After the trials and tribulations I have gone through over the past weeks to finally obtain the parcel Makiko (I was just really very hungry) sent me in the latest round of EBBP3, all the anticipation finally got the better of me today. Maki is Japanese, but lives in Switzerland, and it's precisely this unusual combination of cultures and therefore culinary backgrounds that was too intriguing for me to ignore when I had to decide who should send me my parcel.
When I finally opened the box, I discovered 2 packs of Nori seaweed, 1 bottle of rice vinegar (which mysteriously had remained intact), 2 packets of shinmai (see below), 3 dashi teabags (see below) and 1 jar almost caramelised apple preserve. Fantastic! I am a bit of a sushi addict and have always struggled in London because there are so many mediocre sushi bars... so I've long wanted to make my own sushi, Maki must have a sixth sense!
Alongside the carefully typed-out instructions for preparing the rice came a bit of background on the ingredients. Shinmai is a very special type of sushi rice - it's "new" rice, and like our new potatoes this means that it's only been harvested just this autumn. It's not available outside of Japan, so I count myself very lucky, indeed. Dashi is the stock used to prepare sushi rice - Maki didn't say what it was made of, but it has a fishy smell and wikipedia says it's made of kelp (seaweed) and tuna.
Now, did it make a difference, you will ask? Does it taste any better than your regular sushi rice? You bet! (Especially if all you know is the sushi you pick up from M&S or Pret for your lunch).
I realised that the rice was very special right from the moment I first touched it. It's difficult to describe, but you sort of felt that it was very young and hadn't been drying out for years and years. This might not make any sense to you, but it felt like it was less hard than your normal sushi rice and it definitely was softer to the touch, sort of rounder as if it hadn't been bashed about as much yet. I normally hate washing my rice, but this time I didn't mind my fingers freezing as it was such a joy to play around with those ricecorns which were so smooth as if they had been individually sandpapered to perfection.
Put on the spot, I would probably have guessed that you cook sushi rice in salt water. Not so. It's actually cooked in stock (dashi). The flavour of this rice was sublime, miles above everything I'd had before, not overpowering despite the fish content, and I could have eaten the whole pot on its own, it was that good!
The line-up of sushi I attempted to make reads as follows:
- Salmon maki
- Cucumber maki
- Salmon nigiri
- Philly, smoked salmon & chive maki
- Ocean Park maki
The last two are maki I've discovered quite recently, when stumbling across a fabulous sushi place not far from where I work (Bento Café, 9 Parkway, Camden, London NW1 7PG, Tel: 020-7482 3990). All these years of searching for good sushi was finally rewarded! One is made with philadelphia cream cheese and smoked salmon (I also added some chives), the other is perfect indulgence with prawns, green asparagus, lumpfish caviar, chilli mayo and tiny morsels of crispy tempura batter. I just love this because it's such an interesting combination of textures and the chilli mayo probably sound strange, but it works really well when used with moderation.
And while I was preparing maki and nigiri for the first time in my life, I suddenly realised just how difficult this is. Having long thought that piling up rice et al. on a piece of seaweed and rolling it with the help of a bamboo mat couldn't be that tricky, but I now understand why sushi chefs have to train for 4 years, I will never complain about the price of sushi ever again nor will I moan when my food is slow to arrive - it's a tricky business, an absolute art form, and if it wasn't for Makiko's incredible rice which is soooo much better than anything I've tasted before, I could do without the hassle of preparing it all... or maybe it just takes some practice, as all good things in life do!
470 g shinmai sushi rice
620 ml cold water
1 teabag of dashi stock seasoning
60 ml rice vinegar
2 tsp salt
3 tsp caster sugar
1 hairdryer (cool setting) or handheld fan
Wash the rice gently in several changes of cold water, until the water runs clear. Drain the rice and put into a heavy-based, medium-sized pot with the dashi "stock"bag. Leave to soak for at least 1 hour.
Put the pan onto the stove, uncovered, and bring the water to a boil. Turn the heat to its lowest setting, cover the pot with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes. When all the water has been absorbed (you should see little craters forming on the surface), take the lid off and turn the heat to the highest setting for about 1 minute to cook off any remaining water. Put the lid back on and let rest for another 15 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, prepare the sushi vinegar. Heat the vinegar in a pan, add the salt and sugar and cook until dissolved. Set aside.
Turn the rice out onto a large platter and pour over the vinegar. Using a broad spatula, fold the rice over and over again while cooling it down with the hairdryer/fan. You must aim to cool the rice down rapidly to about body temperature. When sufficiently cool to handle, proceed to make your various forms of sushi.
Philly & smoked salmon maki
For these maki, I used a sheet of nori, 2 tsp philadelphia cream cheese, 1 slice smoked salmon and 3 chives.
Ocean Park maki
Not sure what the original Bento Café OP maki called for, I had to be inventive.
First, prepare a tempura batter, quite thin, actually, so you can just dunk a fork into the mix, then let the batter drip off the cutlery into the very hot oil to form nothing but tiny drops of batter. Lift with a slotted spoon, then leave to drain and crisp up on kitchen towel, after sprinkling it with salt.
Roll the maki to about 5 cm diametre with thin green asparagus tips (blanched for 5 minutes max., then refreshed), chopped cooked prawns, lumpfish caviar, tempura drops, chilli mayo (mayonnaise with a generous dash of tabasco).