Sushi Class


On rue Garreau in Montmartre — right off the place Emile Goudeau, which I like very much because it has trees, benches, and a Fontaine Wallace — was the tiny workshop of a violin maker. Earlier this summer, I walked past it and did a double-take: the dusty window had been cleaned, and the instruments had been replaced by a miscellany of Japanese trinkets — origami animals, garland lights, purses to keep your change, and tinkling thingies to hang to your cell phone.

I walked in, browsed the displays, and my eyes fell on a flyer that advertised the shop’s sushi classes. The attendant inside was busy paper-folding a horse or a squirrel or a tortoise — it was too early to tell. He told me that he was just filling in for the owner and couldn’t say when the next class would be, but that he would take my contact information. A few days later I received a call from a Japanese woman, who explained that she didn’t give classes during the summer because of the heat, but that I could sign up for September.

And this is how Maxence and I attended a sushi-making class last Saturday. Our teacher was Tomoko, owner of the shop and, incidentally, wife of the violin maker whose workshop it used to be. Teacher and students climbed up to an appartment five flights of stairs above the shop, took off our shoes, admired the view, and sat down at the table.

Since this was a lunchtime class, Tomoko first prepared donburi for us (a category of Japanese dishes in which ingredients are served over a bowl of hot rice), so hypoglycemia would not hinder our ability to listen and learn. Her bols de sashimi spécial consisted in Japanese rice, topped with torn nori and bite-size pieces of raw tuna and salmon, tossed together in a dressing of wasabi, soy sauce, and ground sesame. This was a splendid lunch and I will no doubt try to reproduce it. She also served us chilled mugicha (barley tea), which I’d never tried before and very much enjoyed.

Tomoko stressed that what she was about to teach us were the basics of family-style sushi — it takes Japanese chefs years to master the noble art of sushi-making, and a two-hour class wasn’t going to cut it, obviously. She had trimmed and sliced two kinds of raw fish for the class, ahi tuna and salmon, in long sticks for maki (rolled sushi) and in rectangular pieces for nigiri (oval lumps of rice topped with fish). This was my first time making any kind of sushi so I had everything to learn, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy when you have someone by your side to show you the moves.

We got started on maki sushi, and prepared three rolls each. We blended sushi vinegar (sweet rice vinegar) into the slightly warm short-grain sticky rice, tasting along as we went, until the mixture was seasoned to our liking. We spread rice loosely and evenly over the bottom half of a nori sheet set on a sushi mat (makisu), and arranged raw fish and chives in the middle, pressing lightly on the filling to nestle it into the rice. Taking a deep breath, we rolled the mat over itself, tightened the roll gently but firmly, and rolled it over the remaining flap of nori, making sure the loose end was at the bottom of the roll so it wouldn’t show. Advanced maki makers leave just a half-inch margin of nori to close the roll, but we rolled the whole thing because it is easier. After each roll we made, we would cut a slice and taste it, so we could adjust the proportions and seasoning in the next.

We then climbed up a notch in the scale of difficulty and made uramaki (inside-out sushi rolls). For these we spread the rice over a sheet of plastic wrap set on the sushi mat, topped it with a third of a sheet of nori, arranged the fish in the middle, and rolled the mat over itself, massaging the roll to tighten it. We let it rest, toasted black sesame in a saucepan, spread it over a tray, and rolled the maki quickly in the tray to coat it with the crunchy seeds.

Finally, we prepared five pieces of nigiri sushi (what is often, and mistakenly, referred to as just “sushi”), patting and flipping warm rice into our hands to shape it into an oval, bite-size mound, and topping it with a bit of wasabi and a rectangular piece of fish. The challenge here lies in the correct clumping of the rice — it shouldn’t be too tight or too loose — and in getting the fish to adhere to the rice so it won’t fall off when you dip it, fish-side down, in soy sauce.

A few tips I’ve learnt:
– Tomoko advises you to wash your hands with just water: if you use soap, the rice will take on its flavor. This will probably make food safety experts scream and pull the hair out from their temples; I’m just passing on the advice.
Nori sheets have a shiny side and a matte side. The matte side should always be the one that touches the rice: the shiny side will then be on the outside for regular maki, and on the filling side for inside-out maki.
– Keep a bowl of water and a damp dishcloth close by, and keep your hands wet at all times to prevent the rice from sticking to them, which is very annoying.
– Use a wet paddle-shaped wooden spoon to ladle the rice out of the rice cooker.
– When you add sushi vinegar to the rice, the proper way to blend it in is to work the wooden spoon in a cutting motion.
– Maki can be made in advance, but should be sliced just before serving.
– Use a large, sharp knife to slice the maki, and wipe the blade with the damp dishcloth before cutting.
– Sushi rolls are much easier to slice if you let them rest for half an hour: the nori will have softened and the rice will have clumped enough that it doesn’t squish out as you cut.
– It is important to keep a good balance between rice and filling in maki. Too much rice will overpower the flavor of the filling; too little will make it difficult to roll the maki because the nori won’t adhere well.

Needless to say, we prepared much more sushi than even we could eat in one sitting, so we packed the leftovers in boxes — the same trays that sushi takeouts use — and feasted on them for dinner with two grateful friends.

Manekineko de Montmartre
1 bis rue Garreau – 75018 Paris
01 42 64 52 78
The shop offers other classes: Japanese home cooking, for which I intend to sign up, origami, shiatsu, Japanese, and calligraphy. They are also throwing a little party to celebrate Otsukimi (the full moon festival) this Thursday, from 7pm till 10pm.

[More on sushi; a step-by-step tutorial for maki and uramaki.]

  • The question is: can we call the makis “sushis”? (Everybody does) ;-) Well I think all these advices will be useful if I dare (who knows?) to use my nori sheets (bought in a Belleville Supermarket, hum maybe it was a dark and dangerous Belleville “outlet” lol)… I’d better try to take part in one of these japanese training lessons. Thank you for all the small tips ;-)

  • Thanks for the wonderful post and the recommendation. Perhaps when my French is less terrible, I’ll take a class there! :-)

  • Stéphane – From what I understand, the word “sushi” in Japanese (寿司) simply designates the rice component (rice seasoned with sushi vinegar), but the word is used more broadly in other languages to designate all the preparations that use this seasoned rice — maki sushi, nigiri sushi, chirashi sushi, etc.

  • I went to this shop maybe 3 weeks ago, they sell also really beautiful little japanese things ! We bought Virgile a “toupie” he really enjoys and some little stuff. They are both really sweet and nice, and thanks Clotilde for all the tips !

  • Ton explication est très claire, et intéressante.
    Si tu aime la cuisine japonaise je viens de poster sur mon blog un menu que j’ai dégusté à Tokyo :)
    So inspiring!

  • My wife and I love taking classes! Friday is a Tapas class, we are so excited :)

  • Jennifer Klinec

    Sounds wonderful and how amazing to learn in such a unique environment.

    I learned your tip about letting sushi rolls rest for a half an hour the hard way! :) Its almost heartbreaking watching your delicate little creations that you lovingly rolled fall apart once you try and slice them up. Wetting the knife just slightly beforehand can help too as it helps soften the nori as the blade touches it.

    I’m teaching a modern japanese class next week which I’m really excited about!

  • Clotilde,

    This looks like so much fun! I’ve wanted to take a sushi class for a long time, but have always wimped out…

    I would try it here in Iowa, but somehow, making sushi this far from the coast seems wrong…maybe I’ll wait until I move somewhere else.

    Thanks for all the great links and the beautiful photograph — I really enjoyed this post.


  • nbm

    But what about the violin shop? I remember seeing it on my last visit to Paris, and thinking how charming it was.

  • Great tips – thank you! Isn’t it amazing watching practiced sushi chefs do it so efficiently? It takes me forever to make one roll =)

  • Hello Clotilde.

    As I also wirite a bit about Japanese food, I’m very much interested in the topic and very very impressed!

    The photo of maki sushi looks so beautiful , so professional.
    Even though it’s more home style sushi, it takes for a while to get it right.
    Very impressive!

    I’d love to visit the shop next time when I go to Paris.
    I miss nice Japanese atmosphere so much here in London……

    Thank you for the great information.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for another inspiring post, Clotilde, I wanted to let you know that I love making sushi and one time, as a whim, I made a california roll (uramaki) with strips of cooked chicken, avocado, mayonnaise and a little bit of barbecue sauce. it was so good! We dipped it in light soy sauce with a generous amount of lemon and wasabi in it.

  • ani

    Thanks for the hints for making sushi! I’ve made it before, with varying rates of success. Your report will make it a little easier the next time I dive in.

  • Oh wow! Looks so fun! I’ll have to look into Sushi classes around L.A.!

  • Danielle

    I suppose I take it for granted that I live in a city (Vancouver, Canada), where there are just as many sushi places as there are Starbucks.

    It is the perfect late night light meal- there are late night sushi specials on every corner of this city.

    I have had the chance to make sushi before, back when I was about 12. I learned from a friend of mine’s father for a school project… But it was really before I could appreciate the sushi.

    What kinds did you make? I love Avocado rolls and Dynamite rolls (With tempura shrimp.)

    Makes me want to make some now!

  • What a fun thing for you and Maxence to enjoy together.

  • I took one of those sushi classes at the NYC learning annex..I now use the little bamboo mat you roll the sushi up in to hold all my watercolor brushes. That’s what I got from my sushi classes :) But this post makes me want to rush out and eat some sushi!

  • I’ve got a couple of recipes I always use for Sushi, however I really need to learn more.

    This article has given me the inspiration I need to have another go – it’s been years!

  • Hello, Clotilde! Great post. I was wondering about the dressing for the delicious-looking bols de sashimi. You said wasabi, soy sauce and ground sesame. Did she use tahini or did she manually process/grind the sesame? I really want to make this and your advice is always welcome.



  • Marley

    Hello Clotilde

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m afraid I can’t repress the Japanese-speaker in me: when ‘sushi’ is part of a compound word, it becomes ‘zushi’. The same character is used, but it is pronounced ‘zu’ not ‘su’. So: makizushi, chirashizushi, nigirizushi etc.

    And the delicious barley tea is mugicha, not migicha.

    I miss Tokyo!! Sydney is full of very cheap sushi take-away shops serving big unsliced makizushi (in a paper bag with those little fish-shaped containers of soy sauce) which of course is incomparable to the high quality stuff, but sadly is not even on par with the cheapest sushi you can get in Tokyo. The worst offenders are the places where they don’t put vinegar in the rice: keep in mind that the ‘su’ of sushi = vinegar!! Apparently this is to make it more pleasing to Western palates – not mine, though!

  • Superbe post comme toujours.
    Mille mercis pour ces conseils et l’adresse, je cherchais également un endroit où prendre des cours, je crois que je vais me laisser tenter très prochainement.

  • It sounds like Tomoko taught a wonderful class! I took a series of classes on fish a few years ago, and we made maki rolls. It was really fun to learn a little something of this amazing skill. I bought all the sushi making supplies for my husband as a stocking stuffer for christmas, and we made our own rolls at home.

  • Audrey

    Learning to make basic sushi rolls and hand rolls is perfect for making simple dinners in the summer and for entertaining. We eat them all the time in the summer. What a lovely post!

  • that sounds amazing! i’d love to take a trip to Paris and sign up for a course! but the link that you put didn’t work… is there another one? can you give a rough idea of the prices? :)

  • as someone living in tokyo, I just have a few comments.

    your donburi is highly unusual, and you would probably only find it in the west (I’ve never heard of putting wasabi in a donburi) Most donburi are really unhealthy. They mostly consist of a fried piece of meat (katsu), most likely pork(tonkatsu). If it did have fish it too would be fried and doused with ‘sauce’ which is similar to Worcestershire sauce. Not to mention that Japanese rice has almost no nutrient content in it (like brown rice might), and you have the japanese equivalent of mcdonalds. Yoshinoya, a beef bowl store, is a huge chain that makes these. If they had more donburi like the one she made, I might actually eat them once and awhile. Just want to dispel myths of Japanese food as being ‘healthy’. It can be, but the way it’s consumed in Japan isn’t necessarily.

    And as you probably know, uramaki are extremely rare in Japan (hence the name ‘california roll). The great thing is that the convenience stores in Japan make fairly good quality food, and I have a natto (fermented soybeans) maki for breakfast every morning! Sometimes more!

  • ai

    Great post!!!

    I am half-Japanese, living in Japan, LOVE to cook and dine, and am working on a Japanese cookbook for western kitchens. I think the way you described making the different kinds of sushi was spectacular… one of the most difficult parts about writing this book is translating Japanese culinary adjectives, adverbs, and verbs into English. I often feel that for every English word that describes some taste, texture or cooking technique, there are a dozen more in Japanese (maybe in French too?). I was really impressed with how you described each recipe. Also, your makizushi turned out beautifully! It’s not so easy getting the ingredients right smack in the middle (I know X_X) but yours look great. They definitely don’t look like first attempts!

    In Japan and in American Asian supermarkets, you can buy mugicha tea bags for the home. You just plop one into your pitcher of water and in a few hours you have 2 liters of a delicious beverage that won’t give you cavities or any extra calories. In Japan people often serve mugicha in the summer, but I like to have mugicha on hand all year-around.

  • Nice debate on sushi! I love making sushi -even if mine are often fake ones with smoked salmon (not the real thing I know)- I learned the trick in my university days when we would have sushi nights. My only issue with sushi or maki is that it’s hard to make just one roll…

  • Joan

    Clotilde, your as-ever lovely post reminds me of how much our world is asking to be a village, where we share our gifts and our knowledge with other villagers…the photo is most scrumptiousable

  • Hi Clotilde,

    Your sushis look absolutely gorgeous! I’ve never tried, or even thought about dare I say it, making nigiris at home… that’s something we’d eat at a sushi restaurant or buy from the store, in our mindset. I’m so impressed! We happen to be having temakis (take a small square piece of nori sheet, put some rice and your choice of fish/whatever on it, and simply roll it to make a cone – it takes no skill or whatsoever to make!) for dinner today… yum.

    FYI, there is nothing uncommon about wasabi in a donburi as far as I know; and we now have all bunch of different donburis in Japan, as well.

  • LPC

    Thanks for the address!
    You can also take Jap cooking classes at L’atelier des chefs (Galleries Lafayette branch).

  • Paris

    I rolled sushi by hand for a number of years before I was introduced to the secret of home sushi-making: the sushi press. It speeds the process immensely(feed more people in less time!) and enables amateurs to produce square maki easily.

    Mine is cedar and was made by a Hawaiian-Japanese family who lived in my home town so it came with a little typed sheet of recipes. I must confess I haven’t tried the ones which involve fried spam!

    My one problem/hang-up is that I know nothing about evaluating the quality of fish, so have never dared use raw fish when I make sushi.

  • rainey

    This entry reminds me of when my two oldest kids were in pre-school. It was a co-op school, meaning the families ran it and served as assistants to the teacher. So we all did everything and got to know one another very well.

    There were two families who were Japanese. One mom spoke English quite well. The other hardly at all but they always furnished fabulous sushi whenever we had social functions. It was the family sushi you describe because that was judged not to offend our American sensibilities. So diplomatic!

    Before those families returned to Japan, they were kind enough to open one of their kitchens to a sushi class. It was so much fun and your entry brings back that lovely memory.

  • the sushi press your talking about is oshizushi (pressed sushi). It’s a particular type of sushi, similar, but not the same as, nigirizushi. The containers are usually round, and the square ones would be used for masuzushi, but it’s besides the shape it’s essentially the same idea.

  • SkippyMom

    I watched a very interesting show (here in America) on Good Morning America regarding hand washing – and it was proven that if you wash your hands with the hottest water you [personally] can stand vs. warm water and hand soap that both serve the same purpose in cleaning – there are no more germs on just the hot water hands than the the soap/water hands.
    So I agree with Mrs. Tomoko – don’t use the soap – it shouldn’t be a safety issue (but your image was funny regarding the Safety Commission)!
    Nice blog!

  • Jennifer

    Dear Clothilde, Your post inspired me to call straight away and reserve a place for this course. My husband and I went this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Tomoko was friendly and welcoming and her class instructive, fun and great value. We left not only with tons of tips but more sushi than we will be able to eat this evening! Thanks for sharing!

  • Annette

    I love making sushi, thank you so much for a few hints I definitely will apply next time making sushi!

    And of course (maybe someone already mentioned this crucial hint): always use the freshest fish you can find. I must admit I’m lucky, as it comes to buying fresh food, to live on the Albert Cuyp street in amsterdam, beneath my window there’s a market, so I just have to step out of my door….

  • mari

    meri boucoup, Clautilde! i also like to have a small bit of sushi-su (rice wine vinegar) on hand to sprinkle on the knife to use to wipe between cutting each maki-sushi piece. water doesn’t quite separate the rice as cleanly without getting gummy in the process.

    another simple ingredient is: cucumbers slightly salted, pickled tsukemono, strange in France, but fried eggs. just as appetizers.

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