On March 11, 2011 the worst earthquake and tsunami in modern Japanese history devastated the Tohoku region of Japan. With 14, 000 dead and tens of thousands more still missing, the scale of this tragedy numbs the mind and silences the heart. Furthermore, the partial meltdown of the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima gave rise to serious (if not apocalyptic) discussions around the world about radioactive contaminated food stocks, including fish. Within days, a group of prominent writers, artists, performers, social activists met at the home of Joy Kogawa, the renowned Japanese-Canadian writer, and immediately formed a collective to raise funds and offer support to Japanese victims in the wake of the events of March 11.
I was one of its founding members and co-chair of the collective, Toronto To Japan, whose main event, Hope Blossoms at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday April 21st, featured some of this country’s top literary, cultural and musical icons, including Adrienne Clarkson, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, David Suzuki, Jim Cuddy and Bob Wiseman, Metric and many more. Here is the stunning animation designed by Studio Blackwell:
As one of many ancillary events for Toronto To Japan, I devoted two sushi-making fundraisers for the cause. Proceeds were directed to the Japanese Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Second Harvest, relief agencies that rapidly mobilized in affected areas immediately following the disaster. The sold-out classes on April 2nd and the 16th of almost one hundred participants at Liberty Noodle spoke to the generosity of spirit of the people of Toronto. As one of the biggest sushi-loving communities anywhere in the world, Toronto rallied to the side of the great and resilient people of Japan. I was deeply moved by this testament of solidarity. Below is a short video message of love to the Japanese during those two sessions, filmed by artist Mony Zakour:
The events finished with lively discussions about radioactive contamination of fish stocks, especially iodine-131 which drained into the ocean from the reactors at Daiichi. An open-minded group of children and their parents, couples, and environmentalists asked pertinent questions and spoke of their concerns and fears about consuming sushi. The result was a positive and informative discussion around the environment, sustainable sushi and personal health. As an added bonus, every one of them had a grand ole time, while doing their part to spread the love and raise the hopes of the Japanese people.
Only one word comes to mind thinking of these participants:
Sushi is all about mold.
Not kidding. That’s the appetizing fact that Sang Kim shares with us as we get started at a sushi-making class. Despite my pathological fear of mold (stemming from an allergy to penicillin and a monsoon-like summer spent living in a basement apartment in Parkdale), there is no way I am going to be convinced to not love sushi – or miss this class. Can’t pass up on the opportunity to learn from Master Sushi Chef, Shin Aoyama, and Sang Kim, a genuine, charismatic man with a passion for good food and good people.
When it comes to the history of sushi, Sang knows his stuff. He gives us a fascinating talk on the why’s, where’s, and how’s behind sushi rice and nori, and how important they are to what we consider sushi today. Quality sushi is really all about the quality of the rice. (Freshest fish possible is a given. If you can’t provide that for your customers, just shut your doors.) And let’s not forget about the mold – it’s what makes sushi delicious. Better to ask Sang himself about the intricacies of this than for me to go into detail – as I spent most of my time trying not to think about that part and focus on making maki. I don’t exactly excel at work involving fine detail and sharp motor skills. Considering it takes about a decade to become a master sushi chef like Shin Aoyama, I’m resigned to the fact that I am going to produce some pretty ugly maki rolls.
Though nigiri sushi is the original form of sushi, today we will focus on makimonos – which has become the go-to sushi of North Americans. Sang talks us through the details of the three types of maki rolls we will make– hosomaki (usually a single ingredient roll with nori on the outside), uramaki (the “inside-out roll” with nori on the inside and rice on the outside), and temaki (the cone-shaped hand rolls). Our hosomaki features salmon, our uramaki with spicy maguro tuna, and our temaki includes unagi and cucumber. Shin shows us how to make each roll twice, and his movements are subtle and effortlessly precise – each time creating a flawless product. After each demo, it’s time to get sticky and roll our own.
So to speak…