Sushi Behind Closed Doors

Sushi Behind Closed Doors

There’s something about sushi. The contrasting flavors of briny fish, earthy rice, spicy wasabi, salty soy sauce and tangy pickled ginger. The myriad of textures—crunchy, soft, creamy, chewy. A whirlwind of colors spiraled into a visually breathtaking package. No wonder sushi bars are popping up on every corner and rolls are featured in such unlikely venues as the supermarket deli.

Of course, American sushi is not the sushi of Japan. As Americans are wont to do, we’ve taken a highly sophisticated yet elemental cuisine and integrated it into the multicultural melting pot of our picky palates. In Japan, sushi is literally “seasoned rice.” Sushi combines seafood and rice, the staples of the Japanese diet, but it’s presented as an art form that appeals to all five senses in its beauty and simplicity. (Those thin slices of raw fish are called sashimi.)

“There’s a saying in the culinary world that you eat with your eyes, and that’s one of sushi’s main attractions,” says Tracy Griffith, an American sushi chef and author of Sushi American Style. “Sushi is beautifully geometric and full of pleasing colors. And then the taste is so fresh. It’s ingredients at their elemental best.”

Griffith is quick to make an important distinction: Japanese food is uncomplicated, not unsophisticated. “The whole sushi tradition is about honor and simplicity and reverence. When you eat sushi in Japan, you don’t ever put wasabi in the soy sauce. The chef has already placed it properly on your piece. You dip just a tiny bit into the soy sauce and are very spare in eating. What you’re tasting is the rice and fish. I don’t even know if most Americans know what that’s like.”

Tyson Cole, the executive chef/owner at Austin, Texas sushi restaurant Uchi, says sushi chefs found it challenging to make traditional sushi specifically for the American palate. “Chefs here had to be creative to get diners who had never eaten raw fish to try sushi,” he explains. “In Japan, the point is the integrity of each ingredient. Here, we have a national fascination with dipping sauces. My goal is to take the Japanese aesthetic and point it toward the American palate.”

Griffith found the same thing in her first job out of sushi chef training. Customers would tell her, “I don’t like raw fish. What can you make me?” as she stood there thinking, “Why are you in a sushi restaurant?” To accommodate these picky diners, she whipped up sushi combinations filled with vegetables and cooked meat.

“I felt a little twinge about tweaking a 1,200-year-old tradition, but American-style sushi does taste good,” Griffith says. “The trick is not to do fusion for the sake of fusion. Have fun with it, but be respectful.” That advice can apply to the home cook. Sushi is a blast to make at home, especially for entertaining. Making your own sushi takes practice. You may need to hunt down ingredients at an Asian specialty store if your grocery doesn’t have a large Asian section. It takes a few tries to roll sushi with a mat or even into hand rolls, but Griffith says not to worry.

“The first one will be a disaster, but practice makes perfect.” Prep ingredients ahead of time and let your guests make their own for a tapas and fondue party rolled into one.

Finding fresh raw fish is a concern for home sushi chefs. “It’s hard,” Griffith admits. “Sourcing good fish is even an effort for professional chefs. We go to market at five in the morning to get the high-quality fish or have it flown in overnight, so how is a home cook supposed to find any?”

Cole suggests developing a close relationship with the fishmonger at a high-end grocery store. “Make a request a week out, and they can order something for you. For hand rolls, sushi-grade tuna or salmon is a safe choice that your guests should enjoy.”
Once your fish is in hand, use it the same day for maximum freshness—and meanwhile, store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator. The idea, Cole says, is to have warm rice and cold fish.

As to drinks, sushi is often washed down with beer in Japan, but those refreshing qualities that make beer a good match are found in many wines, too. Cole’s sommelier at Uchi keeps the wine list white-heavy, focusing on fresh, crisp, clean wines that accentuate the raw fish. Griffith, who is engaged to master sommelier-turned-boutique-winemaker Emmanuel Kemiji of Miura Vineyards, loves a light, earthy red like Pinot Noir with some of the meatier sushi rolls like tuna. When choosing wine for Americanized sushi, she advises matching the way you’d match other foods: buttery wine with buttery seafood, earthy wine with earthy flavors, and crisp whites with vegetables. And you can never go wrong with sparkling wine: the bubbles and acidity are the perfect palate cleanser for all types of sushi.

Most American sushi restaurants serve sake, a Japanese beverage brewed from rice. Sake is as varied and subtle as sushi itself, says John Gauntner, an American sake educator who lives in Japan. “Sake developed alongside the overall nature of Japanese cuisine, manifested in its subtle qualities rather than overbearing big flavors. Sake goes well with sushi because the flavors of both are subtle yet diverse,” he explains. Traditionally, sake is not served with sushi, but with sashimi. “In Japan, sake is like a food. It speaks for itself,” Cole says. “I think it goes better when there is no rice.”

In the end, whether you’re eating (and drinking) traditionally or not, Cole wants you to remember one thing. “Textures and temperatures, and how they combine, are Japanese food in a nutshell. For us, it’s like a warm apple pie with cold vanilla ice cream. It’s a beautiful relationship.”

Temaki Sushi (Hand Rolls) Four Ways
Temaki rolls are simple to make—no special sushi mat or knife needed, though it takes practice to roll them just right. Keep the rice warm in a rice cooker and have everyone gather around the table to roll and eat as they go.

For the hand rolls:
3 cups cooked sushi rice
10 nori (seaweed) sheets, cut in half

For the fillings: Griffith and Cole both recommend paying attention to textures and tastes when choosing filling combinations. For example, if you’re doing a salmon roll, add creamy avocado and crunchy cucumbers to create salty, crunchy, and creamy flavors and textures all in onebite. Cut fillings into short, thin strips of about 4 by 1⁄4 inches.
Cowboy roll: grilled beef tenderloin, red onion strips, blue cheese,
baby spinach
Tuna roll: sushi-grade tuna, avocado, cucumber
Asparagus roll: roasted asparagus, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes,
pine nuts
Salmon roll: smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber

For the sushi rice: Cook 3 cups of short-grain white sushi rice according to package directions in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. Spread rice evenly in a large glass pan or rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with a mixture of ½ cup rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir to coat evenly. Return rice to pan and keep warm.

To make the rolls: Dip your fingers into a finger bowl with a splash of vinegar and scoop out about 2 tablespoons of rice (less is more—you want the rice to be about two grains thick, with a ratio of 1⁄3 rice to 2⁄3 fillings). Roll the rice around in your right palm to form a loose oblong shape.

Lay a half sheet of nori in your left palm and gently press the rice oblong down the left half of the nori all the way to the edges. Place 1–2 strips of each filling on the rice in a vertical line, letting the tops extend out of the top of the roll.

To roll, shift the nori sheet into both palms. With your left hand, pull the lower left corner of the nori toward the middle of the sheet. Tuck the corner under the ingredients. Continue rolling the nori in a spiral motion to form a cone shape. Serve immediately. Makes 20 rolls
(serves 4–5).

Wine, beer and sake recommendations: If enjoying your sushi with beer, as the Japanese generally do, choose a crisp, light lager or pilsner, or a pale ale that’s low in hops. If you’re going with wine, most sushi calls for a clean, crisp, unoaked white. Sparkling wine like the 2006 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs or a zippy Sauvignon Blanc like Brancott’s “B” Series 2008 will enhance the freshness of raw fish and cleanse the palate. Salmon, tuna, steak and other meaty fillings are delicious with a rich but light Pinot Noir like the WillaKenzie Estate Pierre Leon 2006, and buttery fillings like crab and lobster go well with a buttery California Chardonnay, such as Lander-Jenkins’ Spirit Hawk Chardonnay 2008.

Sake? Gauntner recommends sampling any of the rolls with Ama No To “Heaven’s Door” Tokubetsu Junmai Sake or Sougen Junmai Gingo Sake.

Also in the December ’01 issue: Sushi and the Art of Knives

Gretchen Roberts is a wine and food writer in eastern Tennessee. she also writes for, the AOL blog Slashfood and her wine Web site

Published on December 30, 2009
Topics: RecipesSushi