The thin sheets of nori algae have a pungent, salty smell which reminds me of the little dry fish we give our turtles. I wave it in front of my eyes, as if it were a fan. It feels coarse, like fabric, but has the consistency of paper, and I soon notice that it breaks as easily. “Stop playing with your food!” says my mother.
“Food?” I ask. I look at the algae, its dark green color reminds me of the grime that collects on the sides of my turtle’s cage at the end of the week. “There’s no way I’m going to put that into my mouth!” I protest.
“It’s good, I promise! You just don’t know because you haven’t tried it yet,” she says. I look again at the algae, then put it close to my nose and smell it. It’s salty and fishy, like my turtle’s cage. My nose wrinkles in disgust. However, I try to remind myself that I am almost four now, so I have to be brave and try everything, even if it smells bad!
I look up from the algae and notice that my mom is taking a box which has the same shape and size of a pasta container. As soon as she pours it on the scale, however, I notice that it’s not pasta, but white pellets that look like miniature confetti. They clatter against the sleek surface of the scale as my mom brings it closer to the boiling water. She then pours all of them in, and the water swallows them, making some sort of foam. I try to look beyond the foam and into the pan, wondering if they are melting.
“What is this?” I ask my mom.
“It’s rice. It tastes a little bit like pasta, but better.” I try to imagine what flavor could taste like pasta, but better. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem possible that such a food really exists.
My mom keeps stirring the rice. Periodically, she picks some of it up with her spoon, observes it intently and then places it back into the pot. When I ask her why she moves the spoon from side to side, she explains to me that she needs to see when the rice becomes of a certain color and consistency, indicating that its cooked. When that happens, she motions for me to look at it. “See? It’s almost transparent, and swollen.” I look at the rice and, sure enough, it is a lot larger, more shaped like a pearl than confetti. My mom gives me permission to touch it. It is wet, soft and mushy. I reach into the box and take the other rice, to see if its different. The uncooked rice is hard and dry like confetti. Cooked rice instead feels more like candies. I wonder if rice also tastes like candy, maybe that’s why it’s better than pasta? I reach into the pan and get a handful of mushy rice, but my mom gently slaps my hand with the spoon.
“Be patient! The hasty cat had blind kittens,” she says. My mom really likes proverbs, especially this one. I never understood the connection between being hasty and having blind kittens, but I do know one thing: I’m hungry, and I want to eat now. However, my mom explains that she is making sushi, a dish that needs to be prepared slowly and carefully. I tell her that I would rather have the rice now than the sushi later, but she refuses, assuring me that the sushi will taste a lot better than rice. I am getting wary. To distract me, mom talks to me about the origins of this food, which comes from the faraway country of Japan. She says that the Japanese consider food an art, and rice to them is like gold, a material that cannot be wasted. Suddenly, I feel guilty of having eaten such a precious food, and imagine how it would feel like to pay with rice instead of dollars. I guess the only problem would be that they rice is so small and slippery it would be very easy to lose it…
While I’m daydreaming about a world in which rice is the only currency, my mother lies a wooden mat made of bamboo sticks that look like tiny straws,. She then covers the mat with a thin sheet of transparent plastic paper, the one you use when you don’t want food to stick to the pan. On top of it, she puts the green nori. Then she takes a flat, plastic spatula and dips it into a cup of water. Steam is curling up from it, making me realize how hot the water inside it must be. My mom explains that you need to dip the spatula into the water several times so as not to have the rice stick to it. She then dips the spatula into the rice, scoops a spoonful of it and shows me how to lay it on the nori so that it forms a perfectly rectangular surface about half a centimeter thick. We then peel a cucumber and cut it into tiny strips. We do the same with a thick omelet and some avocado. After, we carefully position the three ingredients in three neat lines. It’s a painstaking task, and the end product reminds me of those mosaics that I see when I go rollerblading in Rome’s Foro Italico. There is a neat, yellow line of omelet, followed by a line of avocado, followed by a line of cucumbers. It looks perfect to me, but my mom decides we need to add more color to this sushi, so she goes into the kitchen and reaches for some tuna. She puts tuna inside the pan and starts cooking it with oil, soy and salt.
I am extremely bored and even hungrier, so my eyes keep drifting towards pieces of cucumbers, omelet and avocado. However, they are cut so precisely that I don’t dare touch them. I begin to realize that sushi is like a puzzle. For it to be worthy of the name “sushi”, all of its condiments have to fit together perfectly, and for this reason each piece has to be prepared with the utmost care.
My reflection is interrupted by my mom, who takes the sugar container and starts pouring it onto the tuna.
“Mom, that’s sugar!” I blurt. She replies that she knows, and then adds some soy to the concoction, puts a generous spoonful of it into her mouth and makes a satisfied smile.
When she hands me a spoonful of the reddish tuna I refuse to try it. It looks like a mixture of dog food and blood. However, the smell is delicious, a little sweet, like dried fruits, and a little sour, like lemons. I help my mother to place the red mixture in a neat line beside the cucumbers. She then shows me how to roll the mat slowly from one side to the other so that the rice forms a cylindrical shape which wraps around the other ingredients like a blanket. Then, slowly and carefully, we begin the arduous task of removing the mat without ruining our creation. We are left with a compact, white cylinder of rice with pieces of cucumber and omelet poking out of it like whiskers. I look at my mom in awe as she takes a knife, dips it into the now barely warm water and then starts carefully cutting the cylinder into tiny slices. Her shoulders are hunched and her brows corrugated into a concentrated expression, much like the one of the surgeons on the television show E.R. The room is so silent I can hear myself breathing. Then my mom suddenly breaks the silence. “This is the most crucial part of the preparation. You see, if the rice breaks off and the cylinder loses its shape you can’t eat it anymore.”
“Why?” I ask, bewildered.
“Because it wouldn’t be beautiful. And sushi has to be beautiful!”
I had never thought that food had to be beautiful. As my mom hands me the piece of sushi, I look at it in amazement. It is a perfect circle with four squares of different colors. It’s closer to a painting than to something a person would eat. My stomach grumbles, reminding me how hungry I am. I bite into the sushi and a myriad of tastes fill my mouth. The tuna’s sweetness is balanced by the acrid taste of cucumber and the softness of the omelet is enhanced by the avocado, which melts in my mouth. I take another bite, and another, and another. My mom looks pleased.
“Wasn’t it worthwhile to wait a little?” She asks. I nod, and take my second piece of sushi.