JOPLIN, Mo. —
It's been years and thousands of miles in the making, but Hein Han has finally made his dream come true. Han has opened his own sushi shop in a storefront at 1901 E. 32nd St. The grand opening for Han the Sushi Man was on Monday.
"This has been my dream. I wanted my own sushi business," he said. "I really appreciate my customers who have stayed with me. I could not do this without them."
Han is best known for his recent work as the sushi preparer for Price Cutter grocery store at 1850 S. Maiden Lane. He started there in 2005, but his journey to Joplin began in 2001 when he fled his homeland of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Dawn Sticklen, a member of the Joplin Board of Education and one of Han's longtime customers, said, "He was a student in Burma when there was an uprising, and he was arrested for protesting.
"He was told by his family to not do that again or they will kill you," she said. "They told him: 'You have to leave the country.'"
Han sought political asylum and eventually found his way to California. When he arrived in the San Jose area, Han said he only had $38 in his pocket. He eventually was offered a job rolling sushi. He perfected his skills in California and continued his craft in Oklahoma City, Chicago and Detroit before arriving in Joplin and taking the job at Price Cutter.
Said Sticklen: "When he told us his story, we were just amazed. He started with nothing and now has his own business. This is the American dream."
A week ago today, Han and his wife, Hollee, whom he met at Price Cutter after she asked him out on a date, staged a soft opening for about 35 friends, including Sticklen, and family members. The staff wore T-shirts that said: "Just roll with it."
"It took us two months to prepare the restaurant. It's so amazing. I can't believe we are opening," Hollee Han said. She helped transform the interior of the former office space into a brightly lit and colorful restaurant that can seat about 35 people. They live in Carl Junction with their son, Ivyn, age 2.
For the soft opening, Han, assisted by experienced sushi chef Sam Giarratano, served a spicy tuna roll that featured fish eggs, ground tuna and Sriracha chili sauce, among other ingredients. Using specific knives for specific tasks, the ingredients were precisely cut and mixed to place on a thin bed of rice that is rolled.
Sriracha is a type of hot sauce made from the paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. It is named after the coastal city of Si Racha in Eastern Thailand. Within the United States, Sriracha sauce is most commonly associated with the version produced by Huy Fong Foods, commonly known as rooster sauce.
Said Giarratano: "The short-grain rice is the most important part of sushi."
Han concurs with that assessment in that the common ingredient across all types of sushi is vinegared sushi rice.
"The rice is the No. 1 thing. It does not matter how you flavor it. If the rice is not good -- not cooked enough or overcooked -- it won't be good," said Han.
"The other thing is to use the freshest ingredients possible in terms of the flavoring. That would be the cucumber, avocado, carrot, seafood and other ingredients."
The black seaweed wrappers used in making sushi are called nori. Nori is a type of algae, traditionally cultivated in the harbors of Japan.
Sushi is typically eaten with soy sauce. It is usually flavored with wasabi, a paste made from the grated root of the Wasabia japonica plant. It's sometimes called Japanese horseradish sauce.
Han said he hopes to have 22 sushi choices available as well as soup and salad. Domestic beer will be offered after a liquor license is obtained. The restaurant has a take-out counter and will eventually offer catering.
"I no longer have to do what someone tells me to do. I'm independent now and have more freedom to make whatever kind of sushi I want," Han said. "That's why having my own sushi shop is like a dream come true."
Raw fish and rice, the main ingredients of traditional sushi, are naturally low in fat and high in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Vegetables wrapped within the sushi offer various vitamins and minerals. Many of the seafood ingredients also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to have health benefits.