There\u2019s something about sushi. The contrasting flavors of briny fish, earthy rice, spicy wasabi, salty soy sauce and tangy pickled ginger. The myriad of textures\u2014crunchy, 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.\r\n\r\nOf course, American sushi is not the sushi of Japan. As Americans are wont to do, we\u2019ve taken a highly sophisticated yet elemental cuisine and integrated it into the multicultural melting pot of our picky palates. In Japan, sushi is literally \u201cseasoned rice.\u201d Sushi combines seafood and rice, the staples of the Japanese diet, but it\u2019s 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.)\r\n\r\n\u201cThere\u2019s a saying in the culinary world that you eat with your eyes, and that\u2019s one of sushi\u2019s main attractions,\u201d says Tracy Griffith, an American sushi chef and author of Sushi American Style. \u201cSushi is beautifully geometric and full of pleasing colors. And then the taste is so fresh. It\u2019s ingredients at their elemental best.\u201d\r\n\r\nGriffith is quick to make an important distinction: Japanese food is uncomplicated, not unsophisticated. \u201cThe whole sushi tradition is about honor and simplicity and reverence. When you eat sushi in Japan, you don\u2019t 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\u2019re tasting is the rice and fish. I don\u2019t even know if most Americans know what that\u2019s like.\u201d\r\n\r\nTyson 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. \u201cChefs here had to be creative to get diners who had never eaten raw fish to try sushi,\u201d he explains. \u201cIn 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nGriffith found the same thing in her first job out of sushi chef training. Customers would tell her, \u201cI don\u2019t like raw fish. What can you make me?\u201d as she stood there thinking, \u201cWhy are you in a sushi restaurant?\u201d To accommodate these picky diners, she whipped up sushi combinations filled with vegetables and cooked meat.\r\n\r\n\u201cI felt a little twinge about tweaking a 1,200-year-old tradition, but American-style sushi does taste good,\u201d Griffith says. \u201cThe trick is not to do fusion for the sake of fusion. Have fun with it, but be respectful.\u201d 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\u2019t 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe first one will be a disaster, but practice makes perfect.\u201d Prep ingredients ahead of time and let your guests make their own for a tapas and fondue party rolled into one.\r\n\r\nFinding fresh raw fish is a concern for home sushi chefs. \u201cIt\u2019s hard,\u201d Griffith admits. \u201cSourcing 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?\u201d\r\n\r\nCole suggests developing a close relationship with the fishmonger at a high-end grocery store. \u201cMake 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.\u201d\r\nOnce your fish is in hand, use it the same day for maximum freshness\u2014and meanwhile, store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator. The idea, Cole says, is to have warm rice and cold fish.\r\n\r\nAs 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\u2019s 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\u2019d 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.\r\n\r\nMost 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. \u201cSake 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,\u201d he explains. Traditionally, sake is not served with sushi, but with sashimi. \u201cIn Japan, sake is like a food. It speaks for itself,\u201d Cole says. \u201cI think it goes better when there is no rice.\u201d\r\n\r\nIn the end, whether you\u2019re eating (and drinking) traditionally or not, Cole wants you to remember one thing. \u201cTextures and temperatures, and how they combine, are Japanese food in a nutshell. For us, it\u2019s like a warm apple pie with cold vanilla ice cream. It\u2019s a beautiful relationship.\u201d\r\n\r\nTemaki Sushi (Hand Rolls) Four Ways\r\nTemaki rolls are simple to make\u2014no 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.\r\n\r\nFor the hand rolls:\r\n3 cups cooked sushi rice\r\n10 nori (seaweed) sheets, cut in half\r\n\r\nFor the fillings: Griffith and Cole both recommend paying attention to textures and tastes when choosing filling combinations. For example, if you\u2019re 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\u20444 inches.\r\nCowboy roll: grilled beef tenderloin, red onion strips, blue cheese,\r\nbaby spinach\r\nTuna roll: sushi-grade tuna, avocado, cucumber\r\nAsparagus roll: roasted asparagus, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes,\r\npine nuts\r\nSalmon roll: smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber\r\n\r\nFor 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 \u00bd cup rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir to coat evenly. Return rice to pan and keep warm.\r\n\r\nTo 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\u2014you want the rice to be about two grains thick, with a ratio of 1\u20443 rice to 2\u20443 fillings). Roll the rice around in your right palm to form a loose oblong shape.\r\n\r\nLay 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\u20132 strips of each filling on the rice in a vertical line, letting the tops extend out of the top of the roll.\r\n\r\nTo 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\r\n(serves 4\u20135).\r\n\r\nWine, 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\u2019s low in hops. If you\u2019re 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\u2019s \u201cB\u201d 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\u2019 Spirit Hawk Chardonnay 2008.\r\n\r\nSake? Gauntner recommends sampling any of the rolls with Ama No To \u201cHeaven\u2019s Door\u201d Tokubetsu Junmai Sake or Sougen Junmai Gingo Sake.\r\n\r\nAlso in the December '01 issue: Sushi and the Art of Knives\r\n\r\nGretchen Roberts is a wine and food writer in eastern Tennessee. she also writes for MyRecipes.com, the AOL blog Slashfood and her wine Web site Vinobite.com.