love sushi. Lately, I’ve been able to indulge my passion in three cities in the U.S. and Europe, paying close attention to the tantalizing differences along the way.
In Los Angeles, sushi chefs enjoy the advantage of access, with an enormous variety of ingredients arriving from the Pacific Ocean and Japan. Katsu, our favorite L.A. sushi master and the now-retired teacher of many local sushi chefs, routinely added shiso leaves to sea scallops and cilantro to giant clams. He’d start by smacking the creature as proof of life and then begin his omakasei (chef’s choice) meal with titillating bits of Spanish mackerel mixed with sesame oil and spring onions chopped ultra-fine with a bathing dash of sweet soy. He’d show off perfect, translucent slices of yellowtail or tuna belly sashimi.
He once served a tiny red crab on a delicate plate he’d formed and fired in his pottery studio. The whole of the crab was no bigger than a coin — crispy, sweet, and salty, potato chip crunchy. Beside it came bite-size wonders, a crisp black marinated radish slice or a ceviche of fish sprinkled with limejuice from Japanese limes grown in his garden.
Katsu was a hard act to follow, but in Austin, Texas, at a restaurant called Uchi, I came upon creative sushi chefs who paired seared tuna with serrano and jalapeña peppers in hand rolls and maki sushi to try to satisfy the Texas passion for at least a touch of eye-watering heat. The rigorous Uchi training program encourages innovation and puts aspiring chefs through a non-stop, six months warm-up. I was particularly impressed by the way they paired various fish and crustaceans (from sustainable sources whenever possible) with papaya, tomatillos, grapefruit, quinoa and sweet potato.
The sushi at London‘s Roka, more conventional but beautifully executed, is intended to be eaten in traditional one-bite fashion. The absence of wasabi in both sushi and hand rolls surprised me, though the serving plate did contain fresh-grated wasabi along with paper-thin slices of white ginger.
Sushi can also be simulated if you happen to be in countries where it’s not served. You’ll need a dependable fish market, some dried seaweed sheets, a 12-inch, flexible bamboo mat, some round-grain rice, a bottle of Japanese vinegar (or white vinegar sweetened with just a tad of sugar), soy sauce, and wasabi in paste or powder form. Most good oriental markets stock these ingredients, as well as fresh wasabi root. I recently got a Sushi Kit complete with instructions and seaweed. The good news: it worked. Here’s the most basic approach:
— First, cook the rice: 1 cup of dry rice to 1 1/3 cups of water (the water should be about 1/2 to 3/4 inches above the level of rice in the pan). Bring the rice to a boil and cook briskly until the surface of the rice makes “fisheyes,” little pockets in the rice as the water disappears. Turn off the heat, cover the rice and let it sit to steam for about 10 minutes. With a fork, turn the rice out into a bowl.
— Sprinkle with 1/2 cup Japanese sushi vinegar (or your sweetened vinegar), 1/2 teaspoon of salt and mix together with a light hand. The rice should easily stick together to form the small oval shapes required for sushi. I suggest using thin slices of very fresh fish filet (cut sushi-sized), fresh peeled shrimp split down the middle and flattened, or thin slices of fresh scallop.
— Wet your hands and place a soup spoon-sized bit of rice in the palm of your left hand (or right hand if you’re left-handed!). With the two first fingers of your right hand, form neat, compact ovals of rice and set aside. Before laying the slices of fish on top of the ovals, dot each one with a smidgeon of wasabi paste.
— Lay a piece of fish, scallop or shrimp on each rice cake and serve with soy in a side dish. I occasionally sprinkle the scallop and shrimp with a few drops of lime before serving.
— To make sushi, lay a sheet of crisp seaweed, shiny side down, on your bamboo mat (they will be approximately the same size). Wet your hands and spread the rice in a thin layer over two thirds of the seaweed sheet from edge to edge, leaving the top edge free. Lay the fish across the sheet of rice, horizontally, in a thin line in the middle. You may add thin strips of peeled, seeded cucumber or ripe avocado for a different taste.
— Dot the fish with wasabi. Roll up the seaweed sheet very tight, starting from the end covered by rice and pressing the interior into a nice cylinder as you roll, then stop at the seaweed that is free and brush it with water. Continue rolling to seal the roll. With the bamboo mat, roll and press the maki roll carefully to form it into a compact shape, pushing the rice in at the ends of the roll.
— Unroll the mat, leaving the maki roll ready to cut into six pieces with a very sharp damp knife. Turn them cut side up and serve with soy and ginger.
If you want to feel professional, wear a Japanese headband and yell at your guests as they come through the door, Irasshaimase! “Welcome.”