This is the simplest meal. It looks beautiful, and it will make you feel like a gourmet. In that sense it’s very Japanese: Very few ingredients + fresh flavours + not a lot of preparation time.
Of course, Japanese cooking assumes you understand how to cook Japanese food. It will take a bit more time to figure out the basic techniques. Sushi is only one very, very small portion of Japanese cooking, actually it’s kind of Japanese snack food. Sushi For Dummies is how I got started, which is a veritable fountain of knowledge on how to make, eat and enjoy sushi. It will also give you a little foray into Japanese culture, and as long as you don’t read it in public, you won’t feel too dumb. Then when people ask you where you learned to make sushi, you can either lie or tell them you’ll lend them the book…it’s less embarrassing that way AND they might just read it.
Anyway, sushi is all about the rice. It actually just means “vinegared rice” (as explained on page 1 of the book…), and how you prepare the rice will determine a large part of the success of your sushi. On the other hand, I’ve massacred the rice before and still ended up enjoying the sushi…just a little less. You can also skip certain steps with only a little bit of a decline in rice quality, if you notice at all, but then you’ll know you cheated and wonder how incredible your rice COULD have been. So:
1. Soak 2 cups of sushi rice in cold water. Carefully swirl it around with your hand until the rice is cloudy. Drain it, and soak it again in more cold water. Repeat this swirl, drain, soak pattern at least 5 times or until the rice water is clear. I do this now with most rice, not just sushi rice.
2. Add 2 cups cold water to the drained rice (Sushi rice is a short grain rice that becomes sticky when you cook it. Unlike most rice, you use equal parts water and rice in the cooking, not twice as much water.
3. LET IT SIT FOR 30 MINUTES. This is one of those steps I’m skeptical about, but the book swears it makes fluffier rice, so when I have time I do it. Books are published, and who am I to disagree with what I’m sure is one of the best-selling self-help series? Besides, Chapter 1 is called “Embarking on the Sushi Adventure”. How adorable is that?
4. Add a 3 inch square piece of dried kelp (dashi konbu) to the soaked rice, cover it, and set it over medium heat (or in a rice cooker. Oh I wish I had a rice cooker). You can also add a tbsp or two of sake, but I don’t see the point of buying cooking sake, and I would certainly drink it instead of using it to cook if I bought regular sake. the ONLY time I’ve ever used sake in sushi rice was when I had a little leftover sake sitting the fridge. How this happened, I don’t recall…
5. The rice cooking instructions are ridiculous in the book if you don’t use a rice cooker, but here’s the gist of it: Bring to a boil over medium heat. When it simmers, reduce heat to low and cook 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to its lowest point for 5 minutes. Turn up the heat for 7 seconds (wait, are we back in India??). Turn off the heat, remove from the burner, and let it sit 15 minutes. Never take off the lid while all this is going on. I’ve also cheated here by not waiting 15 minutes.
Normally I burn the rice…Sad, really. It’s gotten to the point where I expect it.
Anyway, after the 15 minutes you scrape whatever isn’t burnt into a dish, pour over a mixture of 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 1 tbsp of sugar and 1 1/2 tsp of salt that you prepare while the rice is cooking. Then slowly stir the rice (presumably with a wooden rice paddle) and fan it (assistance required) until no more steam rises from the dish and all the vinegar dressing has been distributed evenly. Then cover it with damp towels until you’re ready to use it.
Roasting sweet potatoes is the best thing in the world, I’m convinced. Slice them into matchsticks, toss them with a tbsp of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and stick them in a preheated oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit. My favourite way to do them is with a generous amount of cayenne pepper, but you can add almost any ground spice. Whole spices will burn or pop and make your oven sound like it’s exploding.
Anyway, wait 15 minutes, flip the sweet potatoes over and stick them back in for another 5 minutes or until they’re tender. The trick is now to only eat some of them or you won’t have any left for the sushi.
Making a good sushi omelet is tough, so I didn’t try that hard, knowing I would fail. I took half a teaspoon of sesame oil and heated it over medium heat. You want to use a fairly small skillet so the omelet is thick. sushi restaurants have a specific square pan for doing this and can make lots at one time, but you need a small pan and square doesn’t matter because it just gets stuffed inside a roll. Besides, it cute when little ends stick out the sides of the roll. You can tell people you did for aesthetic purposes…like what most artists say when something turns out well for the wrong reasons. Then I whisked a few eggs until they were light and fluffy. When the pan was hot I added the eggs, reduced the heat to medium low and let the egg cook until I thought it was solid (but not browned) on the bottom. Oops. I flipped it and cooked a little more. In sushi restaurants I’m not sure how they get the lines of something sweet and dark-coloured running through the eggs. You could pour the eggs in the skillet and then pour a thin stream of hoisin or sweet soy sauce through the omelet? You could also add mirin when you whisk the eggs, or regular sugar.
Then just cut the eggs into sizes to approximately match the sweet potato.
Rolling sushi is easier than you think. It’s just confusing when you see it written. When you see it done, it’s simple. So forgive my explanations: You make a dipping bowl of four parts water to one part vinegar (1/4 cup of water and 1 tbsp of vinegar) and place a sheet of nori (seaweed) in front of you on a bamboo sushi roller. Dip your hands in the vinegar/water and tap them on a clean towel. Then take a cup of rice and spread it over the bottom 2/3rds of the nori, all the way to the edges. The vinegar will keep the rice from sticking to your hands, so each time the rice starts to stick, dip your fingers again.
Take a few pieces of sweet potato, or egg, or both and line them up horizontally halfway up the rice. Reach your thumb under them bamboo roller and use your other fingers to hold the egg and sweet potato in place. Roll from the bottom of the bamboo up, until the bamboo reaches over and touches the nori or rice (It will touch the nori if you used lots of fillings and will touch the rice if you didn’t. Either works, but for your first time try to add only a few pieces of egg or sweet potato, because the roll can get messy and fall apart more easily if it’s too big. You do, however, get to call it a futomaki – big roll). Then hold the roll in place and tug the upper end of the bamboo roller in the middle, the left, and the right to tighten up the sushi roll. Carefully unfold the bamboo roller (just the roller, not the sushi roll), pull the partially-rolled sushi roll back to the edge of the roller, and put your thumbs back underneath with your fingers wrapped around the top of the half-wrapped roll. Repeat the rolling process again, lifting the roller over until it touches down on the other side of the roll. Pull firmly in the middle, the left and the right on the upper part of the bamboo roller while you hold the sushi roll and bottom of the roller in place. Unroll the bamboo, place the sushi roll on a cutting board and slice into 8 pieces. A trick here is the coat the knife in vinegar water (just a little so the roll doesn’t get soggy) and don’t saw the roll when you cut. The slice should be one clean insertion, starting from the part of the blade closest to the handle of the knife and moving to the edge, so the knife moves back toward your body as you cut. Cut once in the middle of the roll, then cut those two pieces in half. Then cut those piece in half, so you have 8 pieces.
Repeat with as many rolls as you like. There’s enough rice for 6 rolls, but you can freeze the rice and reheat it in the microwave the next time you want sushi. That way you don’t need to go through the soaking-cooking-burning-fanning process again.
Serve with a side dish of sushi soy sauce (not regular. It will taste different, though my tamari actually worked nicely) mixed with wasabi paste. You can buy wasabi as a paste or buy it as a powder and mix it with water. The powder is more pungent. Wasabi comes from a root, but the root itself costs a fortune and you’ll never need very much of it. If you are so lucky as to stumble upon wasabi root at a decent price, for the love of god buy it and freeze it, and count your blessings.
Oh, several words on pickled ginger: the pink stuff has more preservatives in it than you care to know, and is often sickly sweet when you buy it in grocery stores. So buy the pale beige-ish ginger if you can, or use fresh ginger, or pickle your own.
Second “oh”: sushi is snack food so it’s okay to eat with your hands. You can use chop sticks, but if it gets messy or you’re no so good with chopsticks, don’t feel like you’re giving up by using your hands. Instead, feel food snobbish, because you’re being ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’.
Alternatively, you could make this whole meal with regular rice, skip the vinegar dressing, and still enjoy it. Or use cucumber, avocado, or smoked salmon. Those are the quick versions. Oh (the 3rd)! and if you can find snack nori (seasoned nori that sometimes comes in small strips) then you definitely don’t need to season your rice. The only problem is there’s a lot of fake things in the seasonings for the snack nori, so it’s your choice. It’s definitely worth a try).