Kelly Jo Viall tells it like it is, which is a big part of what makes her sushi class for beginners so enjoyable. Well, that and eating sushi.
When describing sauces for use with sushi rolls, or makisushi, she describes Mai Ploy sweet chili sauce as being “good on chicken, fish, shrimp and fingers.”
She was right. I couldn’t stop dipping my index finger into the dollop on my plate as she talked.
But perhaps the best part about the class, including hands-on experience rolling tight rolls, is all the tips and hacks that make it clear how easy it is to make sushi at home. Many of the ingredients can be found cheaply at any Kroger, while Asian groceries like Choi’s Asian Food Mart or Viet Hoa Food Market make it easy to find the deeper cuts and the fish you need for sushi.
“I can make 29 California rolls for $20 at home,” she says. Those things are usually $6 apiece at a sushi bar.
Viall started the two-hour class — the most recent being this past Sunday at Goodwood Brewing — by whipping up a crab and jalapeno roll for each attendee. From there, it’s an hour-plus of lecture and demonstration, along with fresh craft beer, explaining everything from wasabi to eel sauce.
“There are grown people who won’t touch that stuff because they think I’m using eel guts or something to make it,” she says. In fact, eel sauce is simply a soy sauce and sugar reduction.
She also spent plenty of time on preparing the rice, which is not your typical grain rice, but rather a rice that is harvested specifically for use in sushi. And she does not downplay the importance of taking special care to make the rice properly using a rice cooker, available most anywhere for about $20.
“It’s the most important part,” she tells the class. “It’s the building block of sushi. Anytime someone tries to make sushi and it is unsuccessful, it’s always the rice.”
She used basic ingredients — imitation crab (which is just fish formed to look like crab) and cucumber — to work attendees through making a roll, demonstrating how to place the nori sheets on the sushi mat, how to distribute the rice, place the ingredients, tighten and finally shape the roll.
And then it was off to “sauce city,” as Viall dubs it, to add whatever extra flavors we want (yes, including eel sauce). What we made was attractive and delicious. And pretty simple.
Along the way, she introduced us to nanami togarashi, a blend of assorted peppers, which she says is often used to flavor sushi and sauces, and also is good on popcorn. She notes that when serving edamame, which are boiled soybeans, for snacking, adding ginger, orange and lemon zest to the salt is a tasty touch.
She also touched on Sriracha salt — literally blending a bit of the delicious and popular Sriracha (“It’s not called Rooster sauce,” she notes) with sea salt, spreading it on a pan and then baking it for an hour at 200 degrees. From there, it can go into a salt grinder and be used on pretty much anything.
Also? Spicy mayo is just mayonnaise and Sriracha blended. Add the sweet chili sauce, and you’ve got bang bang sauce. And if you blend the spicy mayo with melted butter and sugar, you get yum yum sauce.
Oh yeah, and wasabi is just colored horseradish, in case you ever wondered. True wasabi is rare indeed, at least in Kentucky.
One of my favorite parts was learning how one can make sushi at home using raw fish. That “sushi-grade” designation you sometimes see in a supermarket simply means the fish was previously frozen, so as to kill any parasites that may reside within. While it isn’t common in most supermarkets, the Asian markets will have staples like tuna ready to thaw. Whatever you don’t use in a day or two, simply sear in a pan to make salads or other dishes.
Also, she warns against eating fish in sushi restaurants that don’t seem common to sushi menus.
“If you’re reading ingredients and they’re all in English, and then you suddenly see a Japanese word, Google it,” she says. “Chances are, they are trying to hide something.”
In other words, you don’t need to be paying top dollar for tilapia or some other cheap or bottom-feeding fish. She also warns against eating escolar, which is marketed under the name “white tuna” or “super white tuna” (there’s no such thing as a white tuna).
And for goodness sake, don’t experiment at home, she warns.
“I’m from the South, so I always hear, ‘What about bass?’ or ‘What about crappie?’” she mocks. “If it’s fish you don’t see on sushi menus, you don’t need to be experimenting with it.”
That’s right: Parasites are in most fish, and Viall’s advice is simply to play it safe unless it is prepared by a certified sushi chef.
Hailing from Alabama, Viall’s Birmingham Sushi Classes concept is growing, as she now travels to destinations as far west as Bentonville, Ark., and as far east as Charleston, S.C. She’ll be back at Goodwood on Sunday, Nov. 13. The class starts at 4 p.m., and reservations can be made through the brewery or at Viall’s website.