Thursday, July 18, 2024

Tracy Chang teaches a sushi-making class at her restaurant Pagu in Cambridgeport. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Like sushi? Few don’t, and if you love it, what more could one want than a lesson in the art of its preparation from a James Beard Award-nominated chef? I’m not talking a YouTube instructional, mass Zoom or faraway seat among the sweating hordes with a jumbotron showing you the how-to. No, at Pagu, you get to get salty with owner, chef and overall good human Tracy Chang, who puts up no barriers to access and seems to cook up something new all the time, be it a tasty menu morsel, enterprise or community engagement.

Having given cooking and food science lectures at Harvard and MIT and taught at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and other area institutions, Chang decided to bring some of that in-house, where she could use her own kitchen and staff and have a warm, intimate engagement with those looking to learn.

Current classes are in sushi making and hand-pulling biang biang noodles, limited to the 15 or so kitchen bar seats that form Pagu’s gleaming open kitchen.. The sessions take place mostly from noon to 2:30 p.m.-ish on weekends and cost a bit north of $100. For that you get a pretty good deal: a brief, professional presentation on the history of sushi back to its salted-fish roots; hands-on instruction; a cocktail (the bar is open, and a friendly server glides in and out taking orders and fulfilling them seamlessly); and sushi, sushi, sushi that you eat as you make. There’s a take-home pamphlet with a summary of all the ingredients and sauce and an outline of the technique.

There are also snacks to start and finish off your session, first a rich bowl of salmon bone miso soup and savory, crisp black cod croquet – on the Pagu menu and in its market for pickup on the way home – to make sure you’re not “hangry,” as Chang puts it. A large miso sesame chocolate cookie caps the experience. (I can’t testify to it’s tastiness, as I took it home for my daughter, but it did disappear fast.) Like the coquettes, you can buy those cookies or the dough at the Pagu Market, as well as biang biang noodle kits and more.

The sushi-class setup at Pagu. (Photo: Tom Meek)

As a food writer and sometimes pot-rattler on the stove, I decided to try a class, but must say I did so with trepidation that I would be lost in the dust, bobbling a lean piece of slippery fish and dropping it on the floor. (At home you can be a kitchen klutz and no one will ever know – kinda). I’m a rabid fan of Pagu’s noodles, and thought that was my jam. But scheduling said sushi.

Chang, whose cuisine blends Japanese and Spanish styles and staples, knows her way around fish, rice and seaweed. She worked at the famous O Ya in Boston’s Leather District, where an omakase course is $300 without beverages or extras; her grandmother, who immigrated from Taiwan, ran Tokyo Restaurant out by Fresh Pond. (And her sushi chef now runs Sushi Kappo Toraya in Arlington, which may be the area’s greatest sushi dining experience for the dollar.)

There’s a tray of cut raw fish (salmon and tuna) and strip-sliced cucumber waiting when you arrive for a lesson that includes how to fold and tear nori (seaweed) wrappers, make two kinds of hand rolls (a tube and cone, which is not as easy as it looks), maki (sushi rolls with a bamboo mat) with rice inside and outside and, of course, the beloved nigiri with a slab of fish atop a bar of rice.

The author tries his hand at torching nigiri at a Pagu sushi class. (Photo: Tracy Chang)

How’d I do? It wasn’t as hard as I thought, but there were some real pros at the table. The woman next to me was a personal chef and caterer who’s been focusing on sushi for the past few years. Our nigiri pieces looked the same, but she did hers in half the time and didn’t have rice mittens as I did – I think I was the only one who had that problem, likely from a lack of finger dipping in water. The other thing that was a bit awkward was torching some of that nigiri, but Chang and her staff were there to help.

My big three takeaways from Chang: Never boil miso, “it takes away its aromatic qualities and texture”; use water on your sushi knife for each cut; and don’t saw. If you’re going to torch your fish, make sure it is marinated.

Class atmosphere was intense but festive. Alexa Plenge of Wellesley was back after taking the noodle-pulling class and hosting her own noodle-pulling party, saying the class “exceeded expectations.” Barry Schaudt of Inman Square, who cooks regularly and likes to expand his culinary palette, called the experience a memorable testament to Pagu’s “dedication to culinary excellence and education.”

Future classes will include lessons on bao (Chinese steamed bun) and gluten-free baking, Chang said. 

Chang, mother of two, is always coming up with ideas to engage the community. During the Covid pandemic she was part of the projects Off Their Plate, which fed frontline hospital workers when cafeterias shut down, and Project Restore Us, which provided culturally appropriate hunger-relief boxes to Asian communities suffering from food insecurity. She’s now looking to partner with a Lowell public school to help make the menu more healthy and culturally meaningful to its community. 

Pagu hosts a Lunar New Year brunch on Sunday that will include a lion line dance performance.

Pagu310 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridgeport, Cambridge