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Sushi For Western Tastebuds

Also for a small budget, limited supplies, and no idea what you're doing...

I love sushi, maki sushi, sashimi, all of it. However, no one can afford to eat good sushi in a reputable restaurant all the time, so I tried to learn how to make it myself. Unfortunately, most of the instructions I could find were in the wrong language, or assumed that I already knew what I was doing. Since I was too embarassed to ask anyone how it was done, I had to cobble together recipies from pictures, and what I ate at restaurants. What I make tastes good, and is *technically* sushi, but it would probably make a real chef faint.

The only necessary ingredients are short-grain rice, rice vinegar, and sugar, since the word "sushi" referrs to the vinegared rice. You must use short-grain rice instead of regular long rice, because only short rice sticks well enough to pick up with chopsticks.

To cook the rice without a real rice cooker, simply rinse one cup of rice in warm water four or five times, until the water runs clear. Place the washed rice in a medium saucepan and add enough clean water to cover the rice with an extra inch standing. Usually about 1 1/2-2 cups will do it.

Bring to a full boil and let cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally. Lower heat to just barely warm, or totally remove from heat, and cover tightly. Let sit for 18-20 minutes. This "steams" the rice.

Mix 1/2 c warm rice vinegar with 1 tbsp sugar and 1 tsp salt. Transfer the steamed rice to a large plastic bowl with a wooden or plastic spatula. Gently mix the vinegar with the rice, using a chop/fold method, rather than stirring, which will crush the rice into nasty-looking mush. Try to lightly coat each grain of rice, and fan the bowl with your free hand while mixing to cool faster. The quicker the rice cools, the smoother and shinier it will be. If you've cooked your rice properly, it should be clumping together and very sticky.

Now you have sushi. The easiest way to serve sushi would be to pack the rice into a bowl, and add fish, veggies, sesame seeds and bits of nori to the top. This is called loose sushi. What we Westerners are used to is maki sushi, rolled sushi. For this, you need nori, which is flat toasted seaweed. It comes in all forms, but you need flat sheets, rather than small strips or little flakes.

You also need a rolling mat, or even a forming box. The rolls are *much* easier to make, and the rolling mats are usually cheaper, costing about a dollar. They look like little placemats, with many little strips of bamboo tied closely together.

To keep your mat and workspace clean, and for easier storage, place a piece of plastic wrap over the mat, a little larger than the piece of nori. Place the shiny side of the nori down, facing the counter. This will be the outer surface. Most brands of nori have little lines cut on the outside, this is where you will later cut for the small rolls. Make sure you've placed the sheet so the lines run vertically.

This is the hard part...when you put the rice on the nori, it will stick and pucker like mad. You don't want to cover the whole sheet, just 3/4 of it. Leave a margin of plain nori at the top and bottom, about 1" deep. Try to spread the rice evenly, and thinly... you want a layer about one grain thick. Ideally, you'll have a single piece of rice touching eight other pieces of rice. Think of bubble wrap, only jammed closer together. This will take a *lot* of practice, so if you manage to get roughly the right dimensions without tearing the nori, count it a victory.

If you're using sesame seeds, sprinkle them over the rice at this point. Don't use too many, or the rice won't stick to itself when you roll it.

Now, the stuffing. This can be anything, but the most popular type I serve is tuna, cream cheese, and cucumber. Take an ordinary can of tuna and mix it with plain mayonnaise, about 2 tbsp. Lay a thin strip of the tuna in the middle of the rice, in a horizontal stripe about 1/2" thick reaching both sides of the nori. Take a stip of cream cheese in the same dimensions, and lay it just above the tuna. Wash and peel a cucumber, then slice it in half down the middle, and again lengthwise. Use a spoon to de-seed it, and cut legthwise into small strips. Lay enough strips just below the tuna to approximate the dimensions of both the tuna and cream cheese.

Now, another hard part! Rolling the maki sushi also takes a bit of practice, so your first attempt will be pathetic. Grasp the plastic wrap and the nori on the side closest to you, and use any free fingers to grab the rolling mat. Gently lift the nori/plastic wrap and tuck just the nori under right above the stuffing. Shift your hold on this contraption until you're holding the plastic wrap and the rolling mat in the same fingers, and the nori by itself in your other fingers. Gently roll everything until the nori in your fingers is touching rice, and you're sure of a decent contact. Then place the plastic wrap over the curve... you want the plastic to roll with the nori, but you don't want it to curve all the way into the sushi roll. You'll be taking the plastic off later, and you don't want your hard work to unroll with it.

If you've ever rolled a cigarette, this next part is already familliar. If you haven't... take pictures of the finished mess and let me see it.

Roll/fold the rolling mat over the sushi, and pull the top of the mat forward, away from you. Try to keep an even pressure on the entire roll of nori. Make sure the sushi is rolling forward in a small circle, don't squash it flat! When you reach the end of the mat, carefully flip it so that the free end is away from you, and continue rolling in the same direction. When you have a tight roll, take the wrapped maki sushi and place it on a flat plate in the fridge. Tadaa! Leave the roll undisturbed for at least 20 minutes... this gives the nori time to absorb the moisture in the rice and become flexible. Since you aren't using raw fish, you don't have to worry about it going bad quickly, but you should serve your maki sushi within 10-12 hours for the best taste and texture.

When you're ready to serve, carefully remove the plastic wrap and use a damp knife to slice into 1/2"-1" rolls. Gently place on a serving plate with the stuffing showing on top. In small, separate bowls serve soy sauce and wasabi.

Wasabi is a hot horseradish sauce, most often seen as a green paste. Only a tiny bit should be used! The paste does go bad after a month or so, so your best bet would be to purchase a small tin of wasabi powder. Just mix the powder with a small amount of water, and you're set. The powder lasts forever.

Sashimi is the raw fish, served on sushi rice with a tiny amount of wasabi. Most Westerners gag at the thought of raw fish, but it's really a wonderful flavor and texture. I personally don't make it, because I don't live near a source of high quality fresh fish. I'd have to drive two hours to get salmon under a week old.

If you do want to try it, it's very simple. Thinly slice your fish and mold it to a small square of sushi rice that has a tiny bead of wasabi imbedded in the center. Tadaa!

If you're nervous about raw fish, you can gently steam it for a few minutes... cooked fish doesn't have the same delicate flavor and texture, so be careful not to over cook.

So that's sushi 101! Here's a quick recipe recap, and some ingredient and serving suggestions.

1 c short-grain rice
2 c water
1/2 c rice vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt

Wash the rice 4-5 times, then add 2 c water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a full boil and let cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and cover tightly 18-20 minutes.
Mix sugar, salt, and warm vinegar, and set aside. Transfer steamed rice to a plastic bowl and use a plastic or wooden spatula to mix rice. Remember to use a chop/fold motion, rather than stirring! Slowly introduce the sushi vinegar to the rice, coating each grain with the mixture, while fanning rice to cool. Set aside.

Tuna from a can, mixed with mayo, is a favorite with my friends. Cucumber, lightly steamed carrots, avocado, celery, radish, and bell peppers are also popular. Thinly slice all veggies, and lightly steam any hard ingredients before rolling. Remember to use a little salt when you steam them, to bring out the sweetness in the veggies. Shock them in cold water to prevent mushiness.
Cream cheese is a good filler item, and watercress is fantastic with the cucumber. You can use crab meat, steamed fish of any type, salmon roe, sea urchin roe, octopus... pretty much anything from the ocean will taste good in sushi.

Three rolls of maki sushi will feed about two people, so if you're having a party make sure to have plenty on hand. It takes me about an hour to set up and get the ingredients ready, and about ten minutes to roll each log. This is not a quick party item! It also makes a terrible mess, so try to plan ahead for cleaning up. Also keep in mind your guests' appetites... in my group, twelve rolls for seven people are gone in no time. I usually try to make at least twenty rolls, so there's plenty for the nibblers.

No matter how good your sushi is, just one food item is boring. You can also serve miso soup for starters, ginger chicken and potato kebabs for variety (and the squeamish,) and sweetened onigiri for dessert. I'll be putting up recipies and instructions soon.

Remember to keep all of your equipment clean! Especially if you're working with raw fish. Wash your hands, sanitize everything. Your bamboo roller mat can't be soaked in water, or be sponged off with chemicals...it'll soak right in. Always use the plastic wrap, and if you aren't sure it's clean, don't use it for food. Mark it, and recycle it as a placemat after bleaching it. Good thing they're only a dollar.