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An Experiment

How to make sushi

Sushi Rolls

Sushi Rolls - Photo by Chris Auman

I love sushi. I love to cook. So, many years ago – possibly a decade or more – I attempted to make my own sushi. It was not good.

Initially it was slow going, but, through trial and error my creations slowly because editable. I found a really great fresh fish market close by in Akron Ohio, and, eventually, I learned how to make basic sushi rolls (Actually called Maki-zushi) that my wife and friends actually go out of their way to request from time to time.

Let me just say that I do not claim to really know what I’m doing compared to true sushi chefs. I want to clear that up right now. I have great respect for these guys that make endless, perfect, delectable creations on a daily basis while I stand in their shadow and do my best to make something that is simply eatable in comparison. After years of trying to recreate the sushi that I’ve sampled around the area, I do believe that I have the basics down to the point where I really enjoy the final product. But even after years of doing this I still screw it up royally from time to time. In this post I’ll provide some pictures and the basic instructions and tips that I can pass on to help you learn from my many mistakes.

A little history

What I find interesting about the word Sushi is that it literally translates as “it’s sour” which originates from the traditional method of preserving the fish. It was originally packed in rice that released vinegar that fermented and preserved the fish. Today, the sushi that we enjoy is extremely fresh and that’s what makes it so great. We also eat the rice which was not the case in the original method. Eventually more vinegar was added to shorten the fermentation process and to increase the quality of the taste. The rice was pressed into bamboo molds and combined with the fish and eaten. This method is called oshi-zushi which, with the help of Hanaya Yohei (; 17991858), evolved into Edomae zushi which encompassed fresh (cooked) fish and quickly formed molds that could be eaten quickly on the run. This method is formally called Edomae nigiri-zushi (hand-formed sushi) or simply Nigiri. This is the origin of the western style sushi that we enjoy today even though this fish was lightly cooked in Soy Sauce before being served.

Nigiri is basically fish and rice and differs from the rolls (Makizushi) that we American’s normally consider “sushi”. Let it be said too that a “California roll” is NOT sushi – at least in the traditional sense. You will never find a California Roll or anything similar in Japan as this menu item was invented to suit the western pallet. Let it be known that I am not against this new tradition of creating fancy, delicious, and creative “rolls”. What’s good is good and I don’t care. As much as I enjoy the history, tradition and art of preparing the food, I LOVE many of the western rolls including the Dynamite Roll, The Spider Roll, The classic Philadelphia Roll, The Dragon Roll and the simple, yet spicy – Spicy Tuna Roll. I also enjoy drinking cheap American beer with my sushi too which is probably a sin in the traditional sense as well.

So, let it be known that the methods that I am demonstrating here are sushi in the western sense, and there’s a good chance that someone in a foreign country might disagree with me calling my creations “sushi”. One thing is for sure, it’s good, fresh and delicious and that’s what counts – and it only gets better with beer.

How to prepare Sushi Rice

The first thing to know about Sushi is that not all rice is created equal. There is Rice and then there is Sushi Rice and you must purchase the correct type. Uncle Ben’s is not going to cut it. Most of our local grocery stores now have an Asian section and it’s a good chance that you’ll find sushi rice within this section of the store. I’ve found that not all Sushi Rice is created equal though so you will have to experiment to produce perfect rice for your taste. Definitely try it out and perfect your recipe before serving sushi to guests. Once you find a brand that you like, stick with it if possible.

sushi rice

sushi rice

1) Measure and rinse your rice (1 cup rice and 1 and 1/4 cups cold water) – The first step is to measure your rice and rinse it under cold water. This is always recommended even though I’m always tempted to skip this step. Actually I have and it turns out fine anyway. But it’s better to follow the traditional instructions if at all possible. Repeat the process until the water runs clear. Mix one cup of rice with 1 and 1/4 cups cold water. It’s important to use cold water and heat it from there. Depending on your rice you might find that you need a little more water but start with 1 and 1/4.

2) Heat your rice and water until boiling, remove and simmer for 20 minutes. The next step is to boil your rice and water. Don’t boil it too long. Maybe a minute or so after it’s reached the boiling point. Remove the pot, cover and simmer for at least 20 minutes or until water is completely absorbed and the rice is completely soft. Do not remove the lid for at least 20 minutes. This is the first hurdle in making perfect rice. If the water is not absorbed or there is not enough water, the rice will have a tough or even hard center and the whole experience will go to hell. Perfect rice is the whole secret to making sushi and the hardest part. If you screw up the rice… well, you’re screwed. So work on your recipe and timing and always be precise. Otherwise the results will not be satisfactory. Eating crunchy rice with sushi – or even overly firm rice – is like eating a hamburger with an overly stale, crunchy bun. It’s just not right.

3) Remove pan from heat and let rice sit for 10 minutes. I don’t have anything to add here except that you need to do it. Be patient. If you rush the rice, lift the lid, and try to cut corners you’re rice will be less than good. Sushi is not meant to be rushed so let it sit even longer if you can to ensure that the rice is completely soft. If you’re in a hurry go to McDonalds and get some fries and a burger. Don’t try to make your own sushi.

4) Put your rice in a non-metallic bowl, mix in 2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar and let it cool. Letting your rice cool is essential but even more essential is the rice vinegar. Rice vinegar is the “secret sauce” of perfect rice. Without it, your rice will be flavorless and bland and your overall experience will be seriously lacking regardless of the expensive fish and fillings that you have available. Sometimes I even add a little more than 2 tablespoons and let the rice sit a little longer to absorb. Be careful though not to add too much because your rice could become wet instead of sticky and this will ruin the entire batch and make your job impossible when trying to keep rolls from falling apart. We want sticky rice. Not wet, soggy rice.

That’s pretty much it. It’s not overly complicated but you absolutely HAVE to be precise, follow the directions and take your time.

How to make Sushi with fresh fish (Nigiri-zushi – Hand formed sushi)

Here’s where my experience becomes shallow and where I need to learn a lot more. It’s said that in Japan, people that aspire to be sushi chefs will spend many years on rice alone before even being allowed to think about touching fish or fillings. The art of making the sushi takes a lifetime so don’t expect to be good at it overnight. To get started though, the best way to try out your skills is to make simple hand formed sushi. This is exactly what it sounds like. You simple grab a small handful of rice and form it into a sticky shape. Here are some quick pointers.

sushi-shrimp-small

Sushi Shrimp

1) Wet your hands with cold water. As you’ll see, they call it sticky rice for a reason. Continually wetting your hands with cold water will allow you to manage the rice and keep your hands from becoming sushi rolls themselves.

2) Grab a small handful of rice and form it into a tight shape. Depending on the size of the sushi you’re making, the amount of rice you need will vary. But in general you should make the pieces smaller than larger. You’ll be surprised as to how big a piece can become when you add fish and try to shove it into your mouth. Personally I like to take each piece in one bite so it doesn’t become messy and fall apart. So consider this when making your pieces. Shape your rice into an oblong shape that fits nicely into the palm of your hand and continually squeeze it until it becomes a nice, tight piece of rice.

3) Add your fish. Here we go. Again, this is where I can claim that I am not an expert. But I know a few things. First, I know people can be wary of raw fish. That’s understandable but here are a few tips. When buying fish ask if it’s “Sushi Grade”. Essentially that means that it’s REALLY fresh. There is no magic secret behind eating raw fish except that it needs to be ultra-fresh. If you shop at a quality grocery store they will often have fish that is labeled as sushi grade. If not, just ask and they should be honest. The last thing they want is for a customer to come back complaining that they were sick for days after getting some advice from the person behind the counter. One of the best places to go is your local fish market. Somewhere that specializes in fresh fish. They will often be able to provide you with many varieties of seafood that was swimming just the day before or even that morning. If all else fails, frozen fish can sometimes work. For example, I’ve purchased frozen wild salmon before when it’s out of season and it was great. This fish is often cough, cleaned and rapidly frozen to ensure freshness. But ask to confirm if the person behind the counter believes that it’s a good quality supplier. You might want to think twice about fish provided from other countries and around the world as their practices of handling the fish might not be equal to what we need for consuming uncooked fish.

4) Shrimp. Getting started with hand form sushi is safest if you use shrimp. We never eat raw shrimp. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s just not good or if it’s unsafe. But one thing is for certain, they are good. To prepare the shrimp, boil and clean them. You want to get the largest shrimp you can (within reason) as they will shrink considerably when you boil them. So when purchasing look for shrimp that would be a mouthful by themselves when raw because these will shrink down and fit nicely with the rice when you eat them.

To prepare the cooked shrimp, cut and fan them along the underside of the curve. Then press and flatten as shown in the image above and below. Place the shrimp on the rice (with or without extra Wasabi) and serve.

sushi-shrimp-prepared

Sushi Shrimp Prepared

How to make Sushi Rolls (Nigirizushi)

Making rolls. Let me stress again that I am not an expert. In fact, when it comes to making rolls I really need to do a little more reading on proper technique. I’m not going to even attempt to tell you that I know the best way to do this yet so experiment on your own. If I find a good way I will certainly update it here. But until then, here is how I make my sushi rolls.

Sushi Fillings

Sushi Fillings

1) Get yourself a bamboo sushi mat. The sushi mat is ideal for rolling and compressing your rolls but you may also use tin foil. Actually I find it easier to use the mat and put tin foil on it so the rice doesn’t stick to all the little bamboo sticks. It can be a pain to clean.

2) Lay out a generous amount of rice and spread it out in a nice sized square the covers the mat. Compress the rice as much as possible and do not make it too thick. If you use too much the rolls will be too big and could fall apart. Not to mention you want them to be just large enough for one large bite. Personally I like them to bigger than too small. But use your own judgment. Spreading the rice out fairly thin is a good practice though.

3) Get yourself some seaweed. Yes, seaweed is an essential part of making sushi. You can often find sushi seaweed sheets at your local grocery store, an Asian food market or online. I’ve never had any seaweed that is better than any other. But I’m sure the quality varies. You may also try to find soy wraps. These are equally good. They have a different texture and remove any fishy taste that seaweed might influence your vibe. I found soy wraps online and had them shipped for free during a sale. Give them a try if you have issues with eating a weed from the sea.

4) Lay your seaweed out on top of the rice. You might have to cut the seaweed with kitchen scissors so it fits nicely within your square but it’s not required.

5) Fillings. At this point it’s up to you. Determine what type of roll you’re going to make and the options are endless. To get started you might try a simple veggie roll with cream cheese. Avocado, cucumber, carrots and any other veggie including bean sprouts would be good. You really can’t screw this one up. Just cut the piece into thin strips so they’re not too bulky and you’ll be good. The cream cheese mixed with veggies, soy sauce and wasabi is excellent. (My wife’s favorite after the shrimp) Place the fillings in a long strip in the center or at one end of the rice as shown in the photo below:

Sushi Fillings on Seaweed

Sushi Fillings on Seaweed

6) Rolling. Here’s the hard part. Start to fold over the rice and seaweed over the fillings and pull tight. Continue to roll the filling and pulling them tight until you have a roll surrounded by the foil and mat. Grab the roll and condense it continually until the roll is nice and tight. You might have to push in the ends as you condense to keep the fillings from falling out. This will also compress the ends so that when you cut those into rolls your piece won’t fall apart. Condense the roll until you feel satisfied that it’s as tight as you can get it and then unroll it onto a cutting board. Consider reusing the tinfoil for the next roll.

7) Cut the roll into pieces and serve. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Here are some tips. Get yourself a bread knife with serrated edge. This will allow you to essentially saw though the roll instead of pressing down to cut. This will retain the shape better. As with our hands, it better to get the knife wet before cutting. This is essential and will make your job much easier. Cut into the roll and make pieces that are no more than a half inch wide. Lay the pieces out on a dish or sushi board and serve.

Homemade Sushi

Homemade Sushi

The secret of how to eat sushi. (Yes, there is a secret)

I don’t want to sound like a sushi snob. I’m really not. But there is a certain way to eat sushi. I learned this early on and I believe that there is a large majority of people that say they don’t like sushi because they simply don’t eat it right. Curious? Ok, so here’s how I eat sushi.

Step One: Get yourself a good beer. Light Asian beers like Sapporo are best. Sushi is not the same without beer in my opinion but if you don’t like beer you should at least have a nice white wine handy. Drinking water, soda, coffee or any other beverage doesn’t really jive and enhance the flavor. If you have to deviate, consider hot or cold tea.

Step Two: Pour yourself a generous serving of soy sauce into a small bowl. (Enough to submerge at least half of your roll).

Step Three: Wasabi. They joys of wasabi can’t be overstated. My friends and I joke that it’s Japanese crack. Once you go down the Wasabi road there is no going back. You just can’t get enough. Wasabi comes in a tube or it can be made from scratch. The best Wasabi is made by professional sushi chefs and it comes as a pasty ball of goodness. Wasbi is spicy. Not like chili pepper spicy, but smack-you-in-the-nose, clear your sinuses spicy. It’s quick, slightly painful and only lasts about 2-3 seconds as it slowly yields and allows you to enjoy the flavors in your mouth. But it’s oh so good. Try it in moderation, diluted and mixed in your soy sauce, and gradually work your way up to spreading it across the top of your sushi piece if you are adventurous. It’s a rush that hurts o’ so good.

Step 4: Learn to use chopsticks. For Americans chopsticks can be considered a hassle. But to me they add to the unique experience of eating sushi. Using your hands can be messy and using a fork is just wrong. Take the time to learn to use chopsticks and you’ll enjoy sushi that much more. It’s also the best way to quickly dip your piece of sushi into the soy sauce and put it into your mouth.

Step 5: Dip, soak and shove. Soy sauce and wasabi is essential in my opinion. Without it, it’s like eating a salad without dressing. It’s just a completely different experience. I’ve often seen people try sushi for the first time and take a bite without any soy. Well, that would be the same as someone trying salad for the first time without ranch dressing or something else equally good. The experience is totally different and just not as good. So, the technique is to dip, soak and shove. Dip your piece into some wasabi soaked in soy, let it soak for a couple seconds (but not too long as it will make it fall apart) and then shove the whole piece into your mouth. Don’t take a bite, don’t suck on it, don’t look at it… just shove it in and let it melt in your mouth.

Soy sauce and wasabi

Soy sauce and wasabi

Step 6: Enjoy, drink and cleanse. After fully enjoying a piece of sushi, take a drink. Enjoy your beer and cleanse your pallet. Most sushi bars serve sushi with ginger. The purpose is to cleanse your pallet between bites and it works. Many people love it but it’s not my favorite thing. To me it tastes like a wet nap and it ruins my vibe. But give it a try.

Step 7: Drink more beer. Here’s a tip if you are not an adventurous eater. Eating some sushi might test the limits of many so-called adventurous eaters. Start out with a simple roll like a Veggie Roll, California Roll or some shrimp. Drink more beer and then drink some more. Once you get a good buzz going on, get more adventurous. Try some mild raw fish in a roll. Continue to drink and order more until you work your way up to Nigiri-zushi with strips of raw tuna or (my favorite) raw Salmon. Then, when you are completely stoned, try things like Octopus and (the ultimate) Sea Urchin. (Loved by many, not loved by me) Drinking beer can help you loosen up and try new things and who knows, you might end up finding your favorite food in the process.

One last tip. My friends and I enjoy Squid Salad. Recipes vary so try it at a couple different places to find your favorite. It’s an excellent way to start out a sushi dinner. At one of our favorite sushi joints in Akron Ohio (Golden Dragon) it’s called Chai-puss (named after the owner and sushi Chef). It’s really an excellent way to enjoy squid as it’s marinated and tender.

Bonus tip: Sit at the sushi bar. If you follow my instructions here you will end up having a great experience. But the last tip will only enhance the experience. Eating good sushi at a table with friends is always great, but nothing beats sitting at the sushi bar with a beer and watching the chef prepare your food. If you’re lucky he’ll even serve you himself when he’s finished. It just can’t get any better.

By Chris Auman All Rights Reserved.

November 20th, 2010 at 9:34 am

Posted in Recipes