Monday, October 27, 2008

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….

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