Making sushi at home can seem quite intimidating. You may think you have to buy several varieties of fish, appropriate vegetables and accompanying spices and seeds. You need to cook rice with the right consistency and texture. And you need to have the techniques and tools required to put it all together.
But, according to four Triangle chefs and one fish supplier, it doesn't have to be so mystifying or demanding, so long as you know what you're shopping for and what you already have. These how-to tips should make your next home sushi experience tastier and a little more homemade.
Perfecting your rice
In sushi, there is no ingredient more important than rice. The name "sushi" even refers to the type of rice used to make a vast array of rolls, plus the pillows used to support glistening strips of seafood in nigiri.
Mike Lee, of Raleigh's Sono and Durham's M Sushi, expected to open downtown this week, says it is essential to use the best available rice—the "super premium" varieties koshihikari or tamanishiki. Available at select Asian markets in the Triangle, they are prized for their inherently sweet, slightly nutty flavor and starchiness. And if you find bags marked "new crop," consider yourself a winner of the sushi Powerball. If you can't find those varieties, says Lee, go for the best Japanese or Korean brands you can find.
"It's sad to see that a lot of sushi restaurants in the area don't pay attention to how important the rice is," says Lee, whose staff makes several 50-cup batches throughout lunch and dinner service. Rice will vary from bag to bag, even in the same brand, based on when it was grown and how long it's been stored. He makes a test batch with every new bag to ensure quality and gauge cooking time.
According to Lee, rice should be rinsed well enough before cooking that water will run clear through it in a colander.
A heavy-bottom pot with a tight lid, like a Dutch oven, is ideal for cooking rice. If you lack patience to watch the pot boil, Lee recommends investing in a high-quality electric rice cooker. (Again, go with a Japanese or Korean brand.) When the rice is done cooking, transfer it to a wide, shallow bowl; wood is ideal, but start with what you've got.
"You have to mix in the seasoned vinegar right away, while it's piping hot," says Lee, who uses a dimpled, paddle-shaped spatula to cut in the vinegar and coat all the grains. "Then you want to cool it down quickly so the excess moisture is controlled. A piece of cardboard works great."
The seasoned rice wine vinegar sold at most grocery stores and even some Asian markets is, like its balsamic counterparts, not authentic. Lee considers most brands a poor substitute for a recipe you can do yourself. The basic ratio is 3 parts rice wine vinegar to 1 part sugar and one-half part salt—or 6 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon salt. Tweak this depending on how sweet you like your rice or if you'd like to add kombu (edible kelp), umami or citrus.
"As long as you keep it close to the basic ratio," Lee says, "you can be as creative as you like."
Pickling your own ginger
When Charlie Deal of Durham's Jujube wants sushi, he heads to his favorite "hidden gem" in the city, Kurama. "It's the last place you'd expect, because it looks like a dated Japanese steak house," Deal says. "But the sushi there is impeccable, especially if you let the guy do his thing."
Though Deal doesn't attempt sushi at Jujube, some of the dishes do come with pickled ginger. He encourages home cooks to dispense with the prepackaged pink stuff and make their own.
"I've always seen pickled ginger being made from young ginger, which I can't always find," says Deal, who was initially skeptical when chef Miguel Gordillo made it with mature ginger. But it worked. "It's delicious, and it's even got a nice texture."
Young ginger can be pickled by just soaking in hot brine. Mature ginger, however, needs to be simmered in brine. Here's how they do it at Jujube.
150 grams ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, preferably with a mandoline
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt3/4 cup mirin3/4 cup rice wine vinegar4 tablespoons white sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt3/4 cup mirin3/4 cup rice wine vinegar4 tablespoons white sugar
Combine everything in a heavy-bottom saucepan and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer ginger and remaining brine to a sealable container.
Grating your Wasabi
Early in his kitchen career, a boss tasked Greg Gettles with turning harsh wasabi powder into the thick green paste served with sushi.
"I cried," admits Gettles, now the executive chef at Piedmont in Durham. "It'll light you up for sure. That's why it was such a big deal to me to taste real wasabi for the first time."
Fresh wasabi root looks similar to horseradish but has a vibrant green tint. It's not as hot as wasabi made from powder, which often contains no real wasabi at all.
"There's a surprising sweetness to freshly grated wasabi," Gettles says. "And it should be used soon after you grate it. If you wait until the next day, the flavor will be super muted."
Gettles recommends buying wasabi from an Asian market where produce is frequently replenished. Such stores often sell ceramic or sharkskin boards for grating it traditionally, but a Microplane is just as effective.
Still, if the fresh wasabi is a bit more assertive than you like, Gettles suggests taming it with a dash of mirin, or sweetened rice wine.
While he has not served sushi at Piedmont, Gettles has used wasabi to brighten a classic beurre monté, a melted butter sauce. "Finishing it with a little wasabi adds depth," he explains. "Wasabi also pairs nicely with cilantro, so it's great in something like a cucumber gazpacho."
While the plant does not thrive in the Southern climate (or many at all, really), Gettles plans to use locally grown wasabi microgreens in salads this spring and, hopefully, larger leaves later as a wrapper for steamed fish.
"I've got a couple of small farmers set to grow leaves for me," he says. "I've never tried this, but I think the flavor will be unreal."
Picking your fish
Consider yourself warned: Eating raw seafood can cause food-borne illness.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there, and I like to be clear," says Lin Peterson of Raleigh's Locals Seafood, which provides fresh catches for Triangle chefs and home cooks alike. "Just as with raw oysters, there is an inherent risk in eating raw fish in sushi."
Peterson says 99 percent of fish served in sushi restaurants has been frozen to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, not only for convenient transport but also to kill potentially harmful bacteria. This is even required by some state and local health departments.
"And there is no such thing as 'sushi grade' fish," he says. "We sell fresh fish, and we know exactly where it came from, when it left the water, when it was cut and when it was sold."
If you don't buy your fish from a seller who can vouch for such stock, chances are you should not experiment with uncooked seafood in your homemade sashimi or rolls. If you do, Peterson offers a few tips.
First, choose a whole fish, like black sea bass or Spanish mackerel, instead of a trimmed fillet, which begins to break down as soon as it's exposed to air.
"Grouper and snapper can work, as well as triggerfish and tilefish," Peterson says. "If you like tuna, look for a section of big-eye or yellowfin, which are running now. They have a nice fat content, which makes for great flavor."
Second, keep the fish super cold, preferably on ice. And then, use your best, sharpest knife to cut thin, even slices.
For garnish, Peterson suggests golden rainbow trout caviar from Sunburst Trout Farms, located in the mountain town of Canton, instead of the salty orange beads of salmon roe.
Rolling your leftovers
Freaked out about raw fish? Stop fretting and do what Gray Brooks does: Make sushi rolls at home using leftover proteins, like those last few bites of a great steak.
"When you're eating a steak as sushi, you can stretch what would normally be a snack into a whole portion of dinner," says the Pizzeria Toro chef. "And it's delicious."
Brooks likes making steak sushi for other reasons, too.
"I don't have special sushi knives, and I don't want to have to buy four or five different kinds of fish," he says. "This is just so much easier."
It's best to slice leftover steak straight from the refrigerator, when it's cold and firm. To ensure a tender bite, cut across the grain.
Brooks likes to have an avocado on hand for his steak sushi. Otherwise, he can be spontaneous about making the rolls because he keeps a stash of essentials in his pantry—rice and seasoned rice wine vinegar, mirin, sheets of nori and togarashi, a seven-flavor Japanese chili sauce. He also reserves a bottle of especially good soy sauce for dipping.
"It really is worth spending a little more money to get a high-end soy sauce," he says. "The subtleties are amazing."
This post first appeared in Indy Week.