That’s what the kids in camp yelled when they saw the big rice bowl. I am not a sushi chef – or any kind of a chef! – but I was taught by one, a dear friend and author of Mesorah Sushi, Linda Gershater. Mesorah means Tradition, and Linda, Japanese by birth, grew up in the traditional Japanese cuisine. In this post, I will only share the basic techniques of making two kinds of sushi rolls. As you are probably aware, there are numerous other kinds of sushi, as well as specific recipes, but even this post is promising to be a long one, and each kind of sushi deserves a separate post. Maybe some time in the future…
Please forgive me if it sounds as if I am addressing children. I have taught sushi making in camp for years, I have made sushi with my own grandchildren and my friends’ grandchildren. By now, it has turned into a habit.
Let’s start with the basics. Contrary to a popular belief, sushi does not mean raw fish, nor does it mean fish altogether. Sushi means vinegared rice. You need Japanese rice that comes out sticky. I have made sushi with brown rice, and believe me, it is very difficult to keep the rolls together. Once rice is cooked, add rice vinegar and sugar or xylitol and mix vigorously while it’s hot.
Warning: beware of vinegar fumes. On this photo, you can see two kids and a counselor fanning the fumes. One is enough, of course, but I’ve always asked for two or three volunteer helpers! I can’t show any other kids, but there are 25 in this group, and I have two counselors and a student teacher to assist me.
While your sushi (rice which is already vinegared) is cooling off, you can use the time to prepare fillings. Since I was actually making this batch of sushi for a community Shabbos afternoon lunch, I made sure to make enough vegan rolls with no fish, as we have several vegan members. Besides rice, I used only one more cooked ingredient, gingered carrots. Carrots are cut into strips and cooked in water with soy sauce and ginger. When they are softened, drain the liquid and put them aside to cool off.
For the rest of the fillings, I used tulapia and salmon in “fishy” rolls. Tulapia is cut along, and salmon is better to be cut across. Note: for sashimi, they are cut differently, but that’s a whole different topic. You can use any fish of your choice: tuna, grouper, snapper, trout, and even smoked salmon or fake crab, but the rule of thumb is to always cut lean fish along and fatty fish across.
For vegetable fillings, in addition to gingered carrots, I used bell peppers, cucumbers, and avocado. Again, you can use any veggies you want. I sometimes make tropical rolls with mango and papaya, and sometimes I also stick scallions in there. Everything is cut into thin strips, the same as carrots. You will also need Wasabi sauce, dubbed by the kids “sushi glue,” and black sesame seeds.
If your rice is room temperature, you are almost ready to start. Warning: do not roll “fishy” sushi with warm rice! Get a bowl of the size where you can immerse your entire hand comfortably, fill it with water (filtered, I hope!), and add some rice vinegar. Now you are ready!
Your bamboo rolling mat should be positioned with strings running vertically. We will designate the side close to you as bottom, and the opposite side, away from you, as top.
Examine your nori sheet. Nori is paper-thin dried, pressed, and sometimes toasted seaweed. It usually looks shiny on one side and matte on the other side. You can clearly see horizontal stripes, and we will count them from the bottom going up, the one closest to you being the first.
I have no idea why this picture keeps turning sideways, but I am not fighting with stubborn pictures! Let it be. For the first roll, called norimaki (nori roll) or makimono (variety of rolls), or simply maki (roll), nori is placed the matte side up.
Another sideways picture! Please, Beautiful People, don’t let it confuse you! Dip your dominant hand into the bowl with vinegared water, grab a handful of rice, and plop it in the middle of nori. Dip fingertips of the other hand into water and start spreading rice from the middle to the sides. Very important: leave the top and bottom nori stripes free of rice! Keep wetting your fingertips and spreading rice consistently but thinly, pressing it into nori and adding rice if needed. If it’s not too even, don’t worry, as long as it is not thick!
Put a few drops of the “sushi glue” on the second stripe (remember, we are counting from the bottom up), and spread it across. Cover the second stripe with vegetables, one slice of each. In case of pepper and avocado, one slice will consist of two actual strips, since you have to lay them all the way across. You don’t have to be exact, and it’s perfectly fine if the ends are sticking out a bit. However, you have to visualize the “face” of your roll when it will be cut and position your veggies to make a pretty color combination. Japanese cuisine takes great pride in nuances of colors and textures.
Now comes the crucial moment! Dip your fingertips in water and wet the bottom stripe thoroughly but gently. Make sure not to tear it, so treat it carefully. Pick up the mat together with the wet bottom stripe and bring it over the fillings. Tuck the rim under the pile of fillings, put both thumbs under the mat, put the rest of your fingers on top of it, and SQUEEEEZE! Well, don’t go overboard. If the nori starts breaking and the fillings start coming up through the gaps in your rolling mat, stop and remember that you are not in a gym! However, if some of the fillings slide out on the sides, just stick them back in and don’t worry.
Gently unroll the mat, leaving the nori covering your fillings. Keep rolling until you get to the top strip. Press down to make sure your roll is solid and ready to be sealed.
Dip your fingertips again, wet the top strip, and seal the roll. Now you have to pick it up, wave it above your head and scream, “Banzai!” You think I am kidding, don’t you? Nope, that’s what I always have kids do, to celebrate the very first sushi roll they make in their lives!
Put it aside seam down so that the weight of the roll helps seal it, and go on to the next one. “Fishy” rolls are made exactly the same way.
Another type of sushi roll, called uramaki (inside-out roll) is actually an American invention. The first one of those was the still-popular California roll, with rice on the outside in order to hide the nori. Yes, people were wary about eating seaweed! In Japan, it hasn’t actually gained popularity because a rice-covered roll tends to fall apart or stick to your fingers when you pick it up, and Japanese consider sushi rolls finger food. Paradoxically, outside of Japan, people go to great lengths to learn the art of using chopsticks, down to a whole etiquette of using the thick ends to serve yourself from a common platter because the thin ends have been in your mouth!
To make this roll, we’ll need to cover the rolling mat with cling-wrap that overlaps on top and bottom and goes underneath the mat. Picture is sideways again, sorry!
For this roll, nori is placed on the mat shiny side up. Rice is spread from the middle to the sides, as usual, but two bottom stripes are left clear of rice, rather than just one. This will be on the outside of your roll so press the rice down really well and make sure it sticks. Now, pick up your nori with rice on it and flip it rice side down. This is the tricky part.
You have the matte side up, like you did with the first roll, but you will not cover the entire middle with rice, oh no! You already have the middle covered with rice on the other side, so you wet your fingertips, pick up just a little rice, and spread it only to cover the second stripe. It should be easy because it is free and clear on the other side. Proceed the same way you made the first roll: spread some sushi glue on top of the rice and arrange your fillings. Wet the bottom stripe, bring it together with the mat over the fillings, tuck the edge of the mat under the fillings, and squeeze. Unroll the mat – together with cling-wrap, I hope! – and continue rolling until you get to the top stripe. Wet the top stripe and seal.
Put your inside-out roll aside seam side down. You’ll sprinkle it with black sesame seeds before cutting. It is generally advisable to wrap your rolls and refrigerate them for at least an hour, to make them easier to cut. If you are not serving them right away, cut them right before serving, as the “faces” tend to dry out. And please don’t tell me that you’ve never seen professional sushi chefs do it this way. They don’t , we do, and it’s the result that is important!
Wet a large broad knife in vinegared water and cut the roll in the middle. Put both halves side by side and cut them together. Each roll should be cut into 6 to 8 pieces, depending on how you design your platter. My friend Linda called the ends, with fillings sticking out, “chef’s bonus” and expected whomever participated in the sushi-making to snack on them while cutting, so they never ended up being served. I think they are quite decorative so I prefer to use them in designing platters. Your choice!
I have already mentioned wasabi in Amazing Tuna Cakes, so for instructions how to prepare wasabi paste, please click here.
Wasabi paste should have the consistency of play dough, so use your imagination and shape it any which way you want. You’ll need to serve soy sauce and pickled ginger. I pickle my own ginger, with salt, water, and beet juice, but it’s readily available commercially. The pink cat came from Morikami museum and Japanese gardens, a fabulous place to visit right here in South Florida.
Arrange your sushi pieces on platters or trays, place some wasabi paste and some pickled ginger on each plate, garnish minimally with greens of your choice, and you are done.
P.S. If you have leftovers of rice and fillings, you can make chirashi, which is a sort of lazy sushi: just cut your fish and veggies, or only veggies if you want, into bite-size pieces and throw them on top of rice.
P.P.S. And if you have only veggies left over, you make fake chirashi, which is basically a salad dressed with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and white sesame seeds. That’s my personal “chef’s bonus”!
INGREDIENTS FOR EIGHT ROLLS
- 6 cups Japanese rice, cooked (3 cups uncooked)
- 1/4 cup sugar or sweetener of your choice
- 1/2 cup rice vinegar and more for rolling
- 2 large carrots
- 1 inch (2,5 cm) grated ginger
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 bell pepper
- 2 Haas avocados
- 1 large cucumber
- 1 tulapia filet
- 1/2 lb salmon filet, skinless
- Wasabi sauce
- 8 nori sheets
- Black sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons wasabi powder (or more, to taste)
- Bowl large enough to fit your hand
- Rolling mat
- Cook rice. While hot, add sugar or sweetener and rice vinegar, mix vigorously. Note: have someone fan the fumes or turn your head away while mixing! Put aside to cool.
- Peel carrots and cut into 1/4 inch (about 1 cm strips. Cook in water with soy sauce and ginger for 15 minutes, or until soft. Drain and put aside to cool.
- Peel cucumber and avocado, clean pepper, wash all vegetables, cut into 1/4 inch (1 cm) strips.
- Cut tulapia filet along. Cut salmon filet across.
- Fill bowl with water, add a tablespoon or more of vinegar, depending on size.
- Place nori on mat matte side up. Dip entire hand into bowl, take a handful of rice, place in the middle of nori. Dip fingertips in water, spread rice from middle to sides. Leave one top strip and one bottom strip free of rice.
- Spread a small amount of wasabi sauce on second stripe, arrange fillings to cover second stripe.
- Wet bottom stripe, bring it over fillings together with mat, tuck edge of mat under fillings, squeeze Unroll mat, keep rolling until you reach top stripe.
- Wet top stripe, seal the roll, put aside seam down.
- For inside-out roll, cover mat with cling-wrap, making sure it overlaps and folds under mat. Place nori on covered mat shiny side up.
- Spread rice leaving two strips on the bottom and one on top free of rice.
- Turn nori with rice upside down, with matte side up. Dip fingertips, spread rice on second strip only. Spread wasabi and arrange fillings to cover second stripe. Roll the same way you roll the other rolls. Seal and put aside seam down.
- If possible, refrigerate for at least an hour before cutting. Wet knife in vinegared water, cut in the middle, then cut each roll into 6 – 8 pieces.
- Arrange on platter or trays, together with wasabi paste and pickled ginger. Garnish with your choice of greens. Serve with soy sauce on the side.