Monday, October 27, 2008

Making My Own Sushi, Part One

Softshell Crab Roll with Garlic Mayonnaise

Eel and Avocado Roll with Soy Paper, Topped with
Snow Crab and Wasabi-Marinated Flying Fish Eggs

Freshwater Eel, Snow Crab, and Tamago (Omelette) Sushi

Hand Rolls with Crab, Avocado, or Freshwater Eel

Homemade Sushi

It’s the one thing I know how to make in the kitchen besides rice crispie treats—sushi.

It sounds surprising, for who is willing to create such an intricate delicacy at home, and who would possess the know-how? I’ve often been asked how I learned to do this. Did I take a class? Did someone teach me? The answer is, I learned the way we all learn everything: through observation, imitation, and trial and error.

I observe the sushi chefs, first and foremost. At the majority of Japanese restaurants, you can grab a seat at the sushi bar and watch how the rolls are, well, rolled. If you don’t want to risk making the sushi masters uncomfortable by standing up to gain a full view of their stations, you can usually still see the action through the refrigerated glass display cases of fish. While making nigiri, the chefs normally mold the rice cubes and shape the slices of fish against them with bare hands raised high above the level of the glass cases, so from wherever you’re seated you can get a clear shot of this visual learning lesson.

It is in this manner that I learned how to scissor the sheets of seaweed down the middle, as most sushi places will use only half a sheet. The rice gets applied to the matte, not shiny, side of the nori; then it’s usually rolled inside-out (meaning with the rice on the outside) with the stuffing on the inside. Rolling them the other way around produces super-ultra-mega-skinny rolls, good for making traditional tekka (tuna) or kappa (cucumber) maki, but it also means you must add less rice and leave a blank ridge on the nori with which to seal the roll. When it comes to rolling fatter maki with heavier fillers like softshell crab, then the seaweed-and-rice wrap gets rolled from the narrower side.

It helps to be overly inquisitive and unafraid to ask. Dirty looks and language barriers don’t dissuade me from hounding the harried chefs, who invariably ask if I’m a spy for another restaurant or if I own my own restaurant, thereby explaining my efforts to leech their wisdom.

“No, I’m a critic,” I reply, “and I just love sushi.” Then I take photos of their food-art and they fancy I’m not so much a spy as a fanatic. Or just a plain weirdo.

Everything else I learned through osmosis—which sauces go with which fish? What accompaniments enhance the flavor of a certain sauce? Through regular dining experience and personal preference, I gleaned, for example, that garlic is amazing when mixed with ponzu sauce, and that Sri Racha hot sauce married with Japanese mayonnaise produces a toned-down, orange-colored spicy dressing. Add chili flakes, chili oil, or masago to that at your own discretion.

My first endeavor with making sushi occasioned at the tail end of 2004, when I went home from the Mitsuwa market with bagfuls of the works—everything from snow crab and pickled radish, to rice and sheets of seaweed. With the advice of the stock gal, I decided to cheat my way through what I still believe is the hardest part of constructing sushi: flavoring the rice. She sold me on the idea of sprinkling a certain white seasoning mix known as Tamanoi Sushinoko on the rice, which would probably be ingenious if it weren’t so lazy and wrong…and this resulted in a grand first attempt with sourish dry rice (tasty though it was with its high MSG content).

Later, I experimented with my own blendings of vinegar, sugar and salt, and enlisted the help of friends who suggested that I cook the rice with kombu, a dried seaweed often used for flavoring in Japanese cuisine, and incorporate a sweet rice wine known as Mirin.

I still have not perfected the rice in my perfectionistic opinion, but I can build some good-looking sushi in maki, temaki and nigiri form.

Recently, I held another sushi-making party, swamping a friend’s kitchen and dining area with all the messes that come with making a meal at home. Somehow, in the midst of drunken debauchery and a little dog that kept swarming around my feet, some amazing sushi (as well as some fine friendship moments) were formed, if I may say so myself….

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Cactus Dragon Roll at Niya Sushi

Thinking Outside the Roll

A friend of mine recently asked me to eat more rolls that DON’T have a California Roll base with fish on top. “I can’t stand those,” she said. I echo that sentiment, in fact, for I believe it is the chintzier sushi dives that serve this roll model.

I know exactly what she is talking about. She’s referring to the flaky imitation snow crab that gets hauled to restaurants in plastic bags, which sushi chefs tear into during prep time (before the restaurant opens for business) and dump their contents into large mixing bowls. The preppers then proceed to fluff up the faux crab meat, making it all creamy and moist by adding as much Japanese mayonnaise as possible without creating a white wading pool.

Right before the lunch or dinner rush, the chefs use this pink-and-white stuffing to mass-produce the ever-popular California Roll, by simply adding two more ingredients: cucumber and avocado. Then they lay the finished products on trays covered by plastic wrap, where they sit for hours and supply the demand in ready-to-go fashion. One sushi chef will crank out as many as eight of these inside-out rolls at a time, rolling them en masse with a plastic-wrapped bamboo mat known as makisu. Well, who wants assembly-line sushi?

I certainly don’t.

Sometimes, the chefs will try to get creative with these rolls by using them as a base for others such as the Dragon or Rainbow Rolls. They simply add eel on top to turn it into a Dragon Roll, or line up colorful raw fish slices over the base and call it the Rainbow. Likewise, a Caterpillar Roll is often nothing more than avocado draped over an “eel and cucumber roll.” Eel sauce drowns out everything, so you can’t see or taste what is in the roll anyway.

Kudos to Niya Sushi (formerly Kiki’s Sushi) of Huntington Beach, for charging about the same price as what some of these other restaurants will charge ($9.25), for a roll of a similar name and style—only way better. Introducing the Cactus Dragon Roll, which uses spicy crab stick meat (much more exquisite than the stuffing I mentioned) and the surprising addition of shrimp tempura, which normally is not integrated with a roll with "Dragon" in its name.

This roll packs a spicy bite as well as a crunchy munch, and the minced crab stick meat with Sri Racha sauce (normally referred to as “Red Rooster Sauce,” since it has such a logo on its green-tipped bottle) is not too hot as it coalesces with the sweet mucky delight of eel sauce. Ahh….

The chef went out of his way to dress up the Dragon, adding a mint leaf collar, yamagobo feelers, and eyes made of the suction cups of octopus (yikes!)—even a touch of shaved bonito for effect.

Items Featuring the Dynamite Sauce

Niya's Amazing Dynamite Sauce...

All this was not meant to subdue the importance of Niya’s outstanding Dynamite sauce, a mayonnaise-saturated concoction with smelt fish eggs and bits of red chili peppers stirred in. This highly addictive combination is used in many of their rolls—the Tony Special (one of my absolute favorites), the Huntington Beach Roll, and the Lettuce Wrap. I often ask for an extra side of the dynamic Dynamite sauce just so I can overdo it for fun. And then I get sick to my stomach (may I recommend natural Charcoal supplements to take care of the mayo-hangover!) but I know it was well worth it.

The Tony Special contains cream cheese, scallop and asparagus, and is topped with whole Dynamite-sauce-soaked shrimp. Unbelievable! The Huntington Beach Roll, with its scallop and cucumber inside, is still an honorable mention, even with the ever-decreasing portion of Dynamite-sauced king crab flakes on top. And finally, if you really want an extra crunch (lettuce crunch, that is) which is also super-healthy and will definitely offset the effects of the power sauce, order a Lettuce Wrap--only $5.75 each. The crisp, refreshing lettuce cools your tongue as you get burned both by the temperature of the freshly fried shrimp tempura and the flavor of the chili-infused Dynamite sauce.

Niya took over Kiki’s sometime in 2002, and has rocked the joint since then with an even more exciting menu of countless items, all with very colorful and appropriate names. Very clever of them to keep the same Dynamite sauce as Kiki’s once served, I say. When I found out about the takeover, I nearly had a heart attack until I was assured that one of my favorite guilty-pleasure sauces was retained.

Niya is located at 5910 Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach. They can be reached at 714-840-3024.