Do you sushi? If you do, you’re not alone in your enjoyment of raw fish in its many permutations.
Sarah Jessica Parker does sushi, so do Tom Cruise, Madonna, Elvis Costello, and a legion of Americans. Sushi hit our shores during the 1970s, and it has been estimated that there are many thousands of sushi restaurants in the United States. Some years ago, cookbook author Julia Moskin called Japanese “the new French.” Americans now easily discuss memorable meals using terms like hamachi and buri toro as they once talked about boeuf bordelaise and coq au vin.
Though it’s generally believed that sushi was created in Japan, it actually originated in Southeast Asia around the 4th century B.C. as a method of preservation. Cleaned and gutted fish were salted and kept in rice, so that the natural fermentation of the rice helped preserve the fish. Over time, sushi made its way in various forms through China and then to Japan, where it was once served only on special occasions.
With the introduction of sushi machines (so-called “conveyor belt” sushi), this once costly delicacy became readily available and affordable.
No one knows exactly when the first piece of sushi was served in the United States. There were newspaper articles back in the 1970s about Shalom Sushi, a kosher sushi bar in SoHo, as well as the opening of a sushi bar in the New York Harvard Club.
Back in the day, when the late John Belushi was a regular on Saturday Night Live, one of the comedian’s most popular skits was “Sushi Samurai.”
But in spite of these occasional sightings, to most Americans eating uncooked fish was weird. That began to change in 1987 when Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, a young Japanese chef, opened a modest restaurant called Matsuhisa on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. Matsuhisa electrified the culinary world with his deft mingling of Japanese, Peruvian and European ingredients, and the restaurant quickly became a celebrity magnet. With the buzz that was generated, a reservation at Matsuhisa became one of Tinseltown’s hottest tickets.
One of the celebrities who “discovered” Nobu was Robert DeNiro, who, with his partner Drew Nieporent, had opened restaurants in New York. The actor made the chef an offer he couldn’t refuse, and in 1994, Nobu opened in trendy Tribeca. The New York restaurant generated such star power that the New York Post once printed a diagram showing the location of celebrity tables: Madonna at a back table next to Will Smith and Cybill Shepherd; Cindy Crawford in front, across from Bon Jovi, near Paul Simon, Tommy Hilfiger, and Fran Drescher.
Today Nobu’s influence extends far beyond the many restaurants worldwide that carry his name. There are many top sushi chefs: Masa Takayama, Chef Hiro Urusawa, Masaharu Morimoto (Iron Chef), to name a few. There are even many non-Asian chefs who have gained top reputations as sushi chefs, including Jerry Warner, Robby Cook, Daniel Dunham.
Thanks to Nobu and the chefs who came after him, sushi not only stopped being an oddity in the United States, it became hot. Americans discovered that dishes made of fresh fish, seaweed and rice are low in calories, high in omega-3 fatty acids, gluten-free, and packed full of protein, minerals and vitamins. Those who would not eat fish, no matter how healthy (or hot) it was, discovered an ever-growing menu of options — like partly cooked fish as well as such non-fish items as seared beef filet, red onion sushi and sun-dried tomato and mozzarella sushi.
As sushi diversified, it graduated into the ranks of “fast food.” While big spenders drop hundreds of dol-lars on the tasting menus at pricey establishments, office workers pick up a few dollars’ worth to lunch at their desks. With the easy availability of sushi ingredients, both in local markets and online, groups of friends and organizations find it easy (and fun) to throw sushi parties instead of pot luck suppers. And while the finest sushi remains an art form created by highly trained chefs, more and more home cooks are venturing into the realm of raw fish and rice cake and nori (sheets of dried seaweed).
To guide the amateur sushi maker, there are many cookbooks. Chef Dave “D.K.” Kodama, one of Hawaii’s top sushi masters, has written several books, starting with D.K.’s Sushi Chronicles from Hawaii (Ten Speed Press). D.K., who has given sushi demonstrations at the world-famous Kapalua Food and Wine Festival and other venues, begins with the most basic advice: “Use the best ingredients you can get.” He recommends avocados from California and Japanese cucumbers (English or hothouse cucumbers are a good alternative). Seafood should be fresh and the rice cake should be firm and moist. If a sushi roll doesn’t look quite right, D.K. offers a quick and easy fix: take a single grain of sticky rice and use it to patch the offending corner.
For first-timers who are squeamish about eating anything raw, D.K. suggests makizushi, which is to Japanese what a sandwich is to Americans; both are portable and can be eaten with one hand. “Many people are introduced to sushi with makizushi. There are many rolls that are not made with any raw fish or seafood. A good roll for beginners is any roll with the rice on the outside (uramaki), so the first taste is rice, not nori. Nori has a strong ocean flavor that is enjoyed by sushi aficionados, but can turn off a novice. Going one step further, for those who find the taste of nori too strong…use mamenori, or soybean wrap, which has a very mild flavor, in place of the nori.”
However the home cook prepares sushi, it’s important to remember an ingredient that Nobu calls kokoro. “Food is imbued with the feelings and personality of the cook,” the chef has said. “I always put something special in my food—my heart, or kokoro as we say in Japanese—and you, of course, must put your own heart into your own cooking.”
Recipe adapted for from D.K.’s Sushi Chronicles from Hawai’i by Dave “D.K.” Kodama with Bonnie Friedman.
8 tablespoons imitation crabmeat
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1⁄2 sheet (cut lengthwise) nori (dried seaweed)
11⁄2 cups Sushi Rice (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon white sesame seeds, toasted*
2 (1⁄4 x 4-inch) sticks Japanese cucumber (English or hothouse cucumber is an acceptable substitute)
6 slices avocado
2 ounces sashimi-grade ahi (a kind of tuna), sliced into 2 (3 x 11⁄2 x 3⁄8-inch) pieces
2 ounces salted salmon, rinsed, and sliced into 2 (3 x 11⁄2 x 3⁄8-inch) pieces
In a small bowl, mix together the imitation crabmeat and mayonnaise. Keep chilled until ready to use.
On a clean, dry cutting board, place the nori shiny-side down and with the long side closest to you. Spread the rice evenly to cover the entire nori. Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top. Flip the nori over so the rice side is facing down and the nori side is facing up. With the long side still closest to you, arrange the imitation crab mixture, cucumber, and 4 slices of the avocado evenly across the bottom third of the nori. With your thumbs, lift the edge of the nori that’s closest to you. Using your fingers to keep the filling in place, roll the edge of the nori away from you so that it just slightly tucks under the filling. Continue to roll the nori, jelly-roll style, into a tight cylinder, making sure there are no air pockets. The seam should be on the bottom. Alternate slices of ahi, avocado, salmon, and avocado, slightly overlapping, along the top of the roll. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the roll, then place a bamboo mat over the plastic wrap and shape into a square-ish roll. Remove the mat. With a sharp knife, cut crosswise into 8 equal pieces, using the plas-tic wrap to hold the pieces together. Remove the plastic wrap. Arrange the pieces on a plate and serve with shoyu (Japanese soy sauce), wasabi, and gari (pickled ginger).
*To toast sesame seeds: place them in a dry skillet over medium heat and stir constantly for about 2 minutes, or until golden brown.
There is no sushi without Sushi Rice. To get it right, you must use a wooden spoon and must mix very gently.
2 cups hot Cooked Rice
6 tablespoons Shari Zu
After cooking the rice, transfer to a rice tub or wooden bowl. Pour the Shari Zu all over the rice. Using a rice paddle or wooden spoon, mix (or “cut”) the rice gently with a slicing motion. Make sure all the grains are seasoned with the Shari Zu, but be very careful not to over-mix or the rice will get mushy. The whole process must be done quickly. Spread the rice evenly in the tub or bowl. After 10 minutes turn the rice over and let it rest until cool. Transfer the rice to an insulated container to keep it from drying out.
(Makes 8 cups)
5 cups short-grain white rice
5 cups water
Fill a large bowl two-thirds full with cold water. Put the rice into a colander that fits inside the bowl. Submerge the colander in the bowl of water. Gently rub the rice in your hands to remove the talc. Drain the cloudy water. Repeat this process until the water is clear.
Drain the rice and transfer it to a rice cooker. Add 5 cups water. Cook the rice in the rice cooker, 15 to 25 minutes before serving or using to make Sushi Rice. Store any leftover rice in a covered container in the refrigerator.
(Makes 11⁄2 cups)
This is another sushi bar standard. In addition to adding flavor, Shari Zu is also a method of preserving the Sushi Rice.
1 cup rice vinegar
2⁄3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 (1-inch-square) piece konbu (kelp)
In a saucepan, add the vinegar and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the sugar and salt and stir to combine. Lower the heat to medium and cook until the sugar and salt have dissolved, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the konbu. Allow to cool before using. This amount will season 16 cups of cooked rice. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.