The (not so) Secret Art of Making Japanese Sushi

I know what you’re thinking! Why make sushi at home when I can easily order it from the nearby Japanese eatery or from the local supermarket? Well, it’s fun to make and not that hard to do. And it’s not always topped with raw fish either. First let me explain briefly the history of sushi. It’s a long one, in fact it’s been around for 1,800 years or so, but the current iteration is incredibly popular around the world, and quite rightly so.

It is not often that something so singly cultural can not only take the world by storm, but also influence the direction of food in other cultures (fusion cuisine from all parts of Asia is now widely accepted).

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Around the turn of the 19th century, a man called Hanaya Yohei single-handedly created a major change in the production and presentation of his sushi. No longer wrapping the fish in rice, he placed a piece fresh fish on top of an oblong shaped piece of seasoned rice. Today, we call this style finger sushi or “edomae sushi” (from Edo, the name of Tokyo at the time) and is now the common way of eating Japanese sushi. At that time, sushi was served from sushi stalls on the street and was meant to be a snack or quick bite to eat on the go, a bit like Spain’s tapas. Served from his stall, this was not only the first of the real ‘fast food’ sushi, but quickly became a “smash hit”. From his home in Edo, Hanaya’s style of serving sushi rapidly spread throughout Japan.

After World War Two, the sushi stalls were shut down and moved indoors, to more sanitary conditions. More formal seating was later provided (the first were merely an indoor version of the sushi stalls) and sushi changed from ‘fast food’ to a true dining experience. Sushi houses spread around the globe, and with the advent of the promotion of seafood, this unusual style of serving fish was quickly adopted by western cultures, always eager for something new, especially something that had grown as sophisticated and unique as sushi.

Sushi, the artful dining experience once uniquely Japanese, has now evolved to another level beyond the traditional Japanese methods. Western influences have given rise to new styles of sushi, such as California rolls and the many elaborate ‘fusion’ creations at upscale sushi restaurants. Ok, enough history, let’s sharpen our knives!

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First and foremost, you will need a very sharp knife. The classic sushi knife is called a bento knife. I personally use a Global knife, made out of carbon steel, blade and handle fused together, incredibly sharp.

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The second most important tool you will need is a bamboo mat (makisu). This is used to roll the sushi. A wooden spoon can be used to spread the rice onto the seaweed sheet (nori). Rice cooked for sushi should be slightly harder in texture than for other dishes. Another good tool to have is a rice cooker, but it’s not obligatory.

So you have your knife, your sushi mat, the rice cooker (or not) and what you need to purchase now is the following: a packet of sushi rice, a bottle of sake (mirin), a small bottle of rice vinegar (sushi-zu), a packet of seaweed (nori), a tube of Japanese mustard (wasabi), a small amount of pickled ginger and whatever fish you like to eat as long as it’s fresh out of the sea. For those who don’t like seafood substitute it with neatly cut cucumber sticks, avocado, scallions, green mango and papaya…to name a few. When you plan on making raw fish sushi at home please make sure that you are buying sushi-quality seafood and that you eat no fresh-water fish raw (the risk of food borne pathogens in fresh-water fish is high whereas the risk is significantly less with fish from the ocean).

So the three golden rules of sushi are: 1) use the freshest fish available, 2) ditto, 3) ditto.

Also, make sure you are storing and preparing your fish in sanitary conditions to prevent contamination of the food prior to consumption. And make sure it’s properly cooled before you cut it. Traditional sushi comes with a rolled Japanese omelette. Personally I don’t bother to make it as it’s time consuming and I prefer to eat my sushi sans eggs!

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Let’s start with the rice.

1. After washing the rice well, cook it by pan or rice cooker. For the pan, the rice and water are brought to a quick boil, boiled for 1 minute, covered, simmered for 20 minutes, and let stand for 10 minutes after removing from the heat.
2. Make sushi vinegar by mixing rice vinegar, a little brown sugar and a pinch of salt in a pan. Put the pan on low heat and cook until the sugar dissolves.
3. Cool the vinegar mixture.
4. Spread the cooked hot rice into a large plate (if you have it, use a wooden bowl called sushi-oke) by spatula
5. Sprinkle the vinegar mixture over the rice and fold the rice very quickly. Be careful not to smash the rice.
6. To cool and remove the moisture of the rice well, use a fan as you mix sushi rice. This will give sushi rice a shiny look (sometimes I cook the rice with a little coconut milk thrown in, it adds un certain je ne sais quoi!)
7. The sushi rice is ready! It’s best to use it right away.

Ok, so far so good. Make sure you have your seafood on hand and let’s roll! Lay out the mat, then the nori sheet. Spread the rice, and add the filling of your choice. Roll it up and serve with a warm bottle of Sake. A good lager will do just as well.

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Pic above of an average sushi platter on offer in most Japanese eateries. A word of caution: do not order tuna as it is almost extinct. I’ve taken it off my list of produce.

A good sushi platter relies on the creativity of its maker. I’ve tried countless fillings from fresh fish to warm shellfish to pan-fried vegetables to a mix of avocados and raw beef to oyster mushrooms laced with wild garlic to smoked salmon paired with shredded & roasted salmon skin to…you get the idea. Never fear is my motto, and I have to confess that quite often I’ve ended up making a giant, inedible mess and that’s half the fun! Bon appetit & aligato!

This entry was posted in Art, Environmental Issue, Food, Fun, Health, Recipes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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