OSAKA -- A cooking studio here is quickly becoming a hot spot for tourists because it offers lessons in English and Chinese for making sushi, tempura and other Japanese cuisine.
Locals are welcome to join in the fun, too. I recently signed up for a lunchtime sushi lesson at the Sakura Cook studio, located in a central Osaka's business district.
Tourists from Asian countries accounted for about half the participants, while others mainly came from Western countries. English- and Chinese-speaking staff and instructors work at the studio.
Before jumping into the actual cooking, each participant was given a tablet to watch a five-minute video about the history of sushi. "We would like visitors to learn about the background of Japanese cuisine, too," said Fumiyo Okamoto, president of Inbound Group, the Tokyo-based operator of the studio.
According to the video, back in the Edo era (1603-1868), the rice used for a typical sushi portion was as big as a tennis ball, which I never knew.
Then the fun begins with the cooking lesson itself.
We first learned how to prepare shari, the base rice for both sushi rolls and nigiri, the hand-pressed, oblong-ball type. With my right hand, I had to mix quickly the freshly-steamed rice with vinegar, while blowing air over the rice with a fan held in my left hand. The process helps cool the rice quickly and give it a shiny surface.
I struggled to coordinate the different movements for each hand.
Once the rice was ready, we made nigiri, using both hands to shape a small bed of rice and place a piece of fish on top. We also learned how to make sushi rolls.
Handling sticky rice was the hardest part of the exercise, but we somehow managed to create something resembling sushi.
"They look great," the instructor proclaimed, even though our sushi did not look nearly as nice as what you find in typical restaurants.
Another group was making tempura, the tasty egg-battered, deep-fried concoction of shrimp, fish or vegetables. Among the participants were six members spanning three generations of a family from the U.S. Jessica Asher, a fourth-generation descendant of a Japanese family that immigrated to the U.S., said she wanted her two daughters to learn how to make tempura.
Make, taste, share
But the best part is eating your creations.
After the hour-and-a-half lesson is finished, participants set a table and sat down to have a meal together. As everyone dined on the dishes they made, many also enjoyed taking photos for sharing on social media and drinking some of the sake rice wine and locally made wine on offer.
Instructors at Sakura Cook are all licensed cooks fluent in foreign languages. One instructor typically looks after about two guests so students can maximize their time learning during the lesson. Fresh fish and other ingredients are specially ordered from a department store. The overall setting allows even a complete beginner, like me, to make and taste delicious sushi and other Japanese cuisine.
The sushi and tempura courses, lasting two and a half hours, cost 12,000 yen ($109) per person, excluding tax. Participants also learn the art of laying out the food on a dish in an aesthetically pleasing manner, as well as tips on other aspects related to Japanese cuisine, such as typical phrases spoken when starting meals.
The studio operator is preparing to offer a larger variety of courses featuring seasonal specialties in the future.