by Kate Heyhoe
"How do I make sushi rice?"
After Tira Mi Su and General Tso's Chicken, sushi rice is one of the most common recipe requests I receive. So, being National Rice Month and in preparation for my Virtual World Tour: A Progressive Feast, I thought it timely to explore the role of rice in Japan.
Most Japanese households no longer cook rice in a pot on the stove. They use electric rice cookers, marvelous machines that produce perfect rice every time. They automatically shut off when done, keep the rice warm, and reheat rice effortlessly. They range in styles from plain white to decorator colors, and unplug easily for serving rice at table. Rice cookers are now more common in Asian industrialized nations than barbecue grills are in the US. While I do remember my Korean mother making rice from scratch in a heavy pot, measuring the water depth by the traditional "two knuckle" method, we switched to electric rice cookers around 1965. I now own two sizes: a smaller one for daily use, and a large rice cooker capable of more than ten cups of rice for parties.
In Asia, rice is functional and fundamental. Asians never consider rice a mere "side dish," as Westerners usually serve it. Rice is the foundation of the meal—of every meal—and other foods are balanced around it. Plain, cooked white rice is as integral as the plate or bowl it's served on—in fact, it is "the center of the plate" and the largest part of the meal consumed.
Sushi, for instance, exemplifies the way rice is used to carry other flavors and ingredients. In sushi, rice is lightly seasoned with sugar and vinegar, then fanned to produce a glossy sheen. The rice holds together well, allowing it to be shaped, usually into an oblong boat-like bed for slices of very fresh raw fish, or molded as a wrapping around a core of ingredients.
You've probably seen various styles of sushi. The oblong sushi, known as edomae or nigiri sushi, means sushi made Edo-style, in the style of Tokyo, and nigiru means to hold in one's hand or to grasp (which is how the rice is shaped). Unlike some other sushi styles, nigiri sushi is made entirely using the hands, without bamboo mats or other utensils, and is sometimes called finger sushi. The Osaka-style, or oshi sushi, is rice pressed into logs in a wooden box and cut crosswise into square pieces. To make maki sushi, you need a special bamboo rolling mat called a makisu. In Maki sushi, rice is rolled around a central core of ingredients, into a cylinder, then cut across into bite-size pieces. Maki sushi often does not contain fish, and may be stuffed with burdock root, cucumber, or green onions. My mother used to make a delicious maki sushi with just green onions, crumbled bacon, and sesame seeds, wrapped in rice and sheets of nori (seaweed).
But you don't even have to shape sushi into bite-size pieces either. In some sushi dishes, fish and other ingredients are scattered—artfully so—on top of a bed of sushi rice. Chirashi sushi and bara sushi mean "scatter" and the ingredients are chosen as much by color as by taste, to make the dish attractive. Train station vendors commonly sell chirashi sushi in lunchboxes for workers or packaged for picnics. Since fresh fish is hard to come by in the mountains where I live, I've created my own recipe for Kate's Chirashi Sushi using cooked shrimp and sushi rice.
Most sushi masters must cringe when they see Westerners eating nigiri sushi, the oblong-shaped rice pillow with a piece of fresh fish on top. The proper way to eat it is by turning the sushi piece over, so the fish is on the bottom, then lightly dipping just the front part of the fish in soy sauce (or soy sauce mixed with wasabi, a fiery green horseradish paste). But Western novices tend to dip the rice base of the sushi piece into the sauce. The rice absorbs way too much sauce and the balance of the delicate flavors is ruined. Next time you're eating nigiri sushi, remember to dip the fish, not the rice.
Coming soon: For those of you who, like me, could stand another few weeks of vacation, join me starting September 25 for Kate's Virtual World Tour: A Progressive Feast. From September to January, the progressive banquet begins with Appetizers in Asia, continues with multiple courses across India, the Middle East, and North Africa, and around Christmas, crosses over to Europe for Desserts in Deutschland. Recipes, country backgrounds, local attractions, and special travel tips make each stop vivid and exciting, as if you were right there, experiencing the journey yourself. These world tour specialties and authentic recipes will inspire you to create your own unique and festive holiday tables, fit for kings and queens. No passport needed, just a fork, a stove and a hearty appetite!
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