Sushi takes me back – a long way back. I think I was 22, living in London and I got taken to one of the first sushi places in London – This was 1985 maybe. My memory of it is very, very hazy, but I’m pretty sure it was fairly bad sushi and thinking back it was probably only the vast quantities of beer AND sake that saved us from a nasty episode. (As an aside, drinking alcohol with sushi does in fact help protect you from getting sick – very slightly from bacterial infections from sushi that isn’t truly fresh – and quite a lot from the potentially nastier parasitical infections).
Anyway, I was in my usual try anything mode. I habitually try the strangest thing on the menu at any place I haven’t eaten before, so raw fish certainly wasn’t going to faze me.
And that was where my interest began. It wasn’t hard to see even then that sushi couldn’t be all that hard to make and since at the time I wasn’t eating meat – just fish – it fit really well. So I got a couple of books and a few important items at the oriental store in Covent Garden and started making some. It was easy enough that I soon started making it for other people and I have even held sushi making parties where the supplies are all to hand and people can make their own.
I far prefer maki – the roll sushis. You can combine a couple of tastes easily. They are easy to stretch out to more people. They include the nori that to me is a key part of sushi. And they are easy.
The only hard part of sushi is the rice. The more effort you put in to do it properly, the more you’ll get back in terms of good sushi.
The supplies you absolutely MUST have are: a large wooden bowl, a wooden spoon and a bamboo mat for rolling. These are exactly the same as a common kind of bamboo place setting mat and consist of lots of very thin bamboo pieces next to each other held together with twined strings toward each end and looking a bit like a log raft made out of lots of very long toothpicks.
I particularly like smoked salmon and cucumber sushi, so that’s what I’ll write about.
Smoked Salmon and Cucumber Maki Sushi
You need to get real japanese style rice – either from Japan or from California. Hinode is a decent kind, but use what you can get. Wash the rice at least three times, maybe four, scrubbing it carefully together and then rinsing it thoroughly each time. You should use three cups of rice for four or five people. The rice will be wet, so you use less water – three and a half cups for the three cups of rice. I wash the rice directly in a rice cooker bowl and cook it in the rice cooker. Once you’ve washed it and added the water, add three tablespoons of sake or mirin (rice wine) and cook as normal in the rice cooker. Purists will cook the rice with dashi (shaved bonito tuna flakes) and kombu (a piece of kelp) but they are a lot harder to get than the rest of the ingredients so you can skip them.
While it cooks get the vinegar dressing ready. You can get pre-seasoned rice vinegar, but if you can’t, warm half a cup of rice vinegar with three tablespoons of sugar and a teaspoon of salt until they dissolve. Then let it cool while the rice finishes cooking.
Now comes the hard part. A fan helps if you have access to one. When the rice is cooked, empty it quickly into the wooden bowl. Carefully pour the seasoned vinegar over all the rice and start turning it over rapidly with the wooden spoon while fanning the rice or blowing on it or anything else you can think of to cool it rapidly while mixing in the vinegar. This coats the surface of the rice with the vinegar without letting it soak in and results in the correct shiny, sticky but not glutinous sushi rice. Keep doing this until the rice is tepid – it can take quite a lot of work.
Now for making the sushi – you can do this with guests around or do it ahead and present them with the perfect cut pieces of sushi.
Carefully lay out the smoked salmon cut into one third inch strips. Cut the ends of the cucumber and cut it into strips about the same size. You will need to have sheets of nori seaweed. These can be bought at high-end supermarkets and asian markets and are about 8 inches square. Technically you are supposed to lightly toast the sheets before you use them – this oddly makes them a much brighter green if you do it right – but I don’t always bother. If you want to do it, get a burner eye hot on your range (gas or electric) and using tongs pass the sheet back and forth over it far enough away that it won’t burn but close enough that it will get hot. It is done when it turns bright green.
Place a piece of nori on your rolling mat and cover the two thirds furthest from you with the thinnest layer of rice you can manage that doesn’t leave any gaps. Gently lay a strip of smoked salmon and cucumber down the center. It helps to rinse you hands between every ingredient when making sushi. Now roll the part of the sheet furthest from you carefully toward you, keeping the filling inside it and tucking it in as soon as possible. Then use the rolling mat to roll the part nearest you on top of the rest and carry on wrapping the rolling mat very tightly around the whole tube of sushi. Now squeeze it tightly, making the roll as firm as possible without breaking or splitting it. Hold it for a few seconds to help the seaweed seal from the moist rice.
Now trim the two ends – they are always looser than the rest. At this point just slice the roll into disks about half an inch thick. They will look and taste fabulous. Serve with japanese pickled ginger, soy sauce and wasabi – japanese horseradish.