On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Kate Williams stood behind the sushi bar at Pabu in Harbor East's Four Seasons Hotel, concentrating as she carefully wrapped a bamboo mat around rice-strewn seaweed.
Chef Jonah Kim, the executive chef at Pabu, stood next to Williams, offering her guidance and casually chatting with a dozen would-be sushi chefs sitting on the other side of the sushi bar.
When finished, Williams lifted her creation in the air with a smile.
Pabu's Sushi 101 class — a combination of lecture, hands-on experimentation and afternoon snack — is one of several that has recently popped up around the Baltimore area.
Over the past few decades, sushi has transitioned from exotic delicacy to mainstream convenience food. According to Asia-Pacific Journal's Sushi Encyclopedia, the U.S. sushi industry is a $2 billion business. In 2012, there were nearly 4,000 sushi restaurants throughout the country. The restaurant website Urbanspoon lists 113 in the Baltimore area.
Despite sushi's popularity, few Americans make it at home on a regular basis.
"There are a lot of people who really don't know the whole process behind sushi," says Kim, explaining the impetus behind Pabu's new sushi class program.
Williams, who took Kim's class with her husband, James, acknowledges that prior to the class, their sushi knowledge was limited. "We enjoy eating sushi," she says. "But we didn't understand the craft and art behind it. It's fascinating."
Nelle Somerville of Baltimore took the introductory sushi class at RA Sushi in Harbor East in 2010. "I loved getting to actually make the sushi," she says. "It wasn't easy, but it was fun."
"People love the sense of accomplishment they get when they see their finished product," says Scott Bernas, general manager of RA Sushi, which offers one sushi class for beginners and another for more advanced students. "But their second-favorite part is eating it."
Pabu's class began with a short lecture by Kim on the elements of sushi while students sipped the restaurant's signature Super X cocktail and snacked on soy-braised burdock root and chile-flecked edamame.
Kim touched on the ingredients of sushi, explaining the importance of rice and the differences between types of seaweed. Samples of soy sauce were passed around, sniffed, and swirled like wine.
Eventually, he moved on to the construction of sushi rolls, or maki, explaining that there are several types, including those with rice on the outside, those with rice on the inside only, and cone-shaped hand rolls.
At the end of Kim's talk, a few brave class members, Kate Williams included, ventured behind the bar to try their hands at rolling sushi.
"It was great having an opportunity to work side by side with a real-deal chef," she says. "These guys are no joke! Getting to work in a fairly intimate setting with them was pretty awesome."
Kim's small team of chefs helped Williams construct the roll on a plastic-covered bamboo mat, showing her how to pack rice onto seaweed and build the filling — diced tuna mixed with spicy mayonnaise and topped with daikon sprouts. He warned against packing the rice too much, then watched as Williams carefully folded the bamboo, shaping the roll.
Once the roll was created, Williams sliced the long rice-wrapped cylinder into discs. With a beaming smile, Williams carried the plate back to her seat, where she and her husband shared the project with their classmates.
"I think no matter what we make, everyone likes to see the whole process and the finished product," says chef Jerry Pellegrino, who teaches classes at Waterfront Kitchen. "People get a kick out of making their own rolls."
At Waterfront Kitchen, Pellegrino teaches students how to make traditional rolls but also incorporates nontraditional ingredients in the process.
"We'll do spicy tuna, salmon, shrimp and crab, but we also have seared tenderloin or raw beef tartare. American ingredients that you can roll up in a roll. People's creativity really comes out."
Unleashing creativity is just one reason people sign up for sushi classes. Kim's class at Pabu included guests from the Four Seasons, couples out for a fun afternoon and several students who received the class as a gift.
When the class began, everyone sat quietly in their seats. But an hour and a half later — after sampling the Super X cocktail and an additional sake tasting along with several of Pabu's sushi rolls — students joked with one another like old friends.
Professional sushi chefs train for years before they're considered ready to run a kitchen. Kim spent a year doing nothing but cooking rice; he says many chefs (including some on his team) spent even longer doing the job.
"Hearing about the rice was fascinating," says Williams. "I knew it wasn't the easiest job, but the class revealed more about that than I knew. It was really fun to hear from someone so well-versed in his craft."
One-day sushi classes won't replace years of training, but even a short class lays the groundwork for experimentation at home.
Columbia resident Ray Wethington is a cooking-class veteran, having taken previous classes in saute and knife skills.
He's a confident cook, but during the class at Pabu, Wethington conceded that sushi poses a different kind of challenge, with its simple ingredients and unfamiliar technique.
Still, he has plans to make sushi at home for his wife. "I want to show off — prove I've been here," he says with a laugh.
But Baltimore's professional sushi chefs don't need to worry about the competition just yet.
Though Somerville took the RA class several years ago, she still hasn't experimented with sushi at home. "I'd rather have my sushi made for me," she says. "It is really a lot of work."
Williams agrees. "At the end of the day, I don't feel like I know how to assemble sushi," she says. "I walked out feeling like there's so much more to learn. Our hope is to try at home, but execution is another story. But the class gave me a taste of what is out there."
Want to try your hand at making sushi? Check out these upcoming classes around Baltimore:
Pabu: Sushi Rolling 101, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23. $55 per person or $100 per pair, including tax and gratuity. Pabu is next to the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East; 725 Aliceanna St. For more information, call 410-223-1464, go to http://www.pabuizakaya.com or email Shannon Toback at email@example.com
RA Sushi: Sushi 101 or Sushi 102, Sundays at 2 p.m.. Sushi 101 is $32 per person or $60 per couple; Sushi 102 is $58 per person or $110 per couple. 1390 Lancaster St. For more information, call 410-522-3200 or go to http://www.rasushi.com.
Waterfront Kitchen: The Art of Making Sushi, dates vary; classes are held Monday evenings. $59 per class, not including gratuity. 1417 Thames St. For more information, call 443-681-5310 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Tools of the trade
Sushi restaurants use specialized equipment for everything from cooking rice to shaping rolls. Home sushi chefs can get by with only a few key tools, but gear-happy cooks will enjoy stocking up on sushi paraphernalia, including:
•Bamboo mats: Flat mats made from bamboo are essential to rolling sushi. At Pabu, Chef Jonah Kim covers mats in plastic wrap for rolling uramaki (rolls with rice on the outside). Mats with no wrapping are used for rolls with seaweed on the outside.
•Sushi and sashimi knives: Expertly-sliced fish is key to good sushi, especially non-roll preparations such as nigiri (fish placed on top of an oval of rice). Good knives make careful cuts easier.
•Rice cookers: Properly cooked rice is an important component of good sushi. Restaurants rely on high-tech rice cookers to keep their rice moist and tender.
•Hangiri: Serious sushi-lovers may invest in a hangiri, also known as a sushi-oke bowl. Just-cooked rice is placed in these wide, shallow wooden bowls for seasoning and stirring. The wooden bowl ensures that the rice stays moist, while excess water evaporates.
Throughout the Baltimore region, many markets — large and small — stock the ingredients and tools for making sushi at home:
•Asia Food: 5224 York Road; 410-323-8738
•Asia Supermarket: 5510 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville; 410-788-0398
•Dae Sung Oriental Groceries: 2213 Greenspring Drive, Timonium; 410-561-4467
•Ha Ha Food Market: 7501 Pulaski Highway, Rosedale; 443-730-1405
•Han Ah Reum Mart (commonly known as H Mart): 800 N. Rolling Road, Catonsville; 443-612-9020
•Ikan Seafood: 529 E. Belvedere Ave.; 410-435-0216
•Potung Trading: 321 Park Ave.; 410-962-1510
•The Family Market: 8775 Cloudleap Court, Columbia; 410-730-1074
•Towson Oriental Food Market: 8424 Willow Oak Road, Parkville; 410-665-8432Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun