Friday, August 30, 2013

The Art Of Making Futomaki-zushi

"I'm not making art, 
I'm making sushi." 
Masaharu Morimoto
 Japanese Iron Chef

Being appointed as the ambassadors of Chiba Kun, it is not all about touring around the popular spots around Chiba Prefecture to promote the prefecture to the world. The Chiba Kun Ambassadors were recently given an opportunity to experience something different - sushi-making. Well, the Japanese call it futomaki, to be exact.

Chiba Prefecture has a long history of cuisine based on delicious fresh seafood. One of Chiba's most representative traditional food is futomaki-zushi (太巻き寿司). These unique and colorful sushi rolls, which is commonly made for special occasions and festivals since old times, are another form of traditional culture that is passed down through the ages. 


The sensei line-up, headed by Ryuzaki sensei (far right), who will teach us how to make futomaki-zushi.


Ryuzaki sensei, showing us the packet of Susshi (すっし〜), which is used to make the rice pink in colour.


Some of the books that were written by Ryuzaki sensei. (source taken from here)

Futomaki is a type of rolled sushi that is distinguished for its large size and careful balance of ingredients. Most people, especially the non-Japanese probably have the image of sushi as rice cubes topped with raw fish. However, they might be surprised by the care and artistry that goes into these rolls of futomaki. They are usually filled with different coloured vegetables and may not even contain fish at all. Chef design futomaki to be both delicious and pleasing to the eye, and they often choose ingredients for how well they balance with each other in taste and looks.

The word "futomaki" is Japanese for "fat roll", and this name could not be more appropriate. Futomaki rolls are usually 4 centimeters in diameter if not larger, and are made up of three main parts. The outside "casing" or "shell" of the roll is traditionally a thin sheet of nori seaweed, which is basically seaweed that has been pressed and dried into a thin but flexible rectangle. Soy paper or thin cooked egg can be used in rare instances. The inside is made up of both sushi rice and chosen fillings.


Ryuzaki sensei explaining the two types of sushi mats made of bamboo.


Before we start making our own sushi, we were given a demonstration. First up was the rose motif.


Pink rice and sweetened red capsicums were used for the petals part.


Thin eggs complete the petal part, which thinly sliced cucumber were used for the stalk.


And here you go, the final result - rose.


A closer look at the roses. They look like rose, but taste like sushi hahaha!

Sushi rice is a special variety of short-grained, sticky rice. When it is used in rolls, it is usually seasoned with a bit of mirin, a rice vinegar, and may also be salted in order to help it stick together and adhere to the other ingredients. These "other ingredients" are where the sushi chefs have the most flexibility. Vegetables are common choices, particularly cucumber, carrot, and mushroom; cooked seafood such as crab or eel may also be used. Some rolls feature raw fish, but not often.

This time, the Chiba Kun Ambassadors were so lucky to have the opportunity to be taught by a group of seven members from Chiba Traditional Regional Cuisine Research Group (千葉伝統郷土料理研究会), who had experience giving classes of sushi-making in many countries abroad, to show us how to make futomaki. The lesson was headed by Eiko Ryuzaki-sensei (龍﨑英子) who has traveled to every parts of the country to learn the art of sushi-making from the local farmers. 


Next, we were shown the method to make peach flower motif. First was to prepare the petals part.


After the petals were arranged in a circle, boiled spinach were placed in between them, before they are wrapped together.


And here are the peach flower! Beautiful piece of art, isn't it?

This award winning chef is the founder of the research group more than three decades ago, in 1982. Among the awards she has received were Chiba Prefecture Cultural Achievement Award (千葉県文化功労賞受賞), NHK Kanto-Koshinetsu Broadcasting Culture Award (関東甲信越放送文化賞) and Local Culture Achievement Award (地方文化功労賞) by the Ministry of Education (文部科学省). 
Ryuzaki sensei is also a writer and has published several recipe books connected to creative futomaki in her efforts to aspire and promote the art and techniques of futomaki-making not only to the younger generations in Japan, but also to foreigners. For more information about the recipes, you can take a look from this link (Japanese only).


And finally, it was time for us to try out making the futomaki-zushi. These two girls seem to be having real fun making their roses hahaha! (photo credit: Masataka Ishizaki).


Ozawa sensei showing us the secret technique to roll the bamboo mat while making the petal (photo credit: Masataka Ishizaki).


With my huge hands, it was not easy to hold on the bamboo mat and making sure it doesn't drop. Damn stress I tell you lol! (photo credit: Masataka Ishizaki).


The final stage of inserting the remaining white sushi rice before wrapping them together (photo credit: Masataka Ishizaki).


And someone was too excited when she found out that her sushi roll can be used as a binocular haha! (photo credit: Masataka Ishizaki).


Here is my first ever futomaki-zushi. Not bad for a first-timer, eh?


My group members with our masterpieces. We were glad that our peach flower didn't turn out to be some other flowers lol!


And not forgetting, a photo with Ryuzaki sensei. She is a nice and friendly person, but not during the class 'coz she is quite scary and strict when she gets serious haha!

The Chiba Kun Ambassadors were divided into two groups and we were given two motif to choose from - rose or peach flower. Looking at the examples, most of us thought it would be simpler to make peach flower. When Ryuzaki sensei performed the demonstration, it was only then we were told that peach flower is one of the most difficult motif to make. Those who had picked the peach flower, including myself just looked at each other and said, "Alamak! Bad choice!" hahaha!

The basic rolling process can take some time to master, but is not particularly difficult. According to Ryuzaki sensei, she has taught at elementary schools and if those kids can do it, there should not be any problems for us to rolled out our own futomaki. One of the most important tools in making futomaki is the sushi mat, which is made up of bamboo slats woven together into a flexible surface. There are two kinds of sushi mat prepared for us, one the normal size and the other a slightly bigger one.


At the end of the class, each sensei had a special session for us, making different kinds of futomaki-zushi for us to see (photo credit: Ayako Uchiyama).


Ogawa sensei who was in-charge of our table made cherry blossom (sakura) tree motif.


And here is the final piece of art.


Butterfly motif from the table next to us.


Here is the collection of the futomaki-zushi made by the amazing chefs.


The completed masterpieces from our table. Futomaki-zushi, is indeed a custom where various pickles, rice, egg, and seaweed are carefully rolled together
to make intricate and beautiful designs


After a long class, it was lunch time. Main was the futomaki-zushi we made, accompanied with special soup made by the chefs.

The first step usually involves putting the nori directly on the mat, and will then cover nearly the entire surface with prepared sushi rice. The other ingredients, cut into thin strips, are placed on top of the rice. Most of the time, these ingredients are stacked in the center and do not take up the entire surface area.

When everything is in place, the chef will create the roll by slowly folding the bamboo mat inwards. This movement causes the nori to fold over onto itself from one edge to the next. The end result is a thick log that should hold itself together. Chefs sometimes present the futomaki as a single whole like this, but more commonly will slice it into individual rounds. Each round contains a small taste of all of the ingredients that were stacked on top of the rice.


While I was busy doing the dishes, someone came to me to try and claim that she is taller than me. 
Well, she was almost there haha! (photo credit: Gina Rivera)


Finally, a group photo with the chefs and Chiba Kun Ambassadors.

Many of the world's best sushi chefs pride themselves on the artistry and care that goes into their rolls. Traditional Japanese cooking encourages chefs, whether professional or amateur, to carefully choose their ingredients to create meals with a balance of salty, sweet, tangy, and sour. In many ways, futomaki is a perfect way to showcase this balance. Cooks will choose vegetables and fish that both look good and taste good together.

Very serious cooks may prepare their rolls to create images in the final sliced products. Arranging vegetables carefully can lead to sliced pieces that seem to hold the picture of a flower or a sunrise, for instance. It is also common for mothers to make ones for their children that seem to contain smiling faces or cute animals. There is a lot of room for creativity with this particular type of sushi.


 Ishikawa-san, the Director of Planning Department of International Division of Chiba Prefectural Government, was there to join us 
during the sushi-making classroom as well (photo credit: Masataka Ishizaki).


  Listening to the presentation about tourism in Chiba prefecture by Suzuki-san (photo credit: Masataka Ishizaki).


 Sharing my experience with the new and fresh ambassadors. We also exchanged ideas and opinions 
 among ourselves during this session (photo credit: Masataka Ishizaki).

After the futomaki-zushi class, we had a opinion exchange session among ourselves. This session was to discuss new ways that we think can further improve this Chiba Kun Ambassador project. We also had the privilege to listen to a short presentation from Suzuki-san from the Tourism Board of the Chiba Prefectural Office.

During this session, I was requested to give a short talk about my experiences from the last three year,  as I have been a Chiba Kun Ambassador for the past three years. It was indeed an honour to be given such opportunity to talk to the other ambassadors that come from different parts of the world. 

Next up would be our second tour end of September. A sneak hint from this tour - we would be visiting the hot springs! Bet that would be super exciting! So, stay tuned for more updates!