A year ago, Melanie Holloway of Baltimore wouldn't have considered eating sushi.
"I had thought it was an icky thing to do," said Holloway, a marketing manager for a high-tech company. But on a recent Friday night she was standing at a counter with 19 other mostly young professionals, dipping her hands in vinegar water and pressing cooked rice onto sheets of seaweed, learning to make her own sushi.
Her conversion came when friends took her to a sushi restaurant and persuaded her to try it. She was so impressed, she not only wanted to eat it, but also learn how to make it at home. Examining her first creation, a fairly well-shaped tuna maki roll, she seemed satisfied. "This wasn't as hard as I thought," she said.
Never mind that Japanese chefs study years before they are allowed to make sushi. Holloway and the other students in the class at A Cook's Table, a gourmet kitchen store in Federal Hill, see no reason why they can't learn to make sushi in an evening.
After all, sushi is every- where these days. It's in the supermarket, the gourmet takeout counter, in hospital cafeterias and even the ballpark. Why not make it at home?
"People are gaining confidence," said Joseph Lasprogata, director of purchasing for Samuel & Son Seafood in Philadelphia, a company that sells seafood to restaurants. "It's not such a mystery anymore."
When Tzu Yang started Kawasaki restaurant in Baltimore 18 years ago, his customers tended to be "professional eaters" who sat at the counter to admire the sushi chefs at work.
Now the customers prefer to sit at the tables, and Yang's 15 to 20 sushi chefs are making sushi for supermarkets, hospitals, rock concerts and baseball games. Yang also teaches cooking classes on how to make sushi at home.
Sushi has become almost as common as a chicken wrap sandwich. Along the way, Americans have changed it, adapting it to their tastes, melding it with other cuisines.
The California roll started it all in the 1970s, when a chef used crab meat and avocado to appease those put off by the idea of eating raw fish. In recent years, the Philadelphia roll emerged, with smoked salmon and cream cheese. Russell Svoboda, chef at the Turf Valley Country Club in Ellicott City and the instructor for the class at A Cook's Table, likes sushi with Southwestern influences, mixing in chile peppers, for example. Sutton Place Gourmet even sells a chicken sushi (the meat is cooked).
Svoboda said when he started teaching sushi-making about seven years ago, he was surprised at how quickly the students learned. After a couple of hours, he said, they would be able to make basic maki rolls and hand-formed nigiri that could be served in a restaurant.
What he can't do, he says, is teach the students to make sushi his Japanese father-in-law would eat.
"He is very traditional," Svoboda said.
To the Japanese, sushi is more than a quick fish sandwich. Sushi evolved in Japan centuries ago as a way to preserve fish and has become an art form.
In Japan, a sushi chef might study a year just to learn to cook the rice and another year studying how to cook the vegetables. It would take several years to learn how to season the sushi and the proper techniques for making it.
A real sushi master, Yang said, understands the seasonal flavors of the fish and knows his customers and their tastes.
While sushi is revered in Japan, it is also commonplace, said Kimiko Barber, co-author of a new book on sushi making, Sushi Taste and Technique (DK Publishing, 2002, $20).
Japanese frequently take sushi on picnics to see the cherry blossoms, she said. It's in ballparks, subway stations and casinos.
"It's fast food, it's very, very healthy. You can eat a lot of sushi before you get fat," she said.
The simplest form is scattered or chirashi zushi, basically a bowl of rice with fish, seafood or marinated beef on top. In Japan, she said, "Any housewife can do it."
More difficult are the rolled maki zushi, in which the nori or pressed seaweed is rolled around rice and raw fish, eel, shrimp or vegetables. This is a kind the Japanese usually leave to the masters.
Yet in Svoboda's class, the students take on the task with gusto.
"I assure you, when everyone leaves here this evening, they'll be producing beautiful sushi rolls," Svoboda told his class.
Svoboda said the secret to successful sushi is finding fresh ingredients, which is not difficult in Baltimore. A number of Asian markets sell the sheets of nori seaweed, pickled ginger, sushi rice, fish roe, even the little plastic pieces of green grass that decorate the sushi trays in supermarkets.
He advises his students to inspect the fish carefully to make sure it is fresh. It shouldn't be soft and shouldn't smell. He tells them they should use the fish within a day of purchasing it.