Good sushi can be a difficult thing to find. Scratch that, inexpensive, good sushi is hard to find. Good sushi is easy when you’re paying $200 for dinner, although I’ve even had that get screwed up. And wow does that make you angry. Some guy has the gall to be charging prices for fish that would buy ingots of silver the same weight and somehow the texture and taste aren’t all quite there. Boo! A good sushi place with reasonable prices is magical – like a unicorn.
There’s a unicorn in our neighborhood. I’ve written about it before. Obasan, which means “aunt” in Japanese, is our dirty little secret. They have a happy hour which in all respects, actually makes you happy. We’ve never been outside of happy hour. Why would you? The prices are so good and the service is so fantastic I can’t see a reason to. The lady who works there is herself, quite magical. She’s attentive, remembers you from visit to visit, and is half the reason we keep going back. She’s always there, always smiling, and a ruthless (in a good way) server. Nothing goes unnoticed. Epic. The other reason we keep going back is the fact that the sushi is amazing. Fresh, excellent texture and portions, fantastic rice, and if you order some fried tempura goodies they come out screaming hot. Not sitting on a plate under a heat lamp hot. Fresh out of the oil, searing the inside of your mouth, seconds from the kitchen, tasty-hot. This place is a gem.
On our little voyage to Uwajimaya the other day we picked up some salmon. A nice slab of sushi grade meat that looked for all the world like the stuff we get at Obasan. Given that the prices are so great and that’s it’s less than a five minute walk, we’re hard pressed to ever make our own sushi. It just doesn’t make sense. But under the guise of practice makes perfect – and we’ll most likely not always live around the corner from phenomenal sushi at bargain prices – an effort to get things right in the world of sushi began.
I should quickly point out that our sushi rice is probably garbage when compared to what any self-respecting sushi chef would produce. I’m sure he’d take one look and toss it into the dumpster. It takes a sushi chef in training seven years to learn how to make rice. Seven years. For rice. I don’t have that kind of time, as you might imagine.
I can, however, follow directions (for the most part) and I have to say that this recipe actually turned out rice that we like to eat. When you’re buying rice for this little project please buy actual sushi rice and don’t skimp. The biggest secret of the best sushi restaurants is where they purchase their rice and how they prepare it. We use Nishiki #15 Premium Grade Sushi Rice. It’s readily available, is the proper grain and type of rice, and it produces a nice sushi rice if you’re patient.
Since sashimi is in essence a small cut of fish laid atop a bed of rice, the rice is first step. Sushi rice takes awhile to make. This isn’t 20 minutes in a rice cooker easy. It’s a bit more involved.
We had a nice cut of fish, for two people you’ll want maybe 2/3 to 1 pound of fish – so that’s what we’ll base the recipe on. Two cups (uncooked) will be a goodly amount for that quantity of fish.
The first step is rinsing the rice. Sounds a little silly but you want to get a lot of the starch out of the rice. You end of washing out quite a bit of nutrients in the rice as well but good sushi rice is more about texture and less about nutrients. Too much starch equals terrible rice. Rinsing is as easy as it sounds – fill a bowl with the rice then rinse with water. Stir it around with your hands. Drain. Repeat. Do this two or three times. Make sure it’s well drained.
We used our rice cooker. I’m not sure what you’d do with a pan. I’d be lost cooking rice in a pan, to be honest. Our cheap little $15 rice cooker makes better rice than it ought to and it’s far better rice than I’ve ever produced in a pan by myself. This particular recipe/cooker combo calls for about 3 cups of water to 2 cups of rice. Fill the rice cooker and don’t turn it on quite yet.
Kombu. Kombu, or Konbu – either is fine – is kelp. It looks like seaweed because it is seaweed. It’s extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. Over 90 percent of Japanese kombu is cultivated, mostly in Hokkaidō, but also as far south as the Seto Inland Sea. You can make get Kombu at any Asian market or better supermarkets (like Whole Foods) generally carry it. Sushi rice generally requires soaking one sheet (about 4 inches long – curled up sort of cigar like) in the rice water for about 30 minutes. We have this stuff hanging around so we did exactly that. I’ve seen many people not have this around and still made their own sushi rice and the sun is still coming up every morning. Choose your own path, then.
Once soaked you can remove it and turn on your rice cooker. We used the only setting ours has – which is “on” and let it go through a full cycle. Once the timer popped, we unplugged it (ours goes from cook to warm – it has no off setting. Off is unplugging it from the wall.) We let it sit for another 10 minutes before going any further.
Now’s a great time to mix in all the extra ingredients. What ingredients you may ask? Sushi rice requires three more ingredients. Rice wine vinegar, sugar, and salt. For the two cups of rice we mixed a quarter cup of good quality rice wine vinegar, a quarter cup of sugar, and one and half teaspoons of salt. Mix all that together and pour over the rice. Stir to coat well.
Now you’ll be moving the whole lot onto a large cutting board or sheet. A bamboo board would probably be best, lacking one large enough we used a plastic cutting board. Again, the sun still came up this morning so it can’t be all bad.
Generally rice gets fanned at this point. Yes – fanned. It’s mainly cosmetic. It adds a sheen to the rice. It was in the directions we followed so I’m passing it along. We did so for just a few minutes – maybe about five. You could easily put a fan set to low pointed at the sheet to give yourself a break. Doing it by hand can get old quickly, I assure you. I’m sure that’s not considered cheating.
Sushi rice needs to be cool. It doesn’t need to be ice cold. Room temperature or a bit lower is fine. You can leave it out on the counter covered in plastic wrap – which takes awhile – or you can continue to fan it. If you’re like me and want to cheat a bit, cover it in plastic and stick it into the fridge for a little bit.
Once cooled you can start making little rice beds. I’m not sure what the exact process here is, technically speaking, for perfect rice. I make something that approximates what every piece of sashimi I’ve ever eaten looks like. A little rounded slightly flat bed of rice. You have to give it a little squeeze to get it right. Not too much, just enough. How hard will depend on how wet the rice is. We pre-made all the little beds of rice and then set about putting the fish on top.
Because I’m not a sushi chef, I’m also sure the cuts of fish we made would shame any decent sushi master. Supposedly how you cut the fish makes a difference in the actual taste. I’d buy that. We just got out the really good sharp knife and tried to duplicate what we’ve seen a thousand times. A nice piece of fish that fits comfortably on top of the rice bed. Not too big and certainly not too small. Just right, Goldilocks.
What we ended up with was sushi that wasn’t quite Obasan worthy but was certainly better than anything available in most supermarkets – which I suppose isn’t saying much. It was quite good and when you figure out the economics it’s quite reasonable, you’re indeed saving yourself money in the process, which is nice.
With a bit of practice I’m sure you could be making yourself high quality sushi at home with little investment other than time and some patience. Even the rice, I’m sure, gets better each time. For an initial trial run I’d say it was a grand slam. We won’t be getting a job as a sushi chef anytime soon, but neither will I be working for Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin and I’m far more comfortable with that kind of food.
I’d also note that a good quality soy sauce and some wasabi (real wasabi – not green horseradish) – will make for a more memorable eat. We have some wasabi powder which is 45% real wasabi. Big difference.
For a reasonable little meal of salmon sushimi for two you’ll need:
- 2/3 Pound to 1 Pound of Fresh Salmon
- 2 Cups of Sushi Rice (We used Nishiki #15)
- 3 Cups of Water
- 1 Sheet of Konbu (Kombu) – Optional
- 1/4 Cup Rice Wine Vinegar
- 1/4 Sugar
- 1 and 1/2 Teaspoons of Salt
- Soy and Wasabi to Personal Taste