On our recent trip to Japan, Mark and I booked an entire week in Tokyo. We were a little worried that it might be a bit too long in one place (it wasn’t, luckily!). So to break up the time, I booked a Japanese cooking class for us.
When I did an Internet search, I was amazed at how many Japanese cooking classes there were to choose from. You could even take a course on the amazing art of wagashi, or Japanese confections. But we wanted to start with a few dishes that we would be more likely to make casually, either for ourselves or for guests.
I ended up selecting a cooking school called Buddha Bellies. I chose them for several reasons:
- Prices are fair: 5500 yen to 9000 yen, with most courses costing 7500 yen (approximately $75 Canadian per person)
- Courses last a couple of hours, so it doesn’t take up your entire day
- The course options are varied: you can choose from wagashi, sushi, bento boxes, or washoku, a meal consisting of 4 dishes, which is the course we chose
- The meal comes with your choice of drink, including sake, beer, or tea
- Class sizes are small – 6-8 students maximum
- Courses are taught in English!
I emailed Buddha Bellies several weeks in advance of our arrival in Tokyo, as the classes fill up very quickly. I inquired about the availability of the washoku class, and they were very quick to respond. Once I sent payment via PayPal to book our spots, I received an email confirmation. We put in our request for the type of drink we wanted with our meal, as well as any food allergies (Mark is allergic to nuts, for example). With everything planned in advance, all we had to do was show up at the designated location on the day of our course!
The day of the class, we met our instructor, Ayuko in her cooking studio, along with her assistant. There were six students including the two of us; a married couple from Israel and two friends, one from the United States and one from the United Kingdom. It was just the right number of students to make the conversation lively but to get hands-on help when needed!
The first thing that caught my attention was the sheer number of cookbooks Ayuko had on display. I wanted to flip through them all!
Before the class started, we all washed our hands and put on disposable plastic aprons. Ayuko was very good at talking us through the various ingredients we would be using in each dish. For the main dish, we had the option of using meat or fish. I chose chicken, while Mark chose fish.
But first, Ayuko walked us through how to make miso soup! Until this class, I had no idea that miso soup used fish stock, called dashi, as a base. I’m not big on fish or seafood, but I love miso soup. Who knew!
We started with making the dashi.
First, we added some wakame, or kelp to the water to add flavour. It’s only left in for a while, then it’s removed. Then we added the fish flakes. The flakes look like this, and are a bit pungent:
These come from dried, fermented skipjack tuna called katsuobushi, but bonito flakes can also be used as a cheaper alternative.
While the broth was heating, Ayuko brought out some samples of miso. She explained that miso comes in a wide variety of flavours and colours, depending on how long it’s allowed to ferment, the proportion of soybeans, wheat and rice, etc. The preferences can also be regional. We tried three variations, and they were all tasty (and salty!) but definitely distinct in their flavours.
We added a bit of the lighter miso to the soup, followed by mushrooms and tofu. Then we started working on the next dish: the rolled egg omelette, or tamagoyaki.
First, we broke the eggs into a cup, then we added sugar, dashi, and a few drops of soy sauce into the mixture. Then we stirred everything together thoroughly with chopsticks.
One of the must-haves when making a rolled egg omelette is a square frying pan like this one:
You pour a little of the egg mixture into the pan at a time and tip it in every direction to cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of egg. Once it starts to cook, you use chopsticks to push and roll the mixture onto itself evenly from one end of the pan to the other. Ayuko was super helpful and guided us along on our culinary journey.
When you roll your omelette to the bottom of the pan, you add another coating of the uncooked egg mixture to the pan and start the process again, building up your roll. I honestly found this part of the class the most stressful!
This is what they look like when you’re done.
But for presenting it, the tamagoyaki looks better if you cut it into slices and turn some of the slices on their end. Like this:
They were a bit time consuming to make for an omelette. But it was a technique that had never occurred to me before, so I enjoyed the learning process.
We put the egg dishes aside to work on the dressing for the vegetable dish – vegetables with sesame miso sauce! This also required a special implement:
This is a suribachi and surikogi, or Japanese mortar and pestle. This is used in Japanese cooking to gently crush herbs, spices, or in this case, sesame seeds. The ceramic bowl has fine grooves etched inside.
We then added mirin, sake, sugar, soy sauce and miso to create the dressing. Then we added the green veggies to coat with the sauce. I think this was easily our favourite dish of the class! (In fact, we liked it so much, that when we came home to Edmonton, we went to our local Japanese store called Ki-fu-ne and bought our own suribachi and surikogi set!)
Finally, we cooked up our meat or fish dishes. This was then coated in a light teriyaki sauce. I think this was my least favourite recipe of the meal, but not because of the teriyaki sauce, which was quite tasty. Personally, I wasn’t particularly happy with the quality of the chicken, but that was just my own observation. I would definitely make the teriyaki sauce again, but perhaps use chicken breast at home.
This was my final creation, although I feel as though my plate looks a bit empty here!
Mark made a fish dish with the same teriyaki sauce, which he decided, after trying my chicken dish, was the better choice:
The miso soup was really phenomenal though. I’ve never had it with mushrooms before. They added a different texture and a bit more substance from the usual miso soup I’m used to in Western-style Japanese restaurants.
That finishing touch of scooping the vegetables with sesame-miso dressing into bowls before we all sit down to eat:
Here is how our meal came together in the end. Quite lovely for a group of first-timers, don’t you think? Presentation counts for a lot as well, of course:
We all sat down together to enjoy the meals we had just made, and drank green tea, beer and sake with our food.
Afterward, we all bought copies of Ayuko’s cookbook, which she was kind enough to autograph with our names in Japanese. I always buy a cookbook in every country we visit, so it was a perfect souvenir! Ayuko also gave everyone a small gift to take home. Mark got a sushi mat and I got a set of chopsticks. All in all, we really enjoyed taking a cooking class on holidays, and it made for great memories!