Savour food – Tojo’s sushi @RiverCafeyyc and Sushi 101 with my friend Chigusa Gair

Tojo - Itamae -  master sushi chef
Tojo – Itamae – master sushi chef

Tomorrow night I’m going to Calgary’s River Cafe to have a seven course beautifully sequenced Kaiseki sushi meal prepared by Canada’s (possibly North America’s) most accomplished Sushi master chef. His name is Hidekazu Tojo and he is owner of Tojo’s Restaurant in Vancouver. Here’s my colleague John Gilchrist’s description of the only other time Tojo came to Calgary. I was out of town on that visit and so when I heard Tojo was returning I immediately bought tickets.

Tojo’s flying in with his team but more importantly to me, he’s flying his fish in with him and its 100% Ocean-wise. I am thrilled to be going. It may indeed be my once in a lifetime chance to eat Tojo’s food. I had a chance to meet and eat the food of Seattle’s Shiro Kashiba at his eponymous restaurant Shiro’s a few years ago and each and every bite tasted like I was being kissed by the salty mist of an ocean breeze. I’m hoping to experience that kind of freshness again tomorrow and it’ll be inspiring and engaging to see the artistry involved in the dishes.

Is this my everyday life? No. But, that doesn’t mean my everyday life doesn’t include some fun with sushi. Tonight when we got back from skiing I hit the speed dial button to my favourite sushi restaurant and we enjoyed being able to pop by and pick up the world’s original “fast food” on our way home. Sushi is my favourite take out food. I like to pair it with my own wine and eat it in my PJ’s after a hot bath on ski days. That’s a little slice of sushi heaven for me.

The other way sushi is loads of fun is to invite friends over to make it together. You’ll need to do the prep work of doing all the shopping, and likely making the sushi rice ahead but its fun to chop the other ingredients together, assemble your maki (rolls) and then whip up a little miso soup to end or start your meal with. My friend Chigusa Gair was born and raised in Japan and is a warm and generous person. She offered to help me and a few friends with our sushi making as I had bemoaned that mine always look like a toothpaste tube that’s been squeezed in all the wrong places. We met at my place and what follows are Chigusa’s hints, tips and instructions based on our fun afternoon together. I made a few videos too. They will follow in a Sushi Making 201 post later.

Meanwhile, I wish I could take you all with me tomorrow night. I’ll write later and let you know what it was like. I was born and raised in New Brunswick on the world’s best fish so I’ll seriously savour my Kaiseki meal. But here’s the thing. I can tell you very sincerely that nothing Tojo or any chef could ever do with fish will top having friends in my kitchen to have fun, relax and laugh with. I got to savour my life the afternoon Chigusa, Donna and Sarah spent in my kitchen. We three pupils were very proud of our modest efforts with our sushi master Chigusa. We savoured each and every morsel of our food as we ate it.

Go ahead and try this at home. I’ll bet you’ll savour your food and your life a little more. What’s the worst that could happen? Noone needs to roll themselves inside-out like one of Tojo’s famous rolls. Even if your efforts are a complete flop, put everything on your plate and call it deconstructed sushi fusion salad. Serve a great wine and savour a life filled with friendship.

My friends Chigusa, Donna and Sarah & our freshly made sushi
My friends Chigusa, Donna and Sarah & our freshly made sushi

Chigusa’s Sushi 101 Class
Notes to the cook

On Rice: Chi says short grain rice is best but medium grain will do. You could mix short and medium grain rice (roughly 4:1 ratio) to make medium grain rice moister and so it will stay sticky. Chi uses a rice cooker and to increase the flavour profile she adds a piece of Kombu (kelp) while cooking (discard once the rice is cooked).
On Rice Seasoning: Chi mixes rice vinegar in 2:1 ratio with sugar and then adds a bit of salt. She also uses Taminoi Sushinoko Sushi Powder which she sprinkles liberally as she stirs in the seasoning. She says the powder achieves a nice shine on the rice (highly desired) without the danger of adding too much moisture that only using liquid can pose. If you are making your own sushi vinegar, for three cups of uncooked rice you would mix as follows:
1/3 c rice vinegar
3 T sugar
1t salt
You might need to stir all this in a saucepan so the sugar will melt. It can be stored in the fridge for up to three months.
On Fish: go to a Japanese or Asian market where they have beautifully filleted and skinned fish fillets that have been flash frozen at sea. Take the fish out of the freezer about one to two hours before you are ready to assemble the sushi so that is about two-thirds thawed. It will be much easier to slice. Use the sharpest knife you own to do the job and be delicate. Sushi sous chefs (try saying that 3 times fast) must make rice for two years before they get to touch a piece of fish with a knife.
On Soy for dipping: Chi adds a solid piece of dried bonita to a bottle and fills it with her favourite soy sauce. The flavour of the fish in soy adds another layer of taste when you dip your sushi in it before eating.

Ingredients for Sushi
Up to 5.5 c Rice (that’s full on my rice cooker)
2T Sushi Rice Seasoning (2T for every 1 cup of uncooked rice)
1 – 1 ½ T Taminoi Sushinoko Sushi Seasoning Powder (1 – 1 1.2 T/cup of uncooked rice)
1pkg Nori (Seaweed)
2lbs Sushi grade fish and shrimp (deveined, peeled and opened flat)
1jar Roe: use either flying fish (Tobiko) or smelt (Masago)
1jar pickled daikon, sliced in sushi roll length strips about ¼ inch width
1 avocado, sliced in long strips
1 long English cucumber, chopped in sushi roll lengths with skin on and seeds removed
1 jar pickled ginger
1tube wasabi paste
1jar soy sauce or tamari or ponzu

A little piece of dried bonita tuna in a bottle of soy adds major flavour & was just one of Chi's great tips
A little piece of dried bonita tuna in a bottle of soy adds major flavour & was just one of Chi’s great tips


Chi loved using my Takeda AS Sujihiki (slicer)
Chi loved using my Takeda AS Sujihiki (slicer)

The best and sharpest slicing knife you own
Sushi roller – bamboo matt
Nigiri moulds and presses (optional – we used our hands)
Saran wrap
A handheld fan
Water in bowls –useful to dip fingers in to prevent rice from sticking in the first place and to get it off your fingers once it is stuck (they call it sticky rice for a reason)

1. Cook the desired amount of rice with some Kombu (optional) added in a rice cooker.

Kombu adds flavour to sushi rice
Kombu adds flavour to sushi rice

2. Season the rice when it is cooked and still hot by transferring it to a bowl and sprinkling it with the sushi seasoning powder (Sushinoko) or the sushi seasoning vinegar.
3. Cut the seasoning in with a wooden spoon and gently turn the rice to distribute it. Avoid mashing and mushing as you go; think of slicing through and flipping.
4. Fan the rice to add sheen and then cover the bowl with a damp cloth until you are ready to make your maki (rolls) or temaki (hand rolls).

after seasoning the sushi rice is shiny
after seasoning the sushi rice is shiny

5. Cut the fish and vegetables in long thin strips (about ¼ inch in width and about 3 inches long) and set them all in neat piles on a tray
Nori on the Outside Rolls (maki)
6. Place sushi rolling mat on a cloth to prevent slippage
7. Lay a large nori sheet on the mat and press about ½ inch thickness of rice onto the nori sheet, leaving about ½ inch at the top of the nori bare.

Donna & Sarah getting the hang of it
Donna & Sarah getting the hang of it

8. Lay your choice of fish and vegetables in a line (like a pencil) across the rice about two-thirds of the way down from the top
9. Lift the end of the bamboo that is closest to you while placing your fingers on the ingredients to hold them in place and roll from close to far.
10. Continue rolling, adjusting the mat so that now the whole of the nori is rolled onto itself
11. Give another gentle squeeze to the mat wrapped roll and then set the completed roll aside for cutting right before eating.
12. Slice the completed rolls by wetting your knife before each slice and cleaning it after each slice.
13. Discard (eat!!!) the end pieces

Rice on the Outside Rolls (urimaki)
14. Lay plastic wrap on the rolling mat
15. Press a nori sheet sized quantity of rice onto the plastic wrap and make it about ½ inch thick
16. Lay a nori sheet on the rice so that you can see the edge of the as a frame on the outside of the nori)
17. Place the ingredients in line (like a pencil) on nori about ¼ of the way in
18. Roll the plastic wrapped sushi rolling mat so that rice surrounds the mound of ingredients, pause to press slightly, then keep rolling and gently squeeze when you reach the end
19. Slice as above
20. Garnish with roe* and or sesame seeds
21. Serve with pickled ginger, wasabi and small bowls of soy or tamari

Cone shaped hand rolls – Temaki
22. Make smaller sheets of nori by cutting a regular sheet in half
23. Place the sheet along the palm of your hand and put about 1 – 2 T of rice near the left border
24. Place a piece of fish and a complementary vegetable or two on the rice
25. Roll into a cone shape and use the rice to hold it together.
26. Place seam side down on a platter or set all the ingredients out and let your guests make the rolls and eat them as they go.
27. Use slightly wet hands to shape rice into a small oval form and then top each mound with a little wasabi and a freshly sliced piece of fish.

*Roe may be used for garnish as well as sushi ingredient

The fruits of our labour of sushi love
The fruits of our labour of sushi love

If you made it this far, you are in a bonus situation with this bonus recipe from Chi!.

Chi's Miso Soup
Chi’s Miso Soup

Chi’s Quick and Easy Miso Soup for 4

A sample package of Daishi
A sample package of Daishi

Notes to the Cook
Daishi could include kelp, mushroom, anchovies, etc. – it was in the yellow package with the pictures of those things on it. The number of daishi bags for the broth depends on the directions of each product – check the brand you are using.

Ingredients1-2 bags stock mix (Daishi) per 4 cups of soup
2T Bonita flakes (optional)
4 t dried Wakame seaweed
1 pkg Extra Firm tofu, chopped (may also use silky tofu)
3-4 T miso paste
1 green onion, chopped

Medium sauce pan
Fine-meshed ladle strainer

Chopsticks & a sieve are useful but don't worry if you don't have them
Chopsticks & a sieve are useful but don’t worry if you don’t have them

1. Bring the water up to a near boil while letting the bag of Daishi stock steep for five minutes
2. Place the Bonita flakes in the basket of the sieve and let it dip into the water.
3. Poke and stir the flakes with the chop sticks to break them down as the water heats up.
4. Bring water just to a boil and add tofu and seaweed.
5. Dissolve the miso paste in the soup.
6. Sprinkle with chopped green onions in individual bowls just before serving.

One Comment

  1. rozsmallfry

    So jealous, Karen! Can’t wait to hear about your Tojo’s River Cafe meal. The next best thing to experiencing it yourself is to hear all about it from someone who can describe it so well. I’ll watch for your blog, and await more news on it when we rendezvous again at the Okanagan Food and Wine Writers Workshop coming up soon!

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