There’s no denying the popularity of sushi in America for it has become a nation of sushi connoisseurs. As one of Japan’s most iconic foods, it captivates the palate as well as the eye and is low in fat and calories. Sushi’s popularity took off in the 1980s and has been soaring high ever since. Even without knowing a word of Japanese, there’s a good chance most know the names of several kinds of sushi. There are estimates of more than 100 varieties made in Japan.
For most people, sushi evokes raw fish, but historically, it refers only to vinegared rice. Sushi originated in Southeast Asia as a means to preserve fish. They were stuffed and layered with salted cooked rice. The formation of organic acids fermented the fish, adding flavor. Initially, the rice was discarded. Later vinegar was added to help shortcut the fermentation time. Eventually, the rice was flavored with pickled vegetables and grated wasabi, which lends a distinctive, spicy-hot flavor. Grated wasabi is believed to be anti-microbial and has anti-inflammatory effects. For easy transport and consumption, rice was shaped into balls, similar to Teimari Zushi. It was mixed and served in cedar rice tubs and containers, thought to repel insects.
Sashimi refers to sliced raw fish. Its merits depend upon the fish’s freshness, flavor and texture. Sashimi actually means, “fresh sliced” and could refer to other foods, like a slice of fresh tomato.
In Japan, sashimi represents the freshest, highest quality of seasonal fish available. The concept can be carried to the extreme, as in the dish ikizukuri. At the table, a flashing knife quickly carves a whole fish while it is alive and breathing. It is ideal to use fish this fresh, but no matter how fresh, some kinds should never be eaten raw. Freshwater fish, for example, can harbor parasites and bacteria. To minimize risks, buy premium fish from reputable sources that deal regularly with sushi-grade fish. Bluefin or yellowfin tuna, yellowtail, mackerel, flounder and snapper are good choices. Farm-raised fish is also a safer bet. Commercial freezing kills most parasites so American sushi restaurants often freeze their fish.
Not all seafood for sushi is raw. Shrimp, crab, octopus and eel are always cooked; squid is flash-cooked. High quality (Italian or Spanish) canned tuna, Japanese salt-grilled fish and smoked salmon and trout are other options. Pregnant women are advised by health officials to avoid raw or seared, undercooked seafood.
Wrapping Things Up
Two main types of sushi are Nigiri and Maki. Nigiri sushi is bite-size ovals of seasoned rice with a similar-size topping (tane) of raw fish, shellfish, omelet or other ingredient. For Maki sushi, the seasoned rice and ingredients are rolled up in a sheet of nori seaweed then sliced.
Chirashi (Bara), like the recipe for Autumn Chirashi-Zushi, is a tossed “salad” of sushi rice and ingredients. This is Kyoto-style (Kansai), also characterized by the topping of golden egg shreds. It’s considered an art to get the sticky rice and ingredients mixed just right. In the Tokyo (Kanto) style, the ingredients, like a variety of fresh raw fish, are artfully arranged on top of the rice.
On a Roll with New Sushi Varieties
Innovative types of sushi are emerging beyond the basic concept of fish and rice. Ham, beef, cheese and poultry — even Peking duck are becoming mainstream. There is plenty of room for individual creativity.
American-style sushi is evolving to a larger size with ingredients like mayonnaise, cream cheese and even pesto. The calorie count is rising too, so with these new varieties, keep portion sizes in mind to stay in step with a healthy diet.
There is the Dragon Roll, Spider Roll, Dynamite Roll, Caterpillar Roll, Shrimp Tempura Roll and California Roll — created in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Sushi has come full circle and now the California Roll has immigrated back to Japan. The recipe for Carolina Roll is my version for this international favorite.
A skilled Japanese itamae (master sushi chef) prepares sushi with amazing speed. He can mold a rice oval for Nigiri using one hand, with all the rice grains going in one direction. This expertise is impossible to match, yet the taste can be duplicated in your kitchen by using the finest ingredients and preparing them with reverence and care. Follow the seasons and keep in mind the Japanese precepts of texture, color and balance. For the fullest sushi adventure, don’t be afraid to experiment! Even your mistakes will taste delicious. Itadakimasu (Bon Appetit!)
Sushi Rice (Sushi Meshi)
The first step in making sushi is to properly wash and prepare the rice. To cool the cooked rice quickly, it helps to fan it with a flat Japanese paper fan (uchiwa). You can also use a folded newspaper or small electric fan. This gives the rice an attractive sheen. If you prepare the rice in a traditional Japanese cedar rice tub (hangiri), fill it with water for a 20-minute soak before use. Seasoned sushi rice has a delicate sweet-sour flavor and is the primary ingredient for all sushi.
2 cups short-grain or medium-grain rice
2-1/2 cups spring water or tap water
1 (2- to 3-inch) piece konbu (dried kelp), lightly wiped, if available
Sushi Dressing (recipe below)
To wash rice, put it into a large bowl in the sink. Add a large amount of cool water. Swish rice in the water with your hands, then pour off the milky liquid. Add fresh water then gently rub rice to help remove any powdery coating. Pour off water. Continue rinsing until water runs clear, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain rice well in a fine mesh strainer.
Put rice into a 3-quart saucepan with measured amount of water. Add konbu; soak 30 minutes. Bring water and rice to a boil then remove konbu. Immediately reduce heat to low and cover pan with a tight-fitting lid.
Simmer 15 minutes then turn off heat. Let the rice stand, still covered, 10 minutes.
As the rice cooks, prepare the Sushi Dressing. If available, soak a Japanese cedar rice tub (hangiri) with water for 20 minutes. Or rinse an odorless, shallow wooden bowl with water. You can also use a large glass bowl. Scoop cooked rice into the bowl. Hold a flat wooden rice paddle or wooden spoon over the rice. Drizzle the dressing, a little at a time, onto the paddle, allowing it to drip into the rice. Gently cut into the rice and toss it with the paddle, using a folding motion. As you turn the rice, use a hand fan or a small electric fan to help cool it. Add as much dressing as the rice will absorb, without becoming too damp. When mixed, scoop rice into a mound then cover airtight and set aside at room temperature. Use rice the same day. Makes about 5 cups.
Sushi Dressing (Awaze-Zu)
1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine)
1 tablespoon saké (dry rice wine)
1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt
Mix ingredients in a small saucepan. Heat until warm, stirring often, until dissolved. Set aside until needed.
Nori (laver) is seaweed harvested off the coast of Japan. Rich in vitamins and minerals, it is dried and pressed into sheets for making sushi. A light toasting enhances the natural flavor of this nutritious sea vegetable. Nori may come pretoasted but the flavor is refreshed if toasted again. Prepare as many sheets as you will immediately need. Quickly pass the shiny side of each nori sheet over an electric stove burner 1 or 2 times or over a gas burner flame. Don’t over-toast or the sheets could burn or crack when rolled. For a quick sushi snack, put a spoonful of sushi rice in the middle of a nori sheet, fold it up and eat. One of the latest Japanese innovations is laser-cut nori with designs such as cherry blossoms and hexagonal patterns.
Sushi rice will stick to your hands as you touch it or pat it onto the nori. To prevent this, keep your hands damp by dipping them into a bowl of 1 cup water and 3 tablespoons rice vinegar or 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, as desired. Dip your fingers into the water; shake off the excess moisture.
Stir this tasty vegetable mixture into freshly made sushi rice. Other ingredients taste delicious cooked in the sauce, too. Simmer several ingredients at once or only one, as desired. Try small-diced sweet potato, short strips of rehydrated kanpyō (dried gourd), strips of blanched abura-age’ (fried bean curd pouches), or a piece of scraped burdock root cut in matchstick strips (briefly soaked in vinegar water to prevent discoloration). Carrot is cooked separately to preserve its flavor and color. Cooking times may vary with the ingredient. Some of the strained liquid from the soaked shiitake mushrooms can be added to the sauce for extra flavor.
1 cup dashi (fish and seaweed stock)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)
1 medium carrot, peeled, cut into matchstick strips
1/2 cup matchstick strips bamboo shoots
2 large or 4 medium dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water 30 minutes, drained, stems trimmed, caps thinly sliced
2 teaspoons regular or reduced-sodium soy sauce
Combine dashi, sugar and mirin in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Add carrot strips; cook until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer carrot strips to a small bowl. Add remaining vegetables and soy sauce to the cooking liquid; simmer until almost evaporated, about 5 minutes. Toss carrot strips back into the mixture. Cool to room temperature then use as desired.
Shredded Egg Pancake
Usu-yaki tamago or thin egg pancake can be used as a wrapper for certain types of stuffed sushi or shredded and mixed into sushi rice. Egg shreds embellish the Chirashi Zushi shown in the elegant wooden bucket in the large photo. They are called kinshu tamago. Kinshu is “gold thread” and tamago is “egg.”
1 extra-large or jumbo egg
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine) or 1 tablespoon dashi or water and 1/2 teaspoon sugar
With chopsticks or a fork, beat egg, salt and mirin in small bowl until well blended. Spray 9-inch diameter nonstick skillet with vegetable spray. Heat skillet over medium-low heat until hot. Pour half of the egg mixture into skillet, swirling the pan quickly to coat the bottom evenly. Cook until the egg pancake is set and the edges are dry, about 30 seconds. Carefully lift pancake and turn it over. Cook 20 seconds more or just until set. Transfer egg pancake to a baking sheet. Make a second pancake with remaining egg. When cool, roll pancakes up tightly and cut crosswise into very thin shreds. Fluff shreds by tossing with your fingers. Pancake can be cut into wider strips for wrapping around rice balls.
Dashi, a clear fish stock, is the cornerstone of Japanese cooking. Its numerous uses include soups, simmered dishes, marinades and salad dressings. It is made from konbu (kelp) a giant, leafy, dried sea vegetable and Katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). Both are rich in glutamic acids and umami. These high-quality ingredients are required to make ichiban dashi (top quality) for soups and other dishes. For the small amounts required in these recipes, you can use either homemade dashi, or dashi-no-moto, available as powdered instant dashi or dashi teabags. Prepare according to package directions. The instant products are convenient if a small amount is needed; but the flavor of homemade dashi is incomparable. Check for supplies in local Asian markets or online.
This type of colorful “scattered” sushi is often made at home in Japan. It doesn’t always include raw fish; you can add cooked seafood, or pieces of roasted beef tenderloin or ham or make it vegetarian. Vary the ingredients according to the season and your personal taste. In the fall, I like to use ingredients such as simmered Asian mushrooms, cubed squash or sweet potato, herbs, pickled vegetables, or chestnuts preserved in syrup (kuri no kanro ni) that are drained and diced. For a fall presentation, scoop the mixed rice into small, hollowed pumpkins or squash.
1 recipe Sushi Rice
1 recipe Simmered Vegetables
4 to 6 ounces grilled salmon, or Japanese salted salmon, broken into small pieces
1 or 2 thin green onions, thin sliced
1 recipe Shredded Egg Pancake
1/4 cup amazu shoga (pink pickled ginger, or shredded beni shoga (red pickled ginger)
Furikaki (lightly seasoned seaweed condiment)
Additional garnishes might include sesame seeds, edible chrysanthemum leaves, cooked, shelled edamame, cooked ginko nuts or fresh herbs.
Prepare Sushi Rice, the Simmered Vegetables, grilled salmon, green onions and egg pancake. In a large bowl, loosely toss the rice, vegetables, salmon and green onions. Rice can be scooped onto a large platter, into a bento box or arranged in individual bowls or glasses. Garnish the top with egg shreds, pickled ginger and other toppings, as desired. The seasoned rice and other ingredients can be prepared hours ahead. Store separately, chilling the seafood. Toss ingredients together up to 2 hours ahead. Serves 5 to 6.
For vegetarian sushi, omit seafood. In place of pickled okra, try thin-sliced avocado drizzled with lemon juice. For uramaki or inside-out rolls, the rice appears on the outside of the roll. To make this variation, spread sushi rice over the nori sheet, leaving a 1 to 2-inch margin at the top. Don’t put dressing on the rice. Sprinkle evenly with sesame seeds or tobiko (flying fish roe), then flip the nori, which results in the rice-side being down and the nori-side up. Add dressing, filling ingredients, and roll as directed below. Serve within one hour.
1 recipe Sushi Rice
1/4 cup mayonnaise like (Japanese brand) Kewpie or Hellmann’s
2 teaspoons prepared wasabi
1 carrot, cut in matchstick strips, soaked in cool, salted water, drained
1/2 hothouse cucumber, peeled, cut in matchstick strips
4 sheets Toasted Nori
8 fresh shiso leaves (perila) or fresh basil leaves, stems removed
8 strips of surimi crab sticks, or cooked, cleaned, thin-sliced shrimp, or chunk crabmeat
8 small pickled okra, stem ends trimmed
2 tablespoons lightly toasted sesame seeds
Low sodium or regular Japanese soy sauce, for dipping
Prepare Sushi Rice; keep covered. Combine mayonnaise and wasabi; set aside. Prepare carrot, cucumber, nori and remaining ingredients.
On a bamboo-rolling mat (sudare), place one nori sheet, shiny-side-down, with the long sides running horizontally. Using a damp measuring cup, measure one generous cup cooked rice. With damp hands, gently press rice over about 3/4 of the nori sheet, leaving top uncovered. Spread 1 tablespoon of the mayonnaise mixture across the center of the rice. Top with 2 or 3 shiso leaves, some carrot and cucumber strips, two strips each of crab and okra. Sprinkle with 1-1/2 teaspoons sesame seeds.
To shape roll, lift edges of the mat with your thumbs. Holding filling in place, roll up nori, enclosing the filling. Moisten uncovered edge of nori with a little water then complete the roll. Wrap mat firmly around roll and gently press a few seconds. Unwrap mat; prepare remaining rolls. Place sushi rolls in a rectangular pan lined with plastic wrap, lightly covered. Cut and serve within one hour. At serving time, place each roll on a cutting board, seam-side-down. With a sharp, damp knife, slice into 6 to 8 pieces, using swift, clean cuts. Serve with soy sauce. Refrigerate leftovers; remove 20 minutes before serving. Makes 24 to 32 pieces.
Stuffed Football Sushi
This vegetarian recipe is adapted from my cookbook, Japanese Cooking for the American Table (HP Books). Simmered Vegetables or any Japanese pickled vegetable would be a delicious addition to the rice. For convenience, the seasoned rice can be shaped into 2-inch long ovals before being stuffed into the simmered tofu pouches. This recipe is easily doubled. Carry a basket of these savory treats to your next tailgate party!
1/2 recipe Sushi Rice (see recipe)
1 tablespoon lightly toasted sesame seeds
2 (1-1/2 ounce) packages fried tofu pouches (12 abura-age pouches)
Simmering Sauce, see below
Vinegar Water, for moistening hands
Shredded beni shoga (red pickled ginger) or other Japanese pickles
Radish sprouts (kaiwari daikon) or kinome leaves, if available, or other seasonal herbs
Beef Sushi Roll
I first tasted this unusual type of kimbap (rolled sushi) in Seoul, Korea. Beef lovers especially will appreciate the tender meat and spicy seasonings. The sushi rice is NOT seasoned in the recipe below. This sushi is a variety of futomaki or “fat roll” with several filling ingredients. Don’t be tempted to add too much filling or you won’t be able to close the rolls securely.
1 recipe Sushi Rice, prepared without the Sushi Dressing
1 (8-inch) length pickled daikon radish (takuan), cut into 1/3-inch strips
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/2 to 3/4 pound beef tenderloin, partially frozen (for easy cutting), cut in strips about 1/2 inch wide
Beef Marinade (recipe below)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 medium dried shiitake mushroom, rehydrated and prepared according to the recipe Simmered Vegetables (Use 1/2 of the cooking sauce.)
1 thin carrot, scraped, blanched, trimmed (cut lengthwise into halves or quarters if too thick)
1/4 pound fresh spinach leaves with stems, quickly blanched, squeezed dry
4 sheets Toasted Nori
2 tablespoons dry-roasted sesame seeds
Vinegar Water for moistening hands, made with salt
Japanese soy sauce
Amazu shoga (pink pickled ginger) or kim chee
Rinse and cook the rice as directed in the recipe for Sushi Rice. If available, soak a Japanese cedar rice (hangiri), or rinse an odorless, shallow wooden bowl with water. You can also use a large glass bowl. Scoop cooked rice into the bowl and cool quickly; cover with a damp cloth.
Marinate picked radish in rice vinegar; drain before use. Add beef strips to Beef Marinade; soak 10 to 15 minutes. Heat vegetable oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sauté meat strips leaving them pink inside; cool completely. Prepare mushrooms, carrot and spinach. Gather all the ingredients.
On a bamboo-rolling mat (sudare), place one nori sheet, shiny-side-down, with the long sides running horizontally. Using a damp measuring cup, measure one generous cup cooked rice. With damp hands, gently press rice over 3/4 of the nori sheet leaving the top uncovered. Place two strips each of drained daikon and beef across the center of the rice. Add strips of spinach, carrot and mushroom slices. Sprinkle with 1-1/2 teaspoons sesame seeds. To shape roll, lift edges of the mat with your thumbs. Holding filling in place, roll up nori, enclosing the filling. Moisten uncovered edge of nori with a little water then complete the roll. Wrap mat firmly around roll and gently press a few seconds. Unwrap mat; store in a rectangular pan, lightly covered, up to two hours at room temperature. Shape three more rolls. At serving time, place each roll on a cutting board, seam-side-down. With a sharp, damp knife, slice each into 8 pieces, using swift, clean cuts. Serve with condiments. Makes 32 pieces.
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 green onion, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh gingerroot
1 small garlic clove, minced
Dash ground black pepper
1 teaspoon toasted Asian sesame oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot chili paste, to taste
Combine all ingredients in a medium-size bowl.
These attractive rice balls represent Temari (“hand ball”), a Japanese handicraft of balls decorated with silk or cotton threads in colorful patterns. Teimari Zushi is actually a variety of Nigiri (“hand-pressed”) sushi. This version features smoked salmon but you can make a variety using ingredients in contrasting colors and textures. Avoid raw fish since they are meant to be portable. The rice balls are similar to Hawaiian omusubi, also popular at festivals, picnics, parties or as a snack. Spam is one of the favorite toppings.
1 recipe Sushi Rice (Sushi Meshi), prepared according to recipe directions
Vinegar Water, for moistening hands
Temari Ingredients, listed below
Use a damp measuring cup to portion out seasoned rice into 1/4 to 1/3 cup amounts. With damp hands, shape each portion into a ball. To make smoked salmon temari, place a slice of smoked salmon onto a piece of plastic wrap, about 5-inches square. Spread the center of the salmon with a little wasabi, if desired. Top with a rice ball. Use the plastic wrap to help shape the salmon around the rice ball. You can cover the entire rice ball or only a portion, as desired. Twist plastic wrap at the top to help set shape. Unwrap rice ball then garnish the top with a dill sprig or other garnish. Place on a tray. The rice balls can be made with any of the Temari Ingredients listed below. Wrap them decoratively with strips of nori seaweed, avocado or egg pancake, or coated with finely chopped fresh herbs or sesame seeds. Or push a depression in the center of each ball and stuff with ingredients like fish roe or chopped pickled vegetables. Arrange sushi on a platter and serve within 2 to 3 hours. Makes 12 to 15 rice balls.
Thin slices smoked salmon
Shredded Egg Pancake (or cut in strips)
Thin sliced ham
Strips of Spam
Cooked, cleaned shrimp, halved horizontally
Japanese pickles like amazu shoga (pink pickled ginger) or beni shoga (red pickled ginger) or pitted Umeboshi (pickled plum)
Lightly toasted sesame seeds
Finely chopped fresh shiso leaves or parsley
Pickled lotus root slices
Tobiko (flying fish roe)
Thin sliced avocado
Nori or pink bonito strips (katsuo maki), cut 1/2-inch wide.
Fresh chive blades or dill sprigs, for garnishing
1-1/2 cups water
1teaspoon dashi-no-moto powder (instant dashi)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons light Japanese soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon saké
Prepare Sushi Rice. Toss in the sesame seeds; cover and set aside. To prepare the tofu pouches, bring 4 cups water to a boil in a large skillet. Blanch tofu pouches 1 to 2 minutes on both sides to remove excess oil. Cover pouches with a Japanese wooden drop-lid or press under water several times with a wooden spoon. Turn one or two times. Drain; when cool enough to handle, press out excess liquid. Bring Simmering Sauce ingredients to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add tofu pouches and simmer 12 to 15 minutes, turning often. Sauce should be almost evaporated. Cool, then drain off any excess sauce. Cut each moist pouch in half to form two rectangles. Carefully pull each half open and stuff with about one tablespoon Sushi Rice. Top with pickled vegetables, herb leaves or other garnish. On a platter, cover loosely with plastic wrap; serve within 3 to 4 hours. Makes 24 pieces.