Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How to eat sushi properly (Can I eat sushi in two bites?)

Hello Sushi Girl,
I know good etiquette dictates that you eat the whole piece at once but many restaurants make the pieces very large. What is your suggestion on properly eating it then?
Thank you, Theresa

Sushi is intended to be eaten in a single bite, as one mouthful (albeit a somewhat large mouthful). 

This is much easier to do at restaurants in Japan where food portions have not been perverted by the "bigger is better" theory of marketing. But even in Japan, sushi portions -- and other dishes prepped and served to people who have only chopsticks and no way to cut their food smaller -- can be a bit challenging for the average sized mouth. This is why it is very common to see people all over Japan covering their mouths as they chew.

But back here in the States, if you are going to a restaurant that makes the nigiri sushi too large to eat in one bite, then I say ignore etiquette and just do whatever you have to do. However, if you do decide to try to bite it in half, and if the sushi rice is molded correctly (meaning it is not too tightly packed together), then the rest of the bite will probably fall apart in your hands or fall from your chopsticks.

Now when it comes to maki sushi (cut up sushi rolls like California Rolls), you are just going to have to shove the entire piece in your mouth. That is your only option because when the seaweed first touches rice in the rolling process, it absorbs moisture which causes it to lose its crispness and toughen up. At that point, it will be nearly impossible to get your front teeth through the seaweed and you are really going to need to use your molars.

Thanks for the question Theresa.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Do I Need a Rice Cooker to Make Sushi Rice?

This is one of the top questions I get about making sushi.

Answer: You don't have to, but you really should.

I wish I could say something more supportive about cooking rice on a stove top, but I can't. And last
month I finally found myself in a situation where it really was all that I had.

The scene was the kitchen of a Washington island home where my uncle and his hungry friends (all twenty-five of whom had just finished two hours of lap swimming) gathered to celebrate his birthday and eat sushi. I stood before five pounds of fish, twenty cups of (dry) rice and no rice cooker.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, let me state that prior to this event, I had never, in over twelve years of making sushi professionally, made sushi rice on a stove top. 

So I grabbed the largest pot I could find, filled it accordingly and covered it with a lid. From there all I could do was light the stove, take a deep breath and hope for the best. Well I didn't get the best. In fact, it was awful. The minute I tasted the rice I cringed. I quickly felt a slightly nauseating twinge in my stomach and my cheeks began to burn. 

SIDE NOTE: I have a certain perfectionist disorder that reveals itself in matters related to sushi rice. There is a certain way that I want my sushi rice to taste (only one way) and if it doesn't taste like that in texture, flavor and temperature, then I go a little nuts, internally. I realized this ten years ago on a job where I was so upset by the way the rice tasted that I worried I might faint. And while I served this rice in shame, (and in the midst of a well-hidden panic attack), I continued to receive compliment after compliment on specifically how good the rice was. So was the problem with the rice or was the problem with me? To this day I am still trying to answer that question.

Back to the island. I tried to calm myself with the "it's not bad, it just isn't exactly how you want it to taste" mantra but it was difficult because I pride myself on my sushi rice. As far as I am concerned, I make the best sushi rice around and that is the sushi rice that I want all of my clients to experience as well. I had no other choice but to sit back and wait for the responses. I anxiously scanned the expressions of the guests as they took bite and after bite of the sushi I made. Could they tell how bad the rice was? Did they notice the inconsistency in the texture which consequently was affecting the flavor? Am I insane? If they were on to my calamity, then they did a great job of masking it. Once again, I heard only compliments and watched the guests eat serving after serving of sushi until nothing was left.

So I thought it was awful but the guests thought it was delicious. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Well, I was correct and the rice wasn't good, was the actual problem with the stove top method or was the real problem due to the fact that I had never before made sushi rice in anything other than a rice cooker and therefore did not do a very good job of making the rice? Looking back, the rice could have been much better had I done some things differently. These are the things I learned:

TIP #1: Use the widest pot you can find.
I learned this the hard way. I made the mistake of choosing the biggest (by capacity) pot I could find. Now while that seemed like a good idea at the time, the largest pot also happened to be the tallest and narrowest pot (think large boiler) and that was the source of the problem. As rice cooks, it expands and usually doubles in size. If you have a narrow pot and a lot of rice, the cooking rice is going to keep pushing up and up and up. This creates a longer path (of extremely tightly packed rice) for the boiling water/steam to travel through, making even cooking nearly impossible. You will most likely end up with overly cooked rice (mushy) on the bottom and undercooked rice (hard) on the top.

Your ideal scenario will be a pan that is wider than it is tall (see photo).

TIP #2: Smaller batches work best.
Since I had twenty cups to cook, in hindsight I should've cooked no more than ten at a time. Ten cups of rice is much more manageable than twenty and makes finding an appropriate sized pan more likely as well.

Now even if I had chosen a better pot and also worked with a smaller batch, I still would have preferred to use a rice cooker for my sushi rice. The stove top method may be adequate but it certainly isn't better, let alone ideal. Rice cookers are pretty much as fool-proof as cooking equipment comes and they will help you make the best sushi rice that you are capable of making (and we know how important the rice is).

So the moral of this blog post is:
A rice cooker is the single most important item a sushi maker should have in the kitchen.

Of course you don't have to, but you really should.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Yes, California Rolls are Real Sushi...

They are "real" and I LOVE them!

I love them so much that if I could only eat one type of sushi for the rest of my life, it would be a California roll. Well, kind of.

What I actually love are the California rolls that I make (and only the California rolls that I make). In fact, before I became a sushi chef, I didn't even like California rolls. I now understand the reason was not because California rolls are inherently bad but because most California rolls are made badly.

In other words, the problem lies with the person making the California roll. This is both good and bad news. The bad news is that you aren't very likely to find a good California roll anywhere out there in your regular sushi world. The good news:  you can make them for yourself and they will  taste a hundred times better than anything you can buy. I swear this to be true and sometimes feel as if it is my current mission in life to prove it to others.

SIDE NOTE:  One of my biggest workplace pet peeves is hearing people (and these people are never sushi chefs) pompously announce that they don't eat California Rolls because they aren't "real sushi." At moments like those oh how I would love to pull out a canned air horn, push the button for about five seconds and then scream at the top of my lungs: "Wronnnnnnnnnnnnng!" So for all of you self-proclaimed "sushi snobs," get over yourselves. California Rolls are definitely "real sushi".

So what exactly is it that I do that makes my California rolls so good? Answer: I make them with love.

Many people out there who make food for a living, just don't seem to care enough. This obviously goes for people in all professions but I really seem to notice it amongst the food service workers. I see it at least once a week when my sandwich artist squirts a huge glob of mustard on the first inch of my sandwich, follows down the rest of the five inches of bread with barely a noticeable trace and then doesn't bother to pick up a knife and spread the glob of mustard evenly across my sandwich (So annoying!).

California rolls really seem to fall victim to this type of apathy because of the aforementioned belief that they are not real sushi. It's as if California rolls are treated as "freebies" and simply thrown into a  standard combination plate, therefore not worthy of proper attention and care. Rarely are the cucumbers fresh and crunchy. The avocados tend to be too mushy and the rice is cold. When I make them, I do the opposite of all of this (and so will you when you make your own). Let me break this down for you, step-by-step.

#1) Use perfectly ripened avocados 
Do not use an avocado that can be used for guacamole. In other words, it should not be too soft or mushy. It, too, should not be hard. Think about what a just ripened yellow banana (no brown spots or green stripes) feels like if you lightly squeeze it. This type of banana will be firm but it will also give just a teeny, tiny bit when you press it with your thumb and fingers. The same should be true of the avocado you use to make a California roll.

#2) Only use freshly cut cucumbers (that means freshly cut within minutes)
You can't imagine how big of a difference this will make in almost every type of sushi roll you make. Don't make the same mistake that most restaurants that serve sushi make, and cut your cucumbers hours ahead of time. A cucumber that was cut into shoestrings, wrapped in plastic and stored in a refrigerated case seven hours before you arrived to the sushi bar is not going to be "bad." But... it sure isn't going to taste as fresh as one that was cut minutes before you bit into it.

To be fair, these restaurants don't really have a choice; because they serve so many customers, they can't take the time to cut a cucumber every time a customer orders something. However, to be fair to the true essence of sushi, sushi restaurants were never intended to be so large that you needed to cut cucumbers hours ahead of time.

#3) Warm rice, warm rice, warm rice
By now you should know how I feel about the importance of using warm sushi rice when making sushi. If not, you can find out about it here.

#4) Imitation crab vs. real crab.
I bet you don't know where I am going with this one. Well, if I can only choose one, then I choose imitation because when making California rolls, imitation crab is a much better choice than fresh crab. Surprised? It actually makes sense. If I had fresh crab legs, why would I roll them up in rice, seaweed and then dip them in soy sauce, possibly hiding most of the flavor of the crab? What I would rather do for those crab legs is melt some butter, cut a few lemon wedges and pour myself a martini (and, of course, use the imitation crab for my California rolls).

Now just in case you were under the misbelief that imitation crab isn't eaten in Japan, let me assure you that it is. Imitation crab is as popular in Japan as peanut butter is in the United States. You can find it most kitchens, in every supermarket and in many dishes served in restaurants throughout Japan. Where do you think this stuff came from? And that reminds me, all imitation crab is not made equally. When making California rolls, I highly recommend that you use imitation crab from Japan.

So that's about it. If you are still having a hard time accepting just how awesome California rolls actually are, then you probably just never had one that was made the right way. So the next time you have a California roll made with cold rice, mushy avocados and non-crunchy cucumbers, please don't blame the California roll, blame the California roll maker.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Picture Puzzle








These chopsticks are a gift from my aunt. When I first opened them I had no idea what they were. My first thought? Well let's just say that I tried to draw on my upper eye lid with one. It took me me about a minute and a half to figure out they were chopsticks (well, a minute and a half after I realized they weren't eyeliner pencils)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What is REAL (and FRESH) wasabi?

I have been asked some version of this question so many times over the past 10+ years and yet just realized that a blog post would be the perfect way for me to answer it in a proper manner. The answer is actually very simple:


Commonly used wasabi grater

Real (and fresh) wasabi is called "hon wasabi" and it is never grated ahead of time. It is always grated as needed, using a special grater, like the one above or with a traditional grater made from the skin of a shark:
traditional shark skin wasabi grater

I'm going to go ahead and assume that most of you are not seeing the grating technique above at your favorite sushi bar and therefore are not eating real (and fresh) wasabi. But that is okay. Really. While it is nice to be able to try real (and fresh) wasabi, don't feel like your sushi experience is ruined without it. In fact, I would argue that there are many things that, although traditional and authentic in the world of Japanese food, do not translate very well into the world of western eating habits. And one of those things, in my opinion, is real (and fresh) wasabi.

Deep fried soft-shell crab roll

The western palette, in comparison to the traditional Japanese one, seems to favor stronger flavors. The foods here are significantly sweeter and spicier -- as well as heavier, richer and bigger -- than those I often ate when I lived in Japan. (Keep in mind that I am referring simply to traditional Japanese foods and not the more modern favorites like yakisoba, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki. These foods, which I like to call "beer food," are big on flavor, with enough sauces and spices to rival any late-night cheeseburger, burrito or chili dog). In comparison, the traditional Japanese palette can be best described as understated There is a simple elegance to traditional Japanese foods and in such a culinary environment, flavors like fresh (and real) wasabi can truly be appreciated because they can actually be tasted. In the big-flavor world of American sushi bars, customer favorites like spicy tuna, deep-fried rolls and baked dynamite with their rich, heavy and spicy sauces, would completely overpower the subtle flavor of fresh (and real) wasabi. If a soft shell crab roll, for example, is high on your list of favorites, then don't even think about using, wanting, or needing real (and fresh) wasabi. It just wouldn't make sense  because the more subtle taste of fresh (and real) wasabi cannot compete with all the flavors going on in that dish.

Wasabi has a subtle flavor? Yes, it does. This is especially true when compared to what you have probably been eating ever since you picked up your first piece of nigiri. Real (and fresh) wasabi can best be described as having a "bite" compared to the more commonly experienced wasabi "burn." At times the flavor can seem so subtle that I like to describe it as a "decorative condiment" because actually seeing it is a big factor in being able to taste it. In fact, it is very likely that if you don't see it, you may not be able to taste it.
Fresh toro nigiri with real (and fresh) wasabi

So in what types of dishes would I most likely serve real (and fresh) wasabi? Well, it would be very appropriately served on top of pieces of tuna, halibut or snapper sashimi. These mild-flavored fish won't override the delicate, yet biting flavor of the real (and fresh) wasabi and thus allow you to appreciate and enjoy such a unique and rare treat. And yes, having the opportunity to actually eat real (and fresh) wasabi is a special treat WHEN it is served in an appropriate manner with the appropriate foods. Another common way it is served is with cold buckwheat noodles (soba) with dipping sauce... one of my favorites.


•    Powdered wasabi (not real wasabi, not fresh wasabi, usually powdered horseradish)
In most cases you have been eating a combination of powdered horseradish that was mixed into a paste with water. This is the stuff that gives you the nose burn.

•    "Real" wasabi (but not fresh)
In some cases you might be eating "real" wasabi but you aren't eating "fresh" wasabi. In other words, it came from the freezer  (usually 1-30 days before you ate it). This wasabi comes from companies that make wasabi paste from fresh wasabi, freeze it and then sell it to sushi businesses who can technically claim it to be "real" wasabi. Now while these real wasabi pastes claim to not have any horseradish in them (and I have no reason not to believe them), they do use additives to maintain taste and color. This shouldn't be giving out a burn but if it does, you know they have added something else to it.

•    Combination "real" (but not fresh) with powdered wasabi (aka powdered horseradish)
I have been to establishments where they use frozen wasabi paste, mix it with wasabi powder and call it, of course, real wasabi. This, too, will have some burn to it.


Fresh wasabi roots for sale in Tokyo market

Now beside the reason I have given you as to why you don't really need to be eating real (and fresh) wasabi in your local (whether it be in the US, Canada, Italy, Australia, etc.) sushi bar, one of the main reasons you aren't eating it is because of the price. Wasabi is expensive.  In Japan, just one wasabi root (known as a rhizome) goes for about $10 - $15. When you add on import taxes, transportation costs, storage, wholesaler markups, retailer markups, etc you are then looking at about $50 - $80 per pound. The reason it is so expensive is because it is so difficult to grow. Grown along river  beds in mild climates, wasabi takes a year and a half to grow to a 6-inch root that is ready to be harvested.

Absolutely not. In fact, a sushi bar may indeed serve real (and fresh) wasabi but only with the appropriate dishes. In other words, they may serve it but not with the things that you have been ordering. This goes for sushi bars not only in western countries but in Japan as well.

•   Real (and fresh) is only grated immediately before it is used.
•   Real (and fresh) wasabi does not burn.
•   You can have great sushi and not have it served with real (and fresh) wasabi.
•   If you love the "wasabi burn," then don't even think about asking for the "real' stuff.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year... show me the sushi!

Today is known as O-shogatsu in Japan. Some of the Japanese New Year traditions include waking up in the earliest hours of the morning so you can hike to the top of your nearest mountain to watch the sunrise (I never did this, by the way) and throwing beans while shouting "Oni wa soto. Fuku wa uchi." (translated to: "Bad fortune get out! Good fortune come on in."). That one I have done many times, usually with  kindergardeners.

Most of the other traditions include foods. The ones I like best are sweet black beans, mochi and, of course, sushi. The attached photos are some of the platters I made for friends for their O-Shogatsu parties.

At the very bottom there is also a photo jelly candy made from  yuzu (a wonderful Japanese citrus fruit which is very difficult to find in the States).  It was made by a friend's uncle and it was my favorite thing from O-shogatsu 2010.