Cold water poured from the faucet. It struck the steel strainer filled with mi, uncooked rice, below. Drops scattered and jettisoned as they hit individual grains sitting at precarious angles. Silently, we watched the water level rise. Clear turned to an opaque, milky white after a few moments, like mayonnaise on Wonder bread.
“Watch,” Danny instructed. His right hand scooped down, scraping the bottom of strainer. In a wide circular movement, he pulled a handful of rice out, breaking the surface. His left hand quickly rubbed the rice, before letting it slip back into the water. The right dove back in, a streamlined minnow propelling through the water, and returned, armed with another palm full of grains. “Rice must be clean, okay?” Gently he rubbed again, removing the dirt and sand from oceans away, as well as excess skin, scrapped off the rice farmer’s leathery hands as he wrestled the grain out of the muddled earth. How many more desperate hands did these grains pass through, before it reached the restaurant in the 10-pound, white canvas bag, before Danny removed their every trace with friction and cold water?
Danny pulled out the strainer. Water immediately rushed out of the tiny holes, into the larger steel bowl that remained in the sink, while the rice grains remained. He dumped that water, save for the 30 or so grains that escaped through the holes; these he dumped back in with the rest of their brethren. “Always save, okay, Ming Jai? Don’t waste.”
He repeated the process twice more.
“Wash three times,” he said. To the right was the 10-liter Zojirushi rice cooker. A toddler could fit comfortably inside. When it no longer worked, we could donate it to an amusement park as a “Spinning Teacup” ride, maybe in a section with an Asian motif, which along with Geisha dolls and adopting Asian babies, appears to be all the rage.
Danny laid the rice net along the surface of the rice cooker, then dumped the washed grains into it. He slapped the bottom of the steel strainer a few times, making sure every grain had descended to fatten and cook in the combination of heat and water.
With a quart soup container, he filled it three times. Each time, the water hovered above the edge, molecularly bonded by surface tension. “One for each rice.” On the fourth quart, he filled it about half-way, then poured. “Plus a little.” He ushered me over, to examine the water level sitting in the rice cooker. He waved his hand a few times over the surface, leveling the playing field so everything would cook evenly.
“See?” He placed his palm flat down, gently resting atop the rice. The water level came up to somewhere between his first and second knuckle, a measurement in the exact science of rice. “Good. Enough. We come back at,” he glanced at the clock. “Three-thirty.” It was 45 minutes. He pushed the edges of the net hanging over the rice cooker inside, covered it, and pressed the “on” button.
At three twenty-five, I removed the cover, and steam billowed upwards as I pulled away. With two hands, Danny grabbed the edges of the net, and lifted out his bag, then placed it into the shallow plastic bin he laid out on the countertop.
“Oh, Ming-jai, no good,” he said. He pulled the net out from underneath the rice like a tablecloth beneath crystal glassware. The rice spilled into the plastic bin; hot, cooked, steaming. “Smell.”
I did. I smelled rice.
“Yeah. Too cooked.” He nodded his head at the barrel filled with sushi vinegar below the countertop. I opened it, and scooped out a little less than a quart, avoiding the lemons floating on the surface. I mimicked the technique Danny showed me for distributing the vinegar – pouring from the quart with my left hand, onto the plastic spoon I held in my right, and spreading the vinegar with quick flicks of my wrist.
Do you just add lemons to your vinegar?
He shook his head. “Lemon, salt, sugar… depend how you like taste. American people, like sushi rice more sweet, so I add yuzu. Japanese people like more sour.”
Afterwards, he showed me how to fold the rice into the vinegar, to give every grain of rice a chance to absorb the flavor. With wide strokes, he hacked at the large clumps of rice that refused to separate, cutting into them like he wielded a machete. He started on the right side of the bin, and worked his way to the left. Then he folded the rice, using the same motion he used for washing: long strokes to scoop beneath the grains, then out and forward.
He gave me the plastic spoon to try, and corrected me after every stroke, every fold.
“No, like this,” he motioned wider hacks with the spoon.
Or, “Ming Jai, watch me,” and he’d take the spoon back, and demonstrate the flicking action with his wrist. Never impatient, never judging for the mistakes, but an absolute insistence on proper technique. It seemed obsessive, trivial even, but these techniques were the tools of his profession, the cornerstone of his work and his living, and he cared for them as such.
Last week, he reached for the small black bag he kept behind the sushi bar, and gingerly took out a sushi knife. It had a black handle, and the blade was meticulously wrapped in cardboard. “Ming Jai, how much you think this knife cost?”
I told him I didn’t know.
“Four hundred US dollars.”
“You think that a lot, right? But I make at least,” he thought for a minute, trying to translate the numbers in his head, “at least 100,000 dollars with this knife. Think it worth it?” Some of that money went back home, which took care of his parents, he explained. It bought them a house. It got them off the farm, so no sushi chef would ever have to wash their skin cells from rice grains ever again. The rest of the money went to paying the agency that got him his visa, and brought him over to the United States. It was a debt he, his knife, and the rest of his tools would continue to pay for years to come.
“Okay, good,” Danny said finally, “but don’t do this,” he pointed at my right hand. I had dipped too far into the sushi rice a few times, and rice grains had stuck to my hand. “Why hand touch rice?” He showed me his hand; it was spotless. He gave the rice a few more folds while I washed it off.
Finally, he tasted it. “You always taste,” he insisted. He signaled for me to do the same. “What you think? Sour? Sweet?”
A little sour, I told him.
“Yeah, me too, I think this.” He ate another morsel; a clump of rice that had been cleaned of its thousands of miles of travel, of the dozens of grimy hands it passed through along the way. And still tasted sour.
Danny nodded his head anyway. “It’s okay. Good,” he said. He dumped the contents into his rice warmer, and took it outside to the sushi bar.
Photo Credit: Darren Andrew Savery