Dispensing Happiness

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Borrowing from my friend Dexygus, I've created my own food blog.

Read of my exploits in the kitchen! Salivate over the descriptions of fabulous desserts and savory meals I've concocted!

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Friday, July 29, 2005

So You've Decided To Make Your Own Sushi: Another Guide to a Ferrin Cuisine


Answering questions about sushi, Matt returns as a guest 'poster'.

And for descriptive photos, see a previous post

Like most Japanese food, sushi is intimidatingly attractive, and it doesn't
help to know that a sushi chef has to serve at least a ten year
apprenticeship before they'll let him start cooking (had to, anyway;
explosive global demand for sushi chefs has seriously eroded standards).
To be sure, sushi-making rewards practice, but it is readily achievable by
the home chef. And if you want to get good at it, you may as well start
now. History lesson first, though.

If you've decided to make sushi, you probably already know that it's not
just raw fish. If you're serving sushi to people already uncomfortable
about the prospect of raw fish (no matter how many times you tell them that
it's not just raw fish), it might be best not to tell them where sushi
comes from: not just raw fish, but *fermented* raw fish. The history of
sushi (the prehistoric roots of which lie in Southeast Asia, not Japan)
starts in fish preserved and fermented packed in rice. Whereas most people
who had made it on the mainland only ate the fish, the Japanese liked to
eat the rice as well. They apparently liked it a lot, but it took a long
time to prepare, what with the months the fermentation process needed.
Then some bright boy realized that the flavor could be reproduced much more
quickly by simply using fresh fish and adding vinegar to the rice. By the
early 19th century, sushi had evolved into the familiar nigiri form (a
finger-sized bed of hand-packed rice topped by a flavorful tidbit) in
Tokyo. Influential Tokyo sushi chefs were heavy on the raw seafood, but
cooked seafood and vegetables have been used for centuries, and pre-nigiri
forms of sushi still exist, even though they're less common these days.
Consequently, sushi might be best described as yummy stuff on
vinegar-seasoned rice, perhaps with a seaweed wrapper. Try explaining it
to your squeamish guests like that. They won't believe you, but it'll at
least lay the groundwork.

To make sushi, you need four things which you may have to look for a bit
but which are probably available in any mid-sized city. We can find most
of these at a nearby well-stocked but non-specialist grocery store in our
benighted town, but if you live in a small town and have to make a trip
into the big city to find a specialized Asian grocery, do so. You can pick
up a number of not-necessary-but-terribly-nifty things while you're there
as well. I love those Indonesian ginger candies.

First, there's the rice. You want a plump-looking, medium-grain rice. An
Asian manufacturer isn't a guarantee of quality, but it sure doesn't hurt.
You do *not* have to buy something specifically labeled as sushi rice.
Chances are, it's vastly overpriced and not a strain of rice which is
uniquely well-suited for sushi. We get perfectly satisfactory results from
Nishiki brand, a fairly unremarkable Calrose rice. Sometimes we use it for
sushi, sometimes, cooked differently, just for plain rice to accompany
other east Asian dishes. Long-grain rices like jasmine or basmati are not
suitable. Arborio and other risotto rices are the right shape, but because
of the thick starchy coat that makes them so good for risotto, they're
wrong for sushi. If you use Uncle Ben's or some other "converted" or
otherwise quick-cooking rice for sushi, trained ninja will sneak into your
house at night and kill you horribly, so don't even try it.

Second, there's the vinegar. In particular, you want an unseasoned rice
wine vinegar; you'll handle the seasoning yourself. Do not attempt to
substitute red wine, cider, sherry, or balsamic vinegar. That's just

Third, there's nori, or seaweed. Or rather, the kind of seaweed
appropriate for sushi. Seaweed is available in a dizzying array of types,
but sushi nori is an order of magnitude more available than any other kind
in this country. You're looking for a pack of square sheets of seaweed
about eight or nine inches on a side, black or deep, dark green.

Fourth, you'll need a rolling mat. A sushi rolling mat looks something
like a small placemat or window shade made of thin bamboo sticks held
together by string. Modern sushi chefs often cover theirs with plastic
wrap to make sure nothing gets it dirty, but the bamboo mat needs to be
under there somewhere.

That's what you *must* get. There are a few other things that you *should*
get. First on the list is wasabi, the pale green paste which doubles as a
condiment and an incendiary. You can find this ready-made in a squeeze
tube or in powdered form in small round containers. Just add water! Next
is gari, pickled ginger. It's usually dyed pink and is sold in small clear
plastic jars, sometimes near the produce section. And there's aburage
(ah-boo-RA-gay), occasionally also labeled inarizushi-no-moto, inariage or
usuage. Aburage is thin sheets of tofu which have been deep-fried. Like
pita and pooris, the high-temperature cooking process makes the external
faces pull apart, creating a pocket in the middle. It can usually be found
canned in Asian stores. Got those? Good. You might want to grab some
edamame from the freezer section (soy beans, traditionally cooked in the
pod and eaten on the side at sushi bars like peanuts) and miso from the
refrigerator case (for soup), and you can look at those lovely sushi dishes
in the aisle at the back, but when you're done with that, check out and
head back to the kitchen.

Well, not quite yet. We should consider what to put on or in the sushi as
well. If you already know what you want, skip on to the next section. If
you're not sure, read on: I can't speak with great authority about making
sushi with fish. Stephanie is the big sushi fan in the house, so I mostly
make it to vegetarian specifications, with the occasional indulgence of
smoked salmon for me. All I can tell you is to get absolutely fresh
saltwater fish (freshwater fish are risky; don't make sushi from something
you caught in a lake or river) from an iron-clad reputable fishmonger and
use it that same day. Yesterday's fish will not do. The deal is that the
interior of a piece of meat is relatively sterile; the outside of a piece
of meat is where unpleasant microorganisms gain a foothold. If you get a
fresh chunk of fish (that is, one where the current outside surfaces have
recently been exposed), cut it up, and use it quickly, there's not enough
time for anything microbially questionable to establish itself.

If you're a vegetarian, or you're just not comfortable with raw fish, don't
despair. There are any number of things you can have: cucumber (you'll
probably want to peel it), avocado, shredded carrot (try soaking it in a
vinegar solution for a while to soften it), lightly steamed asparagus,
lightly steamed green beans, tamago (a sweetened omelette; we'll explain
later), mushroom (probably a large one like shitaake or portobello),
pickled daikon if you can make or get it, and pretty much anything else you
can put in or on a bit of rice. Something I occasionally do is chop some
walnuts, mix in enough Chinese plum paste to make it stick together, and
use that as a filling for maki. OK, go back into the Asian store, ask for
a tamago pan, and *then* go to the kitchen.

Actual Cooking

In advance of starting on the sushi, you'll want to prepare the vinegar.
Mix at least two tablespoons of vinegar, one tablespoon of sugar, and one
teaspoon of salt. Put over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the
salt and sugar dissolve, but do not bring to a boil. Let cool completely
before using. You'll only use it a few tablespoons at a time, so if you're
smart, which we never are, you'll make a large quantity and keep it in the
fridge. You might also experiment with the level of sugar and salt. Sushi
vinegar is sweetest in the south of Japan, becoming less so as you head
north. In Korea, it's pure vinegar.

Now it's time to start on the rice. Wash the rice until the water runs
relatively clear; it's unlikely to become completely clear, but it will
become noticeably clearer. We put it in a wire colander and run water over
it, shaking the colander occasionally, but if you've got a preferred method
of washing rice, use it. Westerners, who are subjected to dire warnings
about how they shouldn't wash the added vitamins off of their enriched
rice, aren't used to this standard step in Asian cooking, but every bit of
starch you can wash off the rice grains at this stage helps. Let it drain
for a half hour before cooking.

The cooking process is more involved process than normal rice-making. One
of the most important things to know about making sushi rice is that it
doesn't take very much water at all. In general, Westerners are advised to
use far more water in their rice than they should, but this is an extreme
case. For every cup of rice, use about a cup of water.

If you're cooking the rice on the stovetop, put the rice and water in a
pot, cover tightly (we usually cover the pot with a kitchen towel then put
the lid on top of that), bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a minimum and
let cook for fifteen minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, still
covered, for at least fifteen minutes.

If you're using a rice cooker, cook as you usually would. Put it the rice
and water in, turn it on, and come back when it's done. Nice, those rice
cookers. Again, let it cool, still covered, for at least fifteen minutes.

When the rice has cooled a bit, uncover and drizzle with one tablespoon of
seasoned vinegar per cup of uncooked rice and mix it with a
cutting-and-folding motion until the vinegar seems well-distributed and
there are no apparent dense clumps of rice. Wooden spatulas are excellent
for this. The object is essentially to toss the rice with the vinegar
rather than mash or stir it. You want the grains as loose and separated as
is possible for something which is inherently sticky and dense. If
possible, fan the rice while stirring until it's no longer too hot to
handle. The rice should still be warm while you're forming the sushi, and
you want to finish before it reaches room temperature.

Now comes the real challenge: forming the sushi. You'll need a small bowl
of very dilute vinegar (say, a cup of water and a tablespoon or three of
vinegar) to moisten your hands with. Touching the rice with wet fingers
will keep it from sticking to you. The paradox is that you'll need to
subject the rice to a certain amount of handling in order to get it formed,
but you also want to minimize how much you touch it. More touching means
more wetting your hands and more water getting into the rice, which is bad.
If you touch it too much, you'll get the rice soggy (so it won't hold
together as well) and if there's seaweed, it'll get damp and very chewy,
which is worse. A lot of what you'll pick up with practice is the knack of
forming the rice with minimal contact.

We'll talk about two forms here: nigiri (a finger-sized platform of rice
with something on it) and maki (seaweed and rice, rolled up around a
filling and cut into sections). There are many others (hand rolls,
scattered sushi, pressed sushi, "gunboat" sushi), but these two are the
dominant forms.


The goal with forming the rice here is to get a dense oval or rectangle on
which you can put your fish, vegetables, or what-have you. I usually get
the fingers of one hand and the palm of the other wet for this. Using your
damp fingers, pinch off a large walnut-sized bit of rice and put it into
your wet palm. Squeeze firmly with your palm, getting the bottom and sides
and press in the ends and top with the fingers of the other hand to pack it
all together. You can stroke the top of the rice with a bit of wasabi if
you're so inclined. If not, feel free to skip it. Put a piece of
fish/vegetable/whatever on it large enough to overhang the edges and press
down a bit in hopes of making it stick.

Again, if you're so inclined, you can put a nori "belt" on it. Before you
start forming the sushi, cut a sheet of nori in half, then cut strips out
of a half-sheet the short way. When you've assembled your nigiri, wrap a
piece of nori around the middle. Try to wrap it so that the exposed end of
the belt ends up on the underside.

Our favorite nigiri is tamago (told you we'd come back to it), a standard
in sushi shops and the ideal sushi for the faint of heart. Tamago is
technically an omelette, in that it's an egg dish which involves cooking
and folding. However, rather than being a sort of folded-over stuffed
pancake, it's a solid slab of egg. You'll want special equipment for this:
a tamago pan, a rectangular pan about four by eight inches used
specifically for this purpose. You can make it somewhat clumsily in a
round frying pan, but you may need to trim the edges off. Whisk together
four eggs, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of mirin (rice wine for
cooking; dashi is traditional, but Stephanie can't have the fish stock),
and a teaspoon of soy sauce. Put the pan over medium heat and oil it. An
oiled brush is traditional, but these days we use cooking sprays like Pam.
Pour a thin layer of the egg mixture into the pan, just enough to cover the
bottom, and wait until it sets (it just has to set, not completely cook
through). Using a spatula or two, roll the layer up towards one end of the
pan. Lifting the roll up slightly, pour another layer of egg into the pan
(re-oil first if you need to), and set the roll back down. When this layer
sets, roll in the opposite direction, building up another layer around the
original roll. Repeat until you're out of egg mixture. Roll the slab of
egg up tightly in a kitchen towel and place under a weight (say, a saucepan
full of water or a cast iron frying pan) for about a half hour. You can
then slice it and use it for nigiri.


This is what you'll need the rolling mat for. Place a sheet of nori on the
rolling mat with one edge of the sheet at the edge of the mat closest to
you; we'll call that the bottom of the sheet, with the opposite edge being
the top. You can either use a whole sheet of nori, or cut it in half into
a rectangle with one of the long edges at the bottom (this is a little more
difficult, so you might want to wait until you've got bigger rolls down).
Working as quickly as possible, take a golf-ball sized lump of rice and,
trying to squeeze it into a flat sheet as you go, distribute it across the
nori, working from left to right or right to left, but never top to bottom
or bottom to top, leaving a small margin of nori at the top (say, a
centimeter or so) free of rice. Try to cover as much area as you can
quickly and efficiently with the rice, but don't waste time trying to make
it perfect. You can come back to fill in gaps, flatten bits that stick up,
or get more rice if you have to.

Start placing your chosen filling across the rice, about a quarter of the
way up the sheet. For maki, they should be sliced into long, thing strips.
If you're using a half-sheet, you may not be able to fit more than one
strip in the roll, but you can fit several times as much in a full-sheet
roll. You may even want to combine things. Say, avocado and cucumber.

Lift the edge of the mat closest to you and use that to roll up the sheet
of nori. Make sure the edge of the sheet of nori gets tucked under as you
go, making a roll rather than just a doubled-up sheet of nori with rice in
the middle; you may need to use your fingers a bit, even though the rolling
mat is doing most of the work. As you roll, the margin of nori you left at
the top, now the inside of your roll, will make contact with the outside of
the sheet of nori being rolled. That's the seam which holds it together.
Make sure the seam is on the bottom and press down gently but firmly on the
rolling mat and hold for a few seconds to seal it together. You shouldn't
need to moisten it to make it stick; if it appears not be sealed, you can
press again until it is.

Now you can cut the roll. Although most people recommend a very sharp
regular knife, I find that a really good serrated knife works very well for
this. Start by cutting the roll in half. Do not saw back and forth. I
find that if I exert a gentle downward pressure on the forward cut, just
enough to keep the knife moving through the nori and letting the sharpness
of the blade do most of the work, and no pressure at all when I draw back,
I get a nice, clean cut. The guiding principle is that you want to press
down as little as possible to avoid deforming the roll. When you get to
the bottom of the roll and there's nothing left but the double-thickness of
nori, you may have to press a bit harder to finish the cut. At that point,
you may even want to give the edge of the blade a firm whack. Cut the
remaining pieces into thirds or quarters in the same way. You may need to
wash the blade after each cut to remove sticky bits of rice which will
accumulate on it. If the finished pieces aren't as round as you'd like
them, it is possible to reshape them a bit by hand.


OK, three styles of sushi, though this hardly counts. Inari is made with
the aburage you got at the Asian grocery (you did get it, didn't you?).
Each piece of aburage has an open end. Tease it completely open, pick up
some rice with wet fingertips, and stuff it into the wrapper. Wasn't that
easy? Leftover aburage can be wrapped up and frozen until the next time
you make sushi.

Presentation and Consumption

Once you've made the sushi, arrange it attractively on plates of pleasing
shape, size, and color. Don't feel constrained to make sure all the dishes
match. The Japanese rarely work that way, so why should you? Everyone at
the table should have a tiny bowl for soy sauce, a small plate with a
dollop of wasabi and a small pile of slices of pickled ginger, and, if
people know how to use them, chopsticks. If you've got the time, it all
goes well with miso soup, some boiled edamame, and green tea. Those
subjects are relatively free of mystery, so we won't presume to tell you
what to do about those.

Now that you've got the sushi to the table, accompanied by little dishes of
soy sauce, little dabs of wasabi, and little piles of pickled ginger, it's
time to dig in, right? Not so fast. It turns out that there's an art to
this as well. First off, some things *not* to do: Do not mix your wasabi
into the soy sauce. And do not put ginger directly on your sushi. If at
all possible (and you'll need at least rudimentary chopstick skills for
this), do this:

Poke a chopstick into the wasabi to get a little dab on the end.
Pick up a piece of sushi with your chopsticks.
Dip the sushi in the soy sauce. When dealing with nigiri, there's some
controversy as to exactly what to dip into the soy sauce. One camp says to
dip the rice into the soy sauce, because it will overwhelm the flavor of
the fish/egg/vegetable/whatever if you dip that part. The other camp says
to dip the fish/egg/vegetable/whatever, because the rice will soak up too
much soy sauce. I'm in the rice-dipping faction, but you'll have to try
this for yourself.
Pop the sushi in your mouth, making sure you get the wasabi as well.
Once you've eaten the sushi, have a piece of ginger to clear your palate
and move on to a different kind of sushi.

It may sound a little laborious, and I don't think anyone would figure it
out on their own, but when I was instructed in this method, I found that it
notably improved the experience. The flavors remain distinct but harmonize
well with one another.

Sushi is best eaten when fresh. Raw fish will go bad and nori will get
soggy and chewy if you let it sit. If it looks like you may not finish
everything, try to finish off the fish varieties and the maki. Tamago
nigiri and inari can withstand staying in the fridge overnight

6 Thoughts for food:

At 11:25 PM, Blogger Clare Eats said...

YUM! Who doesn't love Sushi!!!!!

Great practical guide Matt :)

At 11:38 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

My thoughts exactly, Clare Eats!

Actually, until I moved from my small-town in western PA to CA, I'd never even seen sushi. And when Matt tried to talk me into trying it...let's just say he met with a certain amount of resistance!

He finally won me over by just bringing home a small box of cucumber maki from a rather upscale grocery store near where we lived; actual Japanese making sushi in a mini shop.

Even then, it took some convincing to get me to eat it (!)...my initial opposition was: I barely ate fish before I became a vegetarian; why would I want to eat it now...and RAW?
He finally got it through my head that raw fish does not equal sushi.
I tried one kappa maki, but didn't make up my mind about till the next day. When I was certain it wasn't going to bite me, or anything, Matt took me to one of my favorite restaurants in the whole world, Isobune (actually the Oakland location), where I quickly became a devotee of sushi.
Thank goodness Matt was patient with me; I hate to think I'd still be missing out on such a wonderful food!

At 12:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Such a great write up - thanks!

At 12:06 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

You're welcome, Joe!

Matt will always be an academic, no matter what his career. Research and descriptive writing are second nature to him.

I'm trying to convince him to do this more often, so if anyone has questions, let us know!

At 12:35 PM, Anonymous joey said...

I've been loving sushi since I was a kid, the first I ever tried was tekkamaki (raw tuna roll), and many years and sushi-varieties later I am still a devoted fan. Thanks for a great and informative post!

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Welcome, Joey!

Nice to have another sushi-fan on board. And happy to share my husband's knowledge with someone else!


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