Sunday, December 28, 2008

An attempt at sushi.

Tonight I made my second attempt at sushi. My first attempt was at least six months ago and it went OK. Today I used a book I purchased probably eight years ago called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art to guide me through my sushi making.
There are many types of sushi. I made the traditional maki-zushi (巻き寿司) or rolled sushi.The main thing that makes sushi sushi is the rice. Sushi rice is more dry than regular rice and is made with vinegar. Sushi rice can also be made with some kelp during the beginning of boiling. I tried using seaweed. The trick is to put the kelp in for just a few minutes when the water starts to boil and remove it. I left it in too long, and either that or the texture of seaweed is not good for this, because when I tried to remove it it was all squishy.
To really get in to the spirit of things I made myself a cup of monkey picked oolong (烏龍) tea. Back in the day monkeys where trained to climb tea trees to pick the best leaves off of the top.Today that's all handled by machines, but the important part is that only the best baby leaves from the top of the tea treas are picked for this oolong tea. The price is over a $100 per pound, but the taste and the longevity of just a quarter pound of this tea makes it well worth it. It is also worth noting that oolong tea is Chinese in origin, not Japanese.
Once the rice is cooked it is supposed to be placed in a hangiri (半切). Usually the chef tosses the rice in the hangiri while his apprentices fan the rice. The purpose is to cool the rice as fast as possible. The hangiri is made of cypress. The wood pulls water out of the rice. I do not happen to have either a hangiri or any other wooden bowl, so I found the largest bowl I could, which is made of glass. As well as not having a hangiri on hand, I also didn't have any apprentices, or anyone else on hand for that matter, to fan the rice off so I had to go between tossing the rice and fanning it off. The process of properly tossing and fanning the rice can have a substantive impact on the quality of the rice, but I just fumbled through the process as best as I could. Overall I did the best I could with what I had, which I don't think was all that bad. The worst part was that I burned the bottom rice while cooking. I tried my best to not scrape any obviously burnt rice into my glass bowl.
After the rice has cooled the vinegar is tossed in. The vinegar is prepared by heating up rice vinegar and dissolving sugar and salt into it. The vinegar is surprisingly sweet, but adds a lot to the taste of the rice.
The vinegared rice is the reason for the original sushi. To keep crucian from spoiling it would be salted and set in a bed of vinegared rice to mature. The rice would later be discarded and the crucia eaten. This eventually evolved into multiple dishes served with vinegared rice, including the modern maki-zushi that most Westerners identify so strongly with Japanese food.

As much as I like real sushi with raw seafood, I do not know where to find seafood fresh enough to eat safely raw, so I just picked up some shrimp and boiled it. It is hard to go wrong with fresh boiled shrimp. I purchased half a bound which I peeled by hand. The secret to boiling shrimp is to do it no longer than absolutely necessary.Shrimp cooks really fast in boiling water and is best removed immediately if it is not being cooked with other foods, such as corn, sausage and cabbage. In fact, I use this rule of thumb in most of the seafood I cook. This is especially true with tuna and salmon.
I also picked up some carrots and avocado for vegetables. I think if carrots or cucumbers are used they are supposed to be pickled, but I don't know that, and I didn't do it either. I cut the carrots into small "sticks" I think if nothing else I should have steamed them, but I'll get into that later. The avocado was also cut into small strips.
With all of my ingredient ready I was ready to put them together. First the seaweed gets slightly toasted. Next it is placed shiny-side down on a bamboo mat. Finally a bed of rice is placed on it and spread out to cover about three-fourths of the sheet. The ingredients are then placed in line down the bottom of the rice bed. This is then rolled up. The idea is that the bottom of the seaweed sheet should reach the top when rolled. I missed the mark, but I don't think it had any overall negative effect on the roll. I simply had rolls smaller than I should have, but they where still just fine. The final process is to take the roll and slice it into rolls. The dullness of my knife really showed. I really need to get a good knife sharpener and give my blade the love it deserves. When I hit the carrots the knife had a hard time cutting through them without squashing the bottom of the roll, making sushi rolls that where not a good circular shape.
I set the table with a fresh cup of oolong and a dish of soy sauce and wasabi (山葵). I also boiled four clams to go with my dinner. When picking wasabi it is important to make sure your wasabi is not made from radish. Real wasabi is made from the wasabi plant. I prefer nice harsh wasabi that will clear your sinuses right out given just a small dab. When shopping for soy sauce look on the label for it to advertise that it is made from a natural brewing process. Most soy sauce is made using newer methods that speed up the brewing process, but decreases the quality. Good soy sauce is still extremely cheap so there is very little benefit from buying cheap soy sauce. Kikkoman brand soy sauce is always guaranteed to be of good quality.
Overall the sushi was good. The biggest mistake I made was in burning the rice. The burnt flavor came through and was the biggest detractor. Everything else about it was very good.The clams where also a nice compliment. The oolong washed it all down very nicely. After finishing my first plate I was satisfied, but got up and made another roll of sushi. This second time I successfully rolled the seaweed all the way through, but I had put in too much cream cheese which dominated the sushi too much.
After my second plate I was full. I made a third roll and put it in the fridge for lunch tomorrow. The sushi is not suppose to keep well overnight, but I will give it a go and see. I'm sure if I was a master sushi chef and connoisseur it would make a marked difference, but I'm not sure if my beginners sushi is going to be affected too much by half a days worth of time.
This was a good experience and I look forward to doing it again, keeping in mind all of the lessons learned from this time.