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Why Making Sushi is Harder Than It Looks (insights from sushi class)

San Jose sushi class participants holding the plate of rolls
San Jose sushi class participants holding the plate of rolls

At first glance, making sushi seems straightforward. Take a California roll, for instance: spread sushi rice on seaweed, add fillings, roll, then cut into eight pieces. If you ever watched sushi chefs making it, it appears simple and easy, especially to those who haven't tried making sushi themselves.

However, anyone who's attempted sushi making knows it's far from easy. This realization often comes during our sushi classes, where many participants express newfound respect for sushi and its chefs after struggling with tasks as seemingly simple as spreading rice.

"Rice is going all over the place," "I put too much rice," or "My roll doesn’t look as good as yours, Kaz," are common refrains, echoing the nuanced challenge sushi making presents.

So, what makes sushi making challenging? Why does something that appear to be so easy for a sushi chef is in fact extremely difficult for the first timers?

As someone who's spent over two decades perfecting the craft, making tens of thousands of rolls, the difficulty wasn't initially clear to me. It took years of reflection to articulate the reasons, as my learning was deeply experiential, rooted in physical repetition.

And I finally came up with my explanation: Sushi making is fundamentally scientific.

Though culinary arts fall under liberal arts, the underlying principles are grounded in science: chemistry, physics, and crucially, mathematics.

Consider this: can you cook without understanding temperature? Or, can you precisely cut ingredients without grasping measurements and division? Do you know what does adding vinegar to rice does chemically? These knowledges are essential, and those proficient in these scientific areas likely have a better shot at crafting an aesthetically pleasing California roll.

Yet, knowledge alone isn't enough.

Just because you can calculate how long each piece of a California should be cut to make 8 pcs, that knowledge doesn't guarantee execution because knowing is different from understanding.

Knowing how to sharpen a knife at 15-degree angle doesn't mean you can do it well, similar to reading about driving a car differs from actual driving. Understanding comes only from physically doing it when it comes to sushi making.

Another aspect of sushi making is this: it’s all about precision. Sushi making is more about assembly than cooking. While some ingredients require cooking (like rice and shrimp), the essence of sushi making involves cutting and assembling these prepped components with precision. Unlike making a burrito or sandwich, sushi demands exact cuts and measured ingredient amounts for both taste and appearance.

A good example is “how much pressure to apply when cutting a roll?” (Hint: it’s the opposite of what you think.)

Consider the Tekka, a simple seaweed out roll with tuna inside, yet perfect harmony of seaweed, rice, fish, and wasabi. Achieving this balance requires an intimate understanding of how ingredients interact in the mouth and how their flavors and textures change when cut a certain way.

Mastery comes from hands-on practice and tasting, understanding what shape and how thick to cut the tuna, how much rice should be used, and how much pressure is needed to seal the roll. The true understanding of all these details that cannot be explained in the recipe are achieved through trial and error.

Beneath the surface of rolling sushi lies a complex interplay of scientific principles. To master sushi making, one must either grasp these scientific basics or learn them through practice. I had a scientific background before becoming a sushi chef but never realized I was applying it to sushi making until reflecting on teaching the craft.

This realization is why it took years to articulate these insights. Sushi is a meld of science and liberal arts, with science dominating the making process and liberal arts the dining experience. This explains why participants often leave our classes with a deeper appreciation for sushi, recognizing the scientific craftsmanship behind it.

If you're intrigued and wish to explore the scientific art of sushi making, consider joining one of our public classes in San Francisco, San Jose/Santa Clara, or inquire about corporate team-building or private sessions.


Sushi neta (ingredients) case from our sushi catering and sushi events
Sushi neta (ingredients) case from our sushi catering and sushi events

Breakthrough Sushi offers sushi classes and sushi catering in the San Francisco Bay Area using sustainable seafood.

If you like to inquire about your next corporate or private event, please send us an email to request a quote.

If you like to sign up for our scheduled public classes in San Francisco and San Jose (Santa Clara), please see the schedule here.

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