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Making the Best Sushi is All in the Training

Kai's special sushi roll at Osaka Japanese sushi restaurant

As you sit back and enjoy that exquisite sushi roll at Osaka in Las Vegas or your favorite Japanese restaurant in your hometown, have you ever wondered just what it takes to learn and master the delicate art of making great sushi? Turns out that making sushi is a lot more complex and subtle a specialty than you might think. Skilled sushi chefs who prepare truly authentic Japanese sushi go through years of rigorous training, often up to 10 years, to become an itamae, or sushi master.

Becoming an Itamae or Sushi Chef

In Japan, the title of a head sushi chef, or itamae, is an exceptionally prestigious and revered title. It is not loosely awarded and only the best of the best get to have it. The term Itamae translates to “in front of the board”, that is this is the person in charge of all that happens on the board where sushi preparation takes place. They are charged with the responsibility of preparing sushi, ruling the sushi kitchen, and pleasing the guests. An itamae in Japan is highly revered and honored.

Fresh mackeral and hocho japanese knife on sushi master cutting board

Aspiring itamae students must come prepared for grueling training and the challenges of the trade. To begin with, great sushi making demands excellent manual dexterity. Sushi makers must have expert knife skills and be able to achieve absolute precision. And the art of sushi making demands creativity in order to build a distinct and memorable sushi menu and reputation.

Expert knife skills are important to be able to cut fish different types of fish expertly and precisely in order to bring out the best pieces of the fish. In sushi preparation, rice and the careful mixing of sauces and arrangement of other ingredients must also be very exact. Neatness and accuracy are crucial.  Each sushi making session must result in perfect rolls, including carefully prepared sushi rice with exactly the proper balance of vinegar and salt, that present a visually stunning and deliciously perfect piece of sushi for the guest with each bite.

Mackarel fish sliced on sushi cutting board

 

 

With so much to master, the road to attaining the itamae standard is long, tough and requires complete professional devotion of time and skills. Here is the path the future itamae will most commonly take:

Sushi training school and apprenticeship

There are many schools today offering courses on how to train as a sushi chef. However, while these courses may equip students with the concepts and some mechanical skills of sushi preparation, the journey to becoming an expert and revered itamae requires extensive experience and apprenticeship. Programs limited to school training often fail to engrain the intense devotion and discipline, or allow time for learning, making mistakes and trying again, that makes for a truly master sushi chef. In Japan, the real way to become a respected sushi chef is to learn on the job; starting from the very bottom and working your up to the top.

Start with cleaning duties

In Japan, an aspiring itamae must learn the discipline of hard work.  He will start in his first sushi kitchen job with cleaning duties which include washing, scrubbing and general clean-up.  These duties are part of the training and prove the student’s devotion to becoming an itamae. This period may go on for a few months depending on the master, who will assess the young worker’s abilities from afar and know whether he has what it takes to become an itamae.

Graduate to preparing perfect sushi rice

Preparing sushi rice is a special process that requires precision and consistency.  Every master sushi chef has his own unique and secret recipe for the sushi rice preparation. In this step, the student learns how to make the rice, a careful blend of rice, vinegar and salt. The student’s itamae master guides him in each step, under careful supervision, until the student’s work meets the master’s own high standards. After demonstrating the ability to make perfect sushi rice consistently without supervision, the student will be rewarded with a move to the level of wakiita.

Sushi chef apprenticeship as a wakiita

Reaching the level of wakiita is one step closer to becoming a sushi chef. In Japanese, wakiita literally means “close to the chopping board”. However, it’s good to note that some wakiita may work for years and years under their itamae before they can become an itamae on their own right because there is plenty to master.

As a wakiita, the trainee can expect a wide variety of duties in the sushi kitchen, all of which may have to be completed rapidly and with precision. The tasks typically vary depending on just how much his itamae trusts the trainee. The duties may include preparing ingredients, preparing fish, slicing scallions, or even preparing sushi takeaway orders.

Also at this stage, with adequate experience, the junior sushi chef may have the capability of wielding his own sushi knives, referred to as “hocho” in Japanese. Permission to wield a hocho in a professional sushi kitchen is a sign from the itamae that the student is ready to go to the top.

cucumber roll sushi spring green on traditonal green mat

A new itamae is born

After many years of training and apprenticeship, the sushi master student will finally have the skills and experience to be appointed as an itamae. The new master sushi chef will have by now developed his own style for how to handle ingredients and wield the hocho. He will also have become very comfortable interacting with guests and working closely within the sushi preparation team. The world awaits the new itamae who will surely leave his mark on sushi menus somewhere around the globe and be remembered by many happy, satisfied sushi fans.

To see a great sushi chef in action, view the Food Network’s video that shows Osaka’s master sushi chef at work at our Sahara Ave Las Vegas restaurant, or stop by our West Sahara or Henderson locations and watch our master sushi chefs prepare the most authentic Japanese sushi in town.

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All About Sake

Planning to dine on Japanese food in Las Vegas?  Consider making your Japanese meal even more of an authentic and enjoyable experience by adding a glass or two of your preferred sake. Sake is a popular Japanese alcoholic drink made of fermented rice, koji yeast, and water. It occupies a special place in Japanese dining, with its distinguished history and it even offers some health benefits.

Sake: An Ancient and Enjoyable Japanese Tradition

Japanese sake barrels stacked in a Shinto shrine.

In Japan, sake is known as nihonshu (sake is a broader term that means liquor).  Local Japanese may also commonly call it seishu (“clear liquor”) when ordering. Sake is actually a beer and not a wine, since it is a beverage fermented from a grain (rice) and not from fruit. However, it is not carbonated and is closer in taste to wine than beer.

Typically, sake carries an alcohol content of 15% to 20%. Sake has a more delicate flavor when compared to wine which is more acidic. The minerals in Japanese water lend their own distinctive flavor.  These elements help make sake a bit gentler on the stomach than wine or other alcohols, although it still carries a full alcohol hit that you will discover if drinking it on an empty stomach. A health benefit of drinking sake in moderation is its selenium. As soybean dishes also offer a healthy amount of selenium, your thyroid will benefit from a visit to a Japanese table.

Originating in China, sake was first popularized in Japan and has been brewed there for at least 2,000 years.  Brewing methods were perfected in monasteries in the 12th to 15th centuries. After the invention of wooden brewing vats, mass production was now possible outside monasteries, resulting in widespread availability of the brew. There are over a thousand active sake brewers today, providing a wide variety of fine sakes to choose from. Regional varieties, based on unique combinations of rice varieties and types of yeast, have developed their own flavors, characteristics and fan bases.

Sake varieties for every meal or occasion

Among the many choices of sake, some favorite types stand out and are well enjoyed in Japanese restaurants, sushi bars and homes:

Tasty sake in black ceramics or tokkuri on black tableDaiginjo is a fragrant and highly sought-after sake. Served chilled, it has been painstakingly made from rice that’s highly polished. The percentage of the rice grain remaining is stated on the bottle.

Junmai daijinjo is its “pure rice” edition. Junmai is brewed strictly without additives like sugar or distilled alcohol that occur in Honjozo sake. Junmai sake—robust, traditional, often with memorably floral tones—is usually enjoyed at room temperature.

Nama, a sweet sake, is unpasteurized. It must be kept refrigerated. Nigorizake is creamy, sweet, and ricey—you’ll even find tiny rice bits in it.

The nihonshu-do (Sake Meter Value) is the specific gravity of a sake. It tells how much sugar created through fermentation turned from sweetness into alcohol. A high number such as 10 has traditionally indicated dryness in the dry-to-sweet scale.

Sake might remind those who enjoy it of apples or pears, or citrus zest, perhaps melon or cucumber. Some might be more reminiscent of nuts or caramel, and some has a captivating, vanilla-like scent. Other varieties have a mouth-feel like sherry, and, infused with yuzu or berries, can be served in the style of a dessert wine.

Enjoying the Sake Experience

Brought to the table in flasks called tokkuri, sake is paired with, of course, Japanese food or salty snacks. And most sakes go very nicely with Asian food in general.

Interestingly, as with grape wine, the drinking vessel will impact the taste. Connoisseurs may serve fine sake in crystal, to celebrate the aroma, much as wine-tasters do. Drinking from the elegant, saucer-like sakazuki, or perhaps a little, round ochoko, or even a wooden masu can add flair to festive occasions.

The most popular sake in Japan, soshu, is served cold. In contrast, junshu, a richer brew, can be enjoyed cold or warm. The pricey, aromatic jukushu is served at room temperature.

No matter how it’s served, when it comes, pour it out as an offering to others, and let others pour for you. After your dinner partner pours for you, take a sip before placing your sake back on the table.

As we’ve already noted, many fine sakes are best when chilled. Others might be perfectly delightful when gently warmed in a water bath. Different temperatures draw out different characteristics. Our experienced restaurant staff will be able to describe the nuances in temperatures.

Kamisama sushi roll and a glass of sake

Enjoy your sake with food like your favorite sushi rolls, or with a complete meal or a teppanyaki grill experience. Drink it with a delicious Osaka dessert, or enjoy it as a before or after dinner drink. However and wherever you enjoy sake, you will find it a satisfying and enriching experience. And when dining with us, please don’t hesitate to ask your server for recommendations for a fine sake to accompany your meal at Osaka Japanese Bistro.