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Japanese Masterclass: Sushi & Shojin with Sachiko Saeki

This is a guest blog post from our lovely Greek friends Georgia & Constantine.

"We have been living in UK for a while and even though travelling is one of things we do often, getting to travel within UK is still something new. So when the opportunity to travel to Bath and get to spent time with friends but also attend a Japanese Cooking Masterclass at Rachel Demuth’s cooking school arose, it seemed like a no brainer; Travelling, eating and philosophising is what we do best and enjoy most.

For context, Rachel Demuth is the founder of Demuth’s Vegetarian restaurant - Winner of the 2012 Bath Good Food Award for Best Vegetarian and the 2011 Bath Good Food Awards for Best Vegetarian Restaurant and People's Choice and someone that we were looking forward to meet, for a while. Christopher Robbins, her partner, on the other hand is a good friend but also a medical herbalist, pathologist, University lecturer, Opera lover (the list goes on...) and someone who we know through our passion for herbal medicine, nutrition and our love for the arts.

The course is taught by Sachiko Saeki who was on TV, showing Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall from River Cottage, how to prepare Sushi and Shojin Japanese cooking, and a special way for preparing, cooking and eating for monks at Zen temples, in his Vegetable TV series on Channel 4. Apparently, Sachiko learned how to cook in her parent’s restaurant in Japan and even thought she studied Art she decided that two artists in one household (her husband is also an artist) was one too many and currently trains to be a sushi chef (an art on its own right, which can take up to 13 years to master), soon to be part of a strong team of 50 chefs for a new London restaurant, called Wabi

The class is being delivered at Rachel’s Cookery School which is based in the centre of Bath, near her vegetarian restaurant named after her, in a wonderful Georgian building, with a super purpose built kitchen, and one of the best views of Bath Abbey and the River Avon. We start our day at the top floor with cookies, tea and coffee and get introduced to one another and to the course by Rachel, before we get to the first floor, and get introduced to our chef, Sachiko. People have come from all over UK and some spent the night in Bath - that is Rachel’s and Sachiko’s reputation.

The kitchen on the first floor is big, airy, with plenty of light, great cooking facilities and again amazing views. We quickly take places and the course starts. The class begins with a brief demonstration around the utensils and most importantly the knives used in Japanese cooking and their maintenance. We get our boards and individual knives and sit around the table listening to Sachiko explaining the importance of a well sharpened knife. Sachiko has brought her own sharpening stone which seems very sophisticated but quite traditional too. We all then have a go at cutting carrots, cucumbers, kale, mushrooms (shitake, oyster, enoki, shimeji which to me look like Smurfs habitat), Chinese cabbage and everything else that will be part of our lunch and dinner for that day.

For both my partner and I, as contemporary full time workers, we only have 30 minutes per day to prepare something to eat, and if it exceeds that time then it’s not something that we will engage in. Also the thought of preparing Japanese food always felt daunting because of its precision, accuracy, delicacy and complexity but also dexterity with knives and cooking utensils which at times made us think that you might needed to have trained first at a circus, before you were able to emerge yourself in Japanese cooking. Saying that, Sachiko makes everything sound and look easy, so we emerge ourselves in the tasks.

Through guided demonstrations, hands on cooking and group of two exercises we set to prepare lunch and dinner. We start with making pickles with seasonal vegetables a process that takes only 5 min to prepare but requires a good hour or more for the pickles to get ready with the pressure of a bowl full of water, to press and keep them together. We then proceed to prepare the green tea jelly with Azuki bean which will also be our dessert for the day. Apparently the Azuki bean is used often for sweets in Japan. The combination of the two makes for a typical summer desert. It is freezing outside but inside this kitchen is so toasty… so I can’t think of anything better than a summery desert.

Our next dish is oriental mushroom tempura with soba noodle soup, a dish which we will enjoy as our lunch. Sachiko explains that the trick for the batter is cold water (and for all other ingredients). However, for me the most memorable and fascinating trick of preparing the tempura is the pan frying. Sachiko drops tiny droplets of batter in the frying oil which, depending on the temperature, hit the bottom, flip over and then come up to float on the surface. Apparently, that way you determine the temperature before you fry the tempura. The other element that fascinated me is how Sachiko would shake the mushrooms to open and release the flour before she turned them around to cook on both sides.

After a lunch break where we devour the mushroom tempura with a warm soup of soba noodles we set to prepare the GOMA-AE Kale and sesame seeds salad, GOMA-DOFU sesame paste and soya milk set with kuzu starch served with wasabi shoyu, GANMODOKI tofu ball with carrot, edamame beans and arame cooked in stew and served with Japanese Kabocha squash and leeks, vegetarian sushi and MISO SHIRU miso soupwith defrosted silken tofu and wakame seaweed. Yam!!!

With the exception of miso and the tempura, but not as it was demonstrated by Sachiko, we have never tried any of the other dishes and we are looking forward to preparing but mostly tasting all of these new, different, exciting and unusual tastes.

The course is not without its star appearances. As Sachiko demonstrates how to turn the rice into a chalky white color for the Sushi rolls, James Harper from the Wasabi Company, the very first commercial grower of Wasabi in Europe, pops in with his wife and brings a small box of fresh wasabi along with him. Apparently, Rachel has asked for a sample and the couple happened to be in the area. James is asked to demonstrate for us how to prepare a portion of wasabi, a task which he takes with great enthusiasm. Both my partner and I turn an unimpressed eye as Wasabi is something that we never liked (the one in sachets or tube dispensers we see in Japanese sushi bars or on bento boxes sold in supermarkets). However, the process of extracting it is impressive enough and more impressive is Sachiko's shark skin Japanese grater which James uses to prepare the Wasabi. Another impressive element is that Wasabia Japonica contains isothiocyanates, which activate enzymes that help detoxify the liver and interfere in the formation and metastasis of cancer cells. In addition, research has shown that wasabi compounds fight inflammation, prevent abnormal clot formations, reduce the risk of heart attacks and have anti-bacterial properties. All of which I found out after the course and only because tasting that Wasabi felt as something out of this world.

Time has come to set the table and enjoy our creations washed down with champagne and an extremely fragrant elderflower cordial. For a while, everyone is quiet devouring all these amazing looking and extremely tasty and fragrant dishes including the wasabi which is a key ingredient for the Goma Dofu and which my partner and I eat for the first time with great appetite. The course lasts about seven hours, and by the time we leave we are all astonished as to how much food we have been able to prepare and consume, how simple and nourishing our lunch and dinner has been and how much more confident we are to prepare Japanese food (or at least give it a go). We are given a very comprehensive file pack and we buy Rachel’s book which is all about vegetarian cooking.

We are set for the way back home, stuffed and content in our decision to have attempted a Japanese Master class, travelled to meet Rachel and Christopher, and got to see Bath and of course what we were missing all these years. Kampai 乾杯 !'

Guest Blog by Georgia & Constantine, Thank you.

Photos by Christopher Robbins.

Keep an eye on our Course Calendar for more Japanese courses with Sachiko coming soon.

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