Alice Gong is an accidental sushi chef. “I didn’t set out to do it,” she says. “It’s just one of those things where you get a job, and it allows you to pursue your dreams.”
Those dreams were about snowboarding. The job was in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada, where she went after graduating from college at U.C. Santa Barbara because a friend of a friend was opening a restaurant and needed a chef. And because of the mountain. There were mountains in the other places where she made sushi, too, Park City and Tahoe. Until a visit to Provincetown turned into a job at Saki on Commercial Street.
When she took that first job, Gong says, “What I knew about sushi was that it was an excuse to do sake bombs.” Gong grew up in China. When she was young, her family moved to the U.S., first to North Carolina, then Boston. But she was lucky to have good — “and sometimes nutty” — teachers to bring her along in the art of sushi making.
After Saki closed, Gong stayed put in this flat part of the world — she is the program director at Twenty Summers and also works at the Provincetown Farmers Market. There are some things about restaurant sushi making that she is happy to be done with. Now she is content cooking at home for her friends and herself, she says.
“Let me put it this way,” Gong says. “A sushi bar is not a good platform for educating people about food and the ocean ecosystem.” Most often, conversations across the bar were about the fact that she’s a woman — a rarity in the profession. “I won’t even tell you some of the reasons people had for why a woman can’t be a sushi chef.”
Japanese culture is patriarchal, and sushi making is more so, Gong says. “Even my most progressive female Japanese friends say, ‘Making sushi? Oh no — that’s just not what you do.’ ”
Gong is practical about what made her able to find her way in the role. Food was an important part of her family’s culture. And rice. “Growing up, I ate rice every day and knew about the intricacies of washing it,” she says. “Sushi is really about the rice.”
The type of rice is important, she says. “It should be medium grain, processed so each grain is the same size and will cook evenly. I could go on.” For making sushi at home, you might look for a Japanese variety like Koshihikiri, but any rice labeled for sushi making will work well if you handle it properly. While the method for preparing the rice may seem exacting, Gong says, “Rice can also be forgiving.”
Sushi rice is seasoned with vinegar in which sugar, salt, and a strip of kombu are warmed until the sugar is dissolved. This seasoned rice is called sumeshi.
The ingredients for making sushi at home can be very few: the rice, vinegar seasoning, nori sheets, and vegetables. Sushi was invented as a method of using rice to preserve salted fish, but that doesn’t mean modern day sushi must necessarily include fish. At a sushi-making class Gong taught earlier this month at the Truro Public Library, part of her point was sushi’s simplicity. She brought cucumber and oshinko daikon — bright yellow pickled daikon radish — to roll into the maki. She cuts the vegetables into matchsticks exactly one half the length of the maki, so they’ll fit perfectly, in twos, in the maki. You could use avocado, scallion, lightly steamed green beans or carrots — “whatever tastes good to you,” says Gong.
“There are prepared sauces,” Gong says, many of which are too sweet. Instead, she likes to have on hand soy sauce, wasabi, ginger, and citrus zest. “And don’t put the sauce on the inside of the maki,” she says. She likes to leave those touches of color and texture for garnishing them just before serving.
You will need a bamboo sushi mat for rolling the maki. And a sharp knife. Setting things up in a tidy mise en place is the main thing, Gong says. “If there is a philosophy I learned through sushi it is one of economy of motion,” she says. “It applies to everything, even mowing the lawn. You know how you can do that very neatly, each run lining up just so against the next.”
With sushi, she says, “It’s about doing things perfectly, cleanly, and in a well-organized way.” Though at the end, she often makes a temaki or hand roll. For that, the nori is rolled up “like an ice cream cone” and you fill it with all the ends and bits that may have fallen by the wayside in maki-making. “It’s a nice little chef’s reward.”
Cucumber, Oshinko, and Sesame Maki
Makes six sushi rolls
2 cups sushi rice
2 cups water
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
2-inch square of kombu
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 cucumber, peeled
Toasted sesame seeds
6 sheets of toasted sushi nori
Soy sauce, ginger, citrus juice, herbs, scallion, and zest for garnishing
- Put the rice in a mesh strainer and rinse it well under cold running water, until the water coming through is clear. Then cook the rice with the water (yes, a 1:1 ratio).
- While the rice steams, warm the rice wine vinegar, kombu, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Spread the cooked rice in a wide dish and sprinkle it with the seasoned vinegar, stirring it gently with a wooden spatula to let it cool to warm room temperature without breaking or mashing the rice. Cover the rice with a damp cloth to keep it from getting dry while you make the rolls.
- Prepare the cucumber and daikon by cutting them into thin, even matchsticks.
- Lay a piece of nori, glossy side down (bumpy side up), on a bamboo sushi mat. Dampen your fingers with water and spread about a cup of seasoned rice evenly on the nori, leaving about a half inch uncovered at top and bottom. Lay an even line of cucumbers on the rice about an inch from the bottom of the rectangle. Do the same with the daikon. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
- Lift the mat to bring the bottom edge of the maki up and begin rolling. Press the mat to firm the roll (and remove it so it doesn’t roll up with your maki) as you progress. Smudge the ends of the nori with a bit of rice to seal the finished roll.
- Slice the roll in half, trim the ends, and slice to yield eight pieces. Keep going; you have five more rolls to make.
- Serve with soy sauce spiked with a little orange, lemon, or lime juice and zest or with ginger or wasabi. Sprinkle tops with minced herbs or thin slices of scallion.