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How Is it Made? Secrets of Sushi

by Sanny Visser

April 23, 2014. The devil is in the details when it comes to good sushi. It’s not thinking of an edgy roll name, or finding the most exotic ingredients. No, secrets of good sushi are timing, great fish (the best you can find), fresh vegetables and most importantly, the rice. Ronald and Gwen Dhing, the owners of Makoto’s Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar, stick to just one philosophy: “we are picky.”

Ronald Dhing, 49, is originally from Singapore, but studied graphic design in Boone where he met his wife, Gwen.

“I don’t consider myself a real Asian,” he said.

“Most Asians want to become a doctor or a lawyer, but I wanted to do something creative.”

Cooking or making sushi is very creative, so Dhing likes being a left-handed sushi chef. He laughs and shows his knife.

“Look, I need a special knife because of that [being left handed]. It took three months to make it in Japan. You can use a right-handed knife, but Japanese cooking is all about the perfect tool for everything you do.”

Knife skills are the most important selection criterion for sushi chefs at Makoto’s.

“Weekly, we get a delivery of three twenty pound salmons, big pieces of tuna loin and other types of fish that we need to break down.”

Fish, especially tuna, is precious, so you have to do it right in one take.

“Cutting sashimi demands dexterity,” Dhing points out. “If you work in a sushi restaurant in Japan, they won’t let you touch the fish for years.

Dhing points to his colleague Ming who’s just cutting the salmon.

“See how straight this line is? You don’t want a waffly piece of fish. After you have a nice, straight fillet, the sashimi is freshly cut when people order it. Always cross-grained, otherwise the pieces fall apart.”

Sushi was originally invented in Japan as a simple finger-food snack for card players who wanted something to eat without getting their hands dirty. So somebody came up with the idea of rolling fish in nori leaves, making Maki – literally “rolled” – the original sushi. The rice has its own story.

“I am not sure if this is true,” started Dhing. “But they say when people pickled fish and dried it above rice, vinegar would drop on the rice and that’s how they discovered sushi rice.”

Makoto’s translates into “sincerity,” which is the essence of Japanese cooking. Respecting the integrity and authenticity of ingredients, sushi is about combining a few essential elements, each needing to be perfect to get that wow factor.

“That’s why the rice is so important,” Dhing said.

At Makoto’s they use short grain, Japanese rice.

“We wash and rinse it first, then we cook it,” said Dhing. “After that, we stir the vinegar through it.”

Not just vinegar, but vinegar infused with Japanese seaweed and a little bit of sugar to enrich the flavor.

The stirring happens in a large, Japanese-made wooden bowl and involves a special technique.

“It’s important that you keep turning your spoon so the rice grain doesn’t break.” Dhing grabs some rice with his hand and shows how it sticks to his plastic glove.

“Right after the rice is cooked, it’s still too wet. So we put the rice in the bowl, one made from a special type of wood that absorbs moisture. Sushi rice should be served at room temperature. When it cools to that point, we store it in a box to keep it that way.”

He opens the box with finished rice and balls it up in his hand.

“See? It sticks to itself but not my fingers. That’s how you want it. It’s all about controlling the moisture.”

Room temperature rice, cutting precision and everything freshly made from scratch; Dhing believes it’s those details that make good sushi. How does this compare to all the sushi you can buy in stores?

Dhing is clear, “I don’t like it, to be honest. Sushi should be made when people order it, and not sitting there refrigerated for hours. People eat this and say, ‘I don’t like sushi.’ But it’s not made right, it’s all about freshness.”

Dhing shows a carefully layered Tomago omelet for nigiri sushi.

“A lot of sushi chefs lost the skills to make this. It takes our chef Michael almost an hour. You have to cook every layer separately. But look how beautiful it is.”

Then he shows a picture of him and his wife with the famous Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto.

“We go to his restaurant every year, it’s our benchmark, what we strive for on a daily basis.”

A beautiful sashimi plate
A beautiful sashimi plate
Dhing and Ming in the kitchen
Dhing and Ming in the kitchen
slicing sashimi requires technique and a good knife
Slicing sashimi requires technique and a good knife
You must use care and a particular technique while stirring sushi rice
You must use care and a particular technique while stirring sushi rice
A lovely piece of tuna loin
A lovely piece of tuna loin
A delicious California Roll
A delicious California Roll