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Sushi 101— Japanese finger food is easy to make and good to eat

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Of all the finger foods out there, nothing offers the flexibility and range of tastes like sushi.

The Japanese equivalent of a sandwich, this bite-size oriental edible can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert.

And because of its flexibility, sushi can fit anyone's tastes. Combinations of seasoned seafood or meat, vegetables and spices are unlimited. Whether it's rolled, stuffed, pressed, hand-formed, raw, seared or cooked, sushi is more than just fish and rice.

It's an art form — and an easy one to learn, yet it may take years for you to perfect your technique.

A basic understanding of the ingredients, techniques, types and eating traditions can start you down the path toward greater sushi enlightenment.

Every variation of sushi starts with rice, and its preparation can affect the outcome of the dish.

It is one of the most important elements of sushi, said Gene Kwon, owner of the Utah-based Japanese Mikado restaurants. "Contrary to typical belief, (the rice) is treated with vinegar. It's not just steamed, cooked and consumed." Kwon said the texture, consistency and flavor of sushi rice can be a litmus test for good sushi.

Use Japanese-style, short-grained rice — it holds its shape better than other varieties of rice. Rice generally doubles in size, and you will need a cup of water for every cup of rice that is used. Before cooking, the rice needs to be soaked and drained.

If a rootier flavor is desired, add a postcard-size piece of kombu — a type of kelp — to the pot before boiling. Cut the kombu partway through to help release its flavor.

Rice used for sushi is coated with a rice vinegar, sugar and salt mixture that varies depending on personal taste. Sometimes the mixture is heated to dissolve the sugar and salt granules and then cooled before added to the rice.

"It depends on your taste," said Marianne Saibara, who has been making her own sushi for years. Residents from various areas of Japan season their rice differently, she said, depending on their local traditions and tastes.

It is best to mix the rice and vinegar in a wooden sushi bowl or salad bowl with a wooden spatula or paddle. Metal tools can react with the vinegar to create an unpleasant taste. When handling rice, dip hands in water to avoid having the rice stick while shaping it. Prepared rice will usually last a day before losing its flavor.

After it's prepared, the sushi is ready to eat right away. Eating sushi is an art that has as many traditions as its preparation. A couple of rules apply to sushi consumption.

First, sushi is designed to eat fresh. The longer the nori the seaweed wrapper is in contact with the rice, the less crisp it will become and may fall apart as you are eating it, Saibara said. Paying attention to the texture of the nori will tell you the quality of the sushi before you eat it.

Second, sushi is normally eaten with your fingers, especially nigiri sushi. Chopsticks are traditionally used for sashimi but are acceptable for any type, Kwon said. "Forks are not in the equation."

Like Americans who salt their meat, Japanese use soy sauce as a flavor enhancement for sushi. Sushi is often served with a small dish of soy sauce and wasabi. Kwon suggests twisting the sushi slightly so that the fish is dipped first, not the rice. People typically tend to add too much soy sauce, which not only takes away from the taste of the sushi but causes the rice to lose its shape.

When eating sushi at a restaurant, customers are encouraged to sit at the sushi bar and order directly from the chef. If it is your first time eating sushi, Kwon suggests telling the sushi chef your situation and asking him to break you in gently. Start with a crab and avocado-filled California roll and work your way toward other maki, nigiri and sashimi.

Sushi originated not from an elegant way to present fish but from the traditional way to preserve it. According to "Sushi Taste and Technique," by Kimiko Barber and Hiroki Takemura, fish were packed lightly between layers of cooked rice where they stayed fresh but also slowly pickled. Today the same idea is present through the vinegar used in preparing sushi rice. The word "sushi" originates from a combination of the Japanese words for vinegar, su, and cooked rice, meshi.

And with so many people counting carbs, sushi is one meal Atkins dieters — and healthy eaters in general — can count on having fresh ingredients with non-fatty meats high in protein. Even sashimi, seafood sushi without the rice, is pure protein. But if you don't like fish, there are other options. Don't like salmon? Use chicken. Hate tuna? Try beef. Raw or not, it's up to you.

"One misnomer about sushi is that people integrate the word 'raw,' " Kwon said. "It surprises some people when they realize that half of sushi is cooked."

Whatever it is that attracts people to sushi — be it the nutritional value, the flavors or its exotic nature — it is becoming more and more popular. According to the Zagat Survey, an international survey of the restaurant industry, Japanese food is ranked as the third favorite ethnic cuisine in the United States.

Ten years ago, if you asked someone what they associated with Japanese food, they'd tell you teriyaki or tempura, Kwon said. Ask someone today and they'd tell you sushi. "Sushi really hit the palates of Salt Lake around 1990, and it's still picking up steam, even to this day," he said. "It's here and seems like it's here to stay."

In 1990, you could count the number of sushi bars along the Wasatch Front on one hand. Today, the Salt Lake Valley has more than 30 restaurants that offer sushi.

Sushi has grown so much that even sports outlets and concert venues, like the E Center, Franklin Covey Field and, coming this fall, the Delta Center, offer this Japanese delectable.


Ingredients

For one maki roll:

1/2 sheet of nori seaweed

1/3- 1/2 cup sushi rice

wasabi

filling — you are only limited by your imagination. Some suggestions include salmon, cucumber, avocado, carrots, green beans, shiitake mushrooms, crab meat or lobster, fish fillets, spinach and sesame seeds. Filling ingredients should be thinly sliced.


Preparation

Sushi rice

1 1/2 cups Japanese rice (short-grain)

1 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon mirin (optional)

1 postcard-size piece of kombu (a type of kelp, optional)

Rinse and soak rice as directed on the bag. If using a rice cooker, cook ingredients according to directions.

For stovetop preparation, add water, rice, mirin and kombu (if using) to a pot with a tight-fitting lid and bring to a boil. After 2-3 minutes over high heat, reduce to low and cook for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let the rice steam for another 20 minutes before removing from burner. Discard kombu. Makes 3 cups of rice.

Vinegar Mixture

4 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salts

Heat ingredients in a non-aluminum saucepan, stirring until the sugar and salt have dissolved. If you want it sweeter, add more sugar. If you want it more vinegary, decrease the sugar and add more vinegar.

Don't let mixture boil. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Mixing with the rice: Transfer 3 cups of hot rice to wooden bowl or rice tub that has been soaked in water. This helps keep the rice from sticking.

Pour the vinegar mixture a little at a time over a paddle held flat over the rice. This stops oversaturation. Incorporate the vinegar mixture by slicing the paddle through the rice. Do not stir.

As you mix the vinegar into the rice, fan the bowl to help facilitate cooling. Not only will this create a glossy finish, but it helps keep the rice from falling apart. If the rice isn't cooled to room temperature quickly enough while adding the vinegar mixture, the rice will become mushy. Cover until ready. Refrigerating will make the rice lose its stickiness.

— "Sushi Taste and Technique," by Kimiko Barber and Hiroki Takemura


Preparation: Prepare the fillings ahead of time so that the sushi assembly happens as flawlessly as possible. Small pencil-thick slices of vegetables and fish work best.

Spreading: Start with a half piece of nori (seaweed), folded against the grain. Lay the nori smooth side down horizontally on a sushi-rolling mat. With wet hands, grab a handful of sushi rice and gently shape it into a log down the length of the nori.

Spread the rice on the nori, first away from you, then toward you. The rice should be 1/4-inch thick. Leave a 3/4-inch strip along the the top edge of the nori. Try to avoid smashing the rice. (If making an inside-out roll, cover the nori with rice and flip upside down on the sushi mat. Covering the mat with plastic wrap will help keep it from sticking.) Sprinkle the rice with sesame seeds if desired.

Filling: For additional kick, spread a dab of wasabi — Japanese horseradish — horizontally down the center of the rice. Layer filling ingredients horizontally along the width of the roll, end to end.

Don't overfill. Hoso maki rolls generally include only one ingredient, but most maki rolls can hold a variety of fillings depending on its size.

Rolling: Place the roll at the end of the sushi mat closest to you. Start rolling the nori, rice and filling toward the top of the mat, using your index fingers to hold the roll in place. Use the clear flap on the far edge to seal the roll together. Even out the ends of the roll. Remember to wet your hands to keep the rice from sticking.

With inside-out maki, the edges of the rice should stick together.

Cutting: With a wet chef's knife, slice the maki in half. Cut each half into into three pieces for a total of six. Try not to smash the roll. Wiping and wetting the knife before each slice will help make the cut cleaner. For larger maki, slice the rolls about 1 to 1 1/2 inch long.

Eating: Sushi is best eaten fresh, before the crisp nori absorbs moisture from the rice and becomes chewy. Enjoy!


E-mail: ltaylor@desnews.com