Sushi was not always such high-brow cuisine. In the 1800s, sushi street vendors were the taco trucks of Edo (now Tokyo), hawking fish and rice preserved with the vinegar from which it draws the "su" in its name. True, it got pretty formal later on and you can certainly find the most rarified meals of your life in high-end sushi joints. But swing by a busy Tokyo train station and you'll likely find someplace you can buy a ticket at a machine and scarf down some fatty tuna standing at a counter. It's also something Japanese families eat at home with kids and grandparents and the TV on in the corner.
Mind you, the only thing l love more than splurging on omakase at a five-star sushi place is when someone else is paying. But I wish more people enjoyed it casually, too, especially at home. Sure, rolling maki sushi or forming nigiri pieces takes practice. No lie — you will make some jacked up rolls on the way to symmetry and structural integrity, never mind getting the density right.
My family made sushi at home but seldom rolled it. Like many Japanese, we ran it like taco night, with a bowl of sushi rice, an array of fish and fillings on a platter, and squares of nori for temaki, or hand rolls. You take your nori, place a mini scoop of rice on it, add your chosen toppings, fold it loosely (into a cone or not) and chow down.
It's a solid idea for a dinner party — everyone's chatting and reaching across the table. Children will inevitably make little sandwiches. And no one will judge you for putting fried chicken in there if that's what you're in the mood for. I am personally against cream cheese in sushi but what you do in the privacy of your own home is your business and I will not infringe on your personal liberties. Live your truth.
The filling options are vast. When choosing raw fish, make sure it's "sushi grade," which means it's been handled and packaged for raw consumption and has likely been frozen. (Tuna, even in Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market, is frozen on the boats so don't trip.) Defrost it overnight in your refrigerator, pat it with a paper towel to remove excess moisture and slice it against the grain with a truly sharp knife. Look into my imaginary eyes: Is it really sharp? Really? Sharpen it again or face mangled tuna. If that happens, chop it like tartare and serve it with the stoic gaze of an aging sushi master, refusing to be questioned.
A few places in Humboldt sell tuna that's ready for eating raw but you can one-stop shop for all the necessities at Little Japan (2848 F St., Eureka), including most of what you'd order out: frozen tuna, squid, shrimp and unagi (smoked eel). It even carries masago, those crunchy, orange fish eggs. Just scoop out and defrost as much of the masago as you plan to use (probably a couple of tablespoons at the most), seal the package up tight with a layer or two of plastic wrap and tuck it back in the freezer. Sushi night is also a great way to enjoy our local Dungeness crab and a little goes a long way here. Buy it picked or do it yourself. If someone is willing to pick it for you, marry that person.
Cucumbers are a go-to but spicy sprouts, fragrant shiso leaves, sweet brown kampyo (available in refrigerated packets) and carrots cut to matchsticks and cooked until just tender are all nice additions. The recipe below is a guide — go to town with fillings. Consider what you've had before and enjoyed and experiment with one or two new things. Any sushi nori you buy will be fine for this so don't get overwhelmed. For better flavor and texture, you can toast it until it's just shiny by dragging it across a stove burner on the lowest possible heat. Watch your fingers.
The rice is actually the star of the show here. Pick up sushi rice — white short grain — and rinse it with cold water at least five times, swirling it in the pot with your hand — before cooking. This is the difference between glossy, beautiful rice and everything else. Cook it in a pot or rice cooker (the latter is absolutely worth it — return that K-cup thing and get one) according to package instructions.
DIY Temaki Sushi
For the rice:
5 cups cooked white Japanese short-grain rice
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 - 1 ½ pounds total of 2-4 proteins (such as crab, sushi-grade tuna, smoked salmon, shrimp, thin egg omelet, smoked tofu, etc.)
½ English cucumber or 1 Japanese cucumber, seeded and sliced into 3-inch sticks about 1/8 inch thick
2 green onions, finely chopped
½ avocado, sliced
8 sheets of sushi nori, cut into quarters
4 tablespoons pickled ginger
Wasabi (a squeeze tube is a handy choice)
Japanese soy sauce
While the rice is still hot, gently mix by turning it over with a wet rice paddle or spatula and move it into a large, wide bowl. Mix the vinegars and pour them evenly over the rice. Mix the rice well using a cutting motion with the edge of the paddle, cutting and turning the rice over until it's evenly seasoned. If you've got an extra pair of hands, have them fan the rice as you do this (a great job for kids) to blow away the steam and excess moisture.
Once the rice is seasoned, drape a damp cloth over the bowl and set it aside. Prepare your fillings by slicing them into narrow strips and arranging them on a plate. Stack and plate the nori squares and set out dipping dishes with soy sauce, as well as a couple of small dishes for the ginger and wasabi.
Mix the rice again to let off any remaining steam. Once it is just warm, put everything out on the table and have at it.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the North Coast Journal. Reach her at 442-1400 extension 320 or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.