The nori was flying in my kitchen the last three days, as students patted sticky rice, sliced raw salmon and julienned perfect avocados. It was “Sushi Madness” time in Boquete, Panama, an unlikely place for sushi artists to gather.

Bistro Boquete’s Executive Chef, Lauretta Bonfiglio, has lots of experience in making fancy, one-of-a-kind sushi rolls and she shared her skills with 35 eager students ready to try their hand at it.

Most of the fresh ingredients came from local Boquete markets. Specialty items such as the nori seaweed, bamboo shoots and straw mushrooms were easily found in David at Casa Lisa’s Oriental Market, just past the old vegetable market in the David town center.

Each student was greeted with a taste of plum wine, a handmade sushi stand for presentation, rolling bamboo mat, chop sticks and a finger bowl of rice vinegar and water. A tiny dish of soy sauce, the essence of Japanese cuisine, pickled ginger root and miniature “volcano” of wasabi, Japanese horseradish, made each setting complete. The sticky rice was indeed sticky and ready to roll.

Sushi Rice

3 3/4 cups Japanese rice, such as Nishiki (or 5 rice maker cups)
3 3/4 cups water (or 5 rice maker cups)
1/2 cup rice vinegar
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, add rice and cover with lots of water. Stir rice in water with your hands, then pour off most of the water, and agitate 10 to 15 times by quickly moving your hand back and forth, swishing rice against side of bowl. Rinse the rice several more times, until the water that drains off of the rice is almost clear. Transfer the rice to a colander and let drain for 15 minutes, undisturbed. Transfer the rice to a rice cooker, add the water, cover, and cook as per manufacturer’s directions.

While the rice is cooking, bring rice vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan, add sugar and salt and stir until dissolved. Allow to cool to room temperature.

When rice is done, transfer it to a large shallow glass dish (traditionally a wooden tub, called a hangiri), so it forms a mound in the center of the bowl. Using a diagonal slicing motion, gently cut into rice with a wooden paddle (called a kijakushi), and pour cooled vinegar mixture over top. “Cut” rice several times to evenly distribute vinegar mixture. Spread out rice in the shallow pan and allow to cool. Gently turn rice over from time to time with paddle so that it cools evenly. You might want to consider using a fan if time is of the essence. When rice has cooled to body temperature, it is ready to use for sushi rolls. Can you see my paddle standing up in our perfect sticky rice? Ready to roll!

Chef Lauretta demonstrated several sushi techniques, including a fresh salmon hand-formed nigiri sushi, a popular California roll and a cream cheese, wasabi and shrimp maki roll.

Then all at once, the “madness” began. Everyone carefully patted the flavored sushi rice on the crisp nori seaweed atop their bamboo mat and designed their rolls using a variety of color, texture and flavors. There were dozens of bowls of fresh ingredients from which to choose, including crab, shrimp, wafer-thin cucumber, spicy mayonnaise, toasted, white and black sesame seeds.

The creativity was infectious, as just the right combinations were rolled into perfect, gorgeous and delicious sushi, as you can see. A little saki helped to make the evening even more "authentic" Japanese. Thanks to David for hand-making a sushi stand for each student and to Lauretta for sharing the "essence of Japanese cuisine" with all of us.