Designers work with pantones and type, and sushi chefs work with rice and fish, but the two arts have more in common than you might suspect. For a sushi chef, an eye for color, shape, pattern, and presentation is as critical to a finished product as is a sophisticated palate.
A Visual Guide to Sushi-Making at Home, a new book by James Beard award-winning chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani—who co-own Ame and Terra restaurants in San Francisco—lets anyone discover the art of DIY sushi—but without the intimidation factor. Culinary-minded designers, artists, and makers might especially appreciate this highly visual craft, which originated during Japan's Edo period (1603-1868).
"As non-professional sushi chefs, we wanted to make this book to turn sushi-making into something accessible for the home cook," Doumani tells Co.Design. Mouth-watering, step-by-step photographs by Antonis Achilleos reveal tricks of the trade: how to slice sea urchin, how to break down geoduck clam, how to hand-press rice balls, how to pickle turnips, how to use fish tweezers, and how to use bamboo rolling mats. The book's second half presents 75 recipes for all types of skinny rolls (hosomaki), hand rolls (temaki), sushi bowls (sushi don), and warship rolls (gunkan-maki). These are photographed as they are being put together—as artfully as sculpture.
"Sushi is presented like art," Doumani, who was trained as a pastry chef, says. "Each piece creates a palate of colors, textures, and tastes." Individual Nigiri (sliced raw fish on molded rice balls) are like jewels of color; the bright cross-sections of rolls resemble Millefiori beads.
Sushi chefs use their hands much like sculptors or potters do. "Much like working with clay, they turn a simple material into a thing of beauty," Doumani says. These chefs play with the close, well-known link between the eye and the appetite, and design plates that are as entrancingly beautiful as they are delicious. "If you place fish of all the same color in a row, it’s not so appealing, but if you arrange fish of different textures and colors on a plate, your eye jumps around, just like it does with an art piece," Doumani says. The large wooden boats on which sushi is often served add an element of sculpture and ritual to the dining experience.
Just like designers, sushi chefs are constantly innovating, and looking for ways to riff on traditional recipes and preparations. "In San Sebastián, Spain, a chef served us Spanish molecular cuisine-influenced sushi, marking the first time we experienced soy sauce foam," Sone and Doumani write in the book’s introduction. "Some new ideas work; other times, too many ingredients are used and the fish gets lost." In the 1960s, the California roll became one of the new ideas that really worked. A chef at Tokyo Kaikan, a Japanese restaurant in L.A. (apparently closed), was trying to make sushi like he had at home in Japan, but with ingredients locally available—such as avocado and crab. It didn't catch on instantly, but in the States, it has since become the go-to roll (some purist chefs refuse to make them).
Thirty years ago, sushi was still considered exotic among Western diners. Outside of Japan, it was popular mainly among travelers and cooks interested in ethnic cuisines. Now, $5 California rolls can be found at your local grocery store, and there’s a Japanese restaurant every few blocks in most large U.S. cities. Maybe that signals it’s time to make sushi-making a regular event in Western kitchens.
A Visual Guide to Sushi-Making at Home is available for $35 from Chronicle Books.