Melissa loves food and hospitality. Running Grain & Nori fulfils both these passions. Recently back from a trip to Japan, she is even more full of enthusiasm about sushi and Japanese traditions.
What kind of tea is this we’re drinking?
It’s green tea with toasted rice.
I love it.
How did you get into sushi?
That’s a good question. The opportunity to start up a sushi shop came up and I’ve always wanted to do something more with food. It was a good time to jump into it. Sushi being such a versatile food. The basis of sushi is rice and rice is so centric to lots of Asian cultures that a lot of flavours go well with it. It’s a gateway to experiment with flavours. Also it’s traditional. Rice looks simple but can be quite complicated in the ways you cook it. The traditional Japanese way is to take care and to perfect it.
Your background is…?
I was born in Singapore. Have you been to Singapore?
Only on the way to France.
It’s quite a melting pot of cultures. Growing up in Singapore I was exposed to a lot of different flavour profiles, I suppose you’d say. There are a lot of cultures, you’ve got Malay, Chinese, Western/European food. It’s a bit like Melbourne but even more so.
Have you always worked with food?
My background is actually science.
Well, the two sort of go together.
That’s what I enjoy about it. The science of cooking and why certain flavours go well together. Why does grandma do certain things, like mix things in a certain direction. There is science behind it. There’s a reason for these things. I enjoy learning about it. It can be scientific in terms of the chemical reactions and so on, but at the same time there’s a lot of intuition as well. Intuition coupled with knowledge is very interesting.
I went to a lecture at Melbourne Uni recently and it was about the senses and how we taste things in certain ways and how the colour of a cup can affect the way we perceive flavour and how heavy cutlery makes us feel as though we are eating better quality food. There are lots of cultural and other things that affect the way we eat.
Even the colour of the plate. Apparently blue plates can make us eat less because there are not a lot of foods that are naturally blue in colour so blue tends to be a colour that turns your appetite down. So if you want to lose weight… (laughs)
What sets your sushi apart? I feel as though you make a really big effort for it to be different to other sushi.
We saw a gap in the market. We saw that there was either the very high-end fine dining establishments or the other end of the spectrum, rather average and bland tasting sushi. There wasn’t really anything in between that was accessible to the general public. We do try to put out the best quality product we can. We use lots of very traditional methods of doing things. The way we cook the rice, the way we roll the sushi; it’s all hand-rolled. It doesn’t compress the rice as much so there’s a lot more air.
The way we have sushi here in Australia is quite different to Japan. It’s normally cut up. But I do find that when it’s in a roll, you get to take a bigger mouthful. So there is more flavour in there.
Do you use traditional flavours?
Yes. Raw fish, salmon. Traditional sushi has seafood. Japan is a strong seafood eating nation. The history of sushi came from the Japanese wanting to preserve the fish so they made fermented fish and wrapped it in rice to keep it fresher for longer.
Recently we were in Japan and we went to an old fishing town where they salt their fish to preserve it. They kind of half dry the fish and then salt it. They call that himono. They can keep it for a longer period. It’s interesting that they have become famous for that. It has become so much part of their culture.
Did you come back with new ideas from Japan?
I think even in Japan they are very open to experimenting with different styles. They do love Western culture and funnily enough they do a lot a lot of western influences into their food culture. They have Indian spices that they have incorporated into their Japanese curry, they have a whole genre of Italian food but with Japanese flavours, so pasta with salted cod roe that you wouldn’t find in Italy. Also the way they take something like a katsu, a pork cutlet, and put it in a bread sandwich. They have that as well as the more tradition style of putting it in onigiri, or rice balls. So we have taken some of those ideas for sushi ‘sandwiches’. We put a little crumbed chicken cutlet into a little sushi pocket.
What about your public? Do they have certain leanings towards particular flavours?
It can be quite varied. Chicken is very popular; crispy chicken or teriyaki chicken. A lot of children here these days start eating sushi at a much younger age and they are going for tuna and some even go for fresh salmon which is really surprising. Even wasabi!
Sushi can be what you want it to be. It can be really clean, so brown rice, fresh salmon or it can be loaded up with extra flavour, so mayo or with a fried product, so it has extra flavour and extra crunch. A lot of people miss the fact that rice is a big part of sushi. In Japan sometimes the rice is more important than the filling. We have tried to take on a little bit of that in our food. I hope our customers can taste the difference in our rice. The difference in the rice is the biggest thing I think.
What’s your favourite filling?
My favourite would be the tea prawn. We have a cooked prawn roll and we’ve put some tea into it with some spices. It’s a little bit different and I think it works really well. I like the subtle flavours of it.
The inside out rolls are quite popular these days too. When you bite into it the flavours hit your palate first rather than the seaweed.
How long have you been here in Hawthorn?
We’ve been here four years. I guess the most important part of hospitality is the people. Danny Colls at Hawthorn Common once said to me that hospitality is about building community. I see that more and more. I recognise people and know their names. I think that’s what food is about. It brings people together.
Grain & Nori
Shop 18 674-680 Glenferrie Road