (vinegared rice) invented as a method of preserving raw fish.
  • 1976 – Shogun by James Clavell published. Macho Englishman learns to love dangerous, austere life in 17th century Japan, including long descriptions of tiny meals. Novel immediately achieves world-wide cult status. Disco, meat and potatoes rule America.
  • 1978 - ‘Saturday Night Samurai’ skit debuts on Saturday Night Live. Grunting and sweating, John Belushi brilliantly skewers both Shogun and John Travolta in one 5-minute segment. Samurais become cool. Sushi still means raw fish.
  • 1980 – Blockbuster Shogun miniseries airs. Doubts about Richard Chamberlain cannot obscure the fact that bellowing, insanely fierce Japanese samurai were practically living on spleen and rice. Sushi bars begin to spring up across the country. Konnichiwa enters language.
  • 1980 - Wasabi, the first truly ‘X-treme’ food, becomes a frat- household staple. Rampant confusion of guacamole and wasabi.
  • 1984 – Sushi nails its macho rep when Chicago sportswriters deride the San Diego Padres’ chances at the NL pennant, citing the fact that San Diego sells sushi at the ballpark. (They didn’t quite refer to the Pads as girly-men, but the implication was certainly there.) The city is thrown into an uproar.
  • Five games later: Sushi-eaters go to the World Series and Bratwurst-eaters go back to Chicago. (Sushi-eaters later defeated by Kielbasa-eaters, but that might be due to the power of garlic over horseradish.) At least Detroit didn’t make fun of our eating habits.


Chef Deborah M. Schneider, CEC, is currently at work on ¡Baja! Cooking On the Edge (Spring 2006, Rodale Press)


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