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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

The perfect sushi rice? Chef Nobu Matsuhisa shares his tips

We delve into the complex art of sushi preparation and present a guide to cooking and eating sushi rice the right way, with expert advice from the chef

When eating nigiri, Nobu Matsuhisa says dip the fish, not the rice, into the soy sauce, or the rice will collapse. Victor Besa / The National
When eating nigiri, Nobu Matsuhisa says dip the fish, not the rice, into the soy sauce, or the rice will collapse. Victor Besa / The National

As anyone who has repeatedly faced a soggy mass of mush, or grains that are on the crunchy side of al dente will agree, cooking rice well is no easy task.

When it comes to Japanese-style rice and the glistening, gorgeous-looking pearly white beads required for sushi, things become even stickier.

The cuisine certainly doesn’t shy away from that fact, though. As a pivotal ingredient in Japanese food culture, rice is treated with the utmost reverence, respect and attention to detail. Flawlessly cooked rice is at the very foundation of sushi preparation.

Before apprentice sushi chefs can even hope to begin honing their knife skills, they must first prove their ability to handle rice the right way, time and time again. It’s perhaps no surprise that becoming an itamae (accomplished sushi chef) requires years of training – think upwards of 10 – and proves elusive for all but real masters of the craft.

Japanese fables maintain that when dealing with sushi rice, a true itamae will ensure that each cooked grain faces in exactly the same direction. While that might be the stuff of legend, the demands placed upon an aspiring sushi chef hold true – for proof, one only needs look to Nobu Matsuhisa. Today he is renowned as a trailblazer in contemporary Japanese cooking, known the world over for his fashionable restaurants and culinary prowess.

However, as an 18-year-old apprentice working in a Tokyo restaurant, he started out at the very bottom of the ladder. “For three years I washed dishes and cleaned the restaurant. I also went to the fish market every morning with the master of the restaurant. I carried the basket and he bought the fish,” he recalls.

Chef Nobu says chopsticks must be used for sashimi, and to dip the fish rather than the rice in soy sauce. Victor Besa / The National 
Chef Nobu says chopsticks must be used for sashimi, and to dip the fish rather than the rice in soy sauce. Victor Besa / The National 

“Back at the restaurant, I would clean the fish. I did this every single day until one of the sushi chefs left, then I got my chance and was promoted by the master to fill his slot. It then took another seven to 10 years before I really felt like I was getting somewhere.”

A few decades and many restaurants, awards and accolades later, Nobu modestly says that he still considers himself a student of sushi preparation, and continues to work on perfecting his technique. As well as time and dedication, he cautions that doing so requires a certain mindset.

“First of all you need to have patience, a passion for food and a great love of the food experience. You also need to make sushi from the heart.”

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While this might all sound rather overwhelming to the domestic cook, Nobu encourages the idea of making sushi at home, listing Japanese-style rice, fresh, high-quality fish, a sharp knife – preferably a Japanese sashimi knife – soy sauce and wasabi as essential items for doing so. For the best result, and in order to do justice to this cuisine, he does suggest taking things slowly.

So perhaps leave the complex sushi rolls for now and instead read our guide to cooking Japanese rice. Then try a few easy ideas for putting it to good use (no rolling or fiddly slicing required). And if all else fails, at least familiarise yourself with Nobu’s expert advice for eating sushi. After all, if you end up heading to a restaurant for your fix, you might as well do so with authority and style.