How could I not fall in love with this month’s Daring Cooks challenge? I may not have mentioned it here before, but I have a deep interest in Japanese culture. Part of this interest is linked to my PhD research, which deals with manga, anime and Japanese video games. That’s right, I have the best job in the world!
Now, given my love of food (which should be obvious by now), and my love of manga, it’s not hard to see why culinary manga and I are a match made in heaven. I only got into them recently, and they are a dangerous, dangerous combination for me: I have to restrain myself from bingeing on them and reading them all in a single afternoon!
One of the best reads I’ve come across is the Oishinbo series. I’ll write a separate post about it later, but basically it’s about a team of food journalists who go all over Japan, trying and comparing all the specialties and delicacies – come to think about it, maybe they have the best job in the world! But the great thing about Oishinbo is that it includes tons of detailed information about every aspect of Japanese cuisine – including about sushi and sashimi.
Also, a book called The Story of Sushi (by Trevor Corson) had been sitting on my shelf for months, and I decided to finally read it, in preparation for this challenge. If anyone reading this is interested in sushi (how it was born, how it evolved, how it is made today, and what the industry is like), I highly recommend this book. It has a few narrative and stylistic weaknesses, but if it’s sheer information you’re looking for, you’ll find it there. I came out of that book feeling totally ready to take on this challenge.
Now, Audax and Rose, our hosts this month, made a point of letting us know that sushi does not have to include raw fish. They gave us a lot of freedom regarding the ingredients we could use, as well as many suggestions. However, my love of raw fish (and meat, for that matter) knows no bounds, and I was prepared to make my sushi as traditional and conservative as possible. It would have been fun to make a funky, weird variation, but in this case I felt I would benefit more from doing things simply, but well. Plus, after all that being reminded, through my readings, that Japanese cuisine is all about delicate, clean flavours and minimalism, I wasn’t feeling up for weird experiments.
I’d made sushi once before, but had been discouraged from making it again, because it had been quite a bit of trouble, and even though we had kept the quantities and variety to a minimum, we had ended up with way more food than we could possibly eat – and sushi, obviously, doesn’t keep. But, jolted by my readings, I was ready to give it another try.
It’s fairly easy to find the basic ingredients for making sushi in Montreal. Every supermarket in my neighbourhood has a small “sushi section,” with round rice, nori (seaweed) sheets, wasabi, and bamboo mats for rolling. However, it’s not quite as easy to find ingredients for other Japanese dishes. Our Chinatown has pretty much everything you need for Vietnamese and Chinese cooking, but not Japanese: would you believe I’ve even had a hard time finding miso? Fortunately, the other days, Laurent stumbled on a Japanese market fairly close by, where he was able to find pretty much everything I had been looking for: dried bonito, kombu (seaweed), different types of miso, and other things… Expect more Japanese recipes here in the future!
Furthermore, when learning that I was planning on making sushi, my mother told me about a Japanese store in Westmount, where they sell hard-to-find Japanese items, from food to utensils. The same day, as fellow Montrealer and food blogger Judy (from Culinary Escapade) confirmed this, and also informed me that this place sells sushi-grade fresh fish. Whenever I plan to eat raw fish, I usually just go to my nearby supermarket and trust the fishmonger; but sushi is definitely a case where it is worth going the extra mile – literally. And that’s how, on morning of the day I was planning on doing this challenge, I found myself going to Miyamoto Foods.
My sources weren’t kidding: this place has a lot of unique stuff. Most of it is a little pricey, to be sure, but I guess that is to be expected. I was in a rush, so I didn’t take the time to browse as I normally do, and just grabbed all the stuff I needed for the challenge. I did look longingly at a gorgeous sashimi knife, as I have been realizing that my life would be so much easier if I invested in some good, sharp blades – but this wasn’t an investment I was willing to make on the spot. I will definitely be coming back to this place, though.
Miyamoto Foods get their supply of fresh fish on Thursdays, and I got there on a Sunday, which meant that there wasn’t much left. But I was lucky enough to find an absolutely gorgeous piece of tuna. I can’t afford fresh tuna often, but this was definitely the time to splurge a little. I usually have a hard time cutting raw fish with my dull kitchen knives, but this one was a dream to slice. And it didn’t smell fishy at all.
OK, enough advertising for books and stores: let’s get to the actual challenge, shall we? The first, and arguably most important part, was making proper sushi rice. This meant rinsing, draining, and soaking the rice, before cooking it (with optional kombu seaweed and sake), seasoning it with a vinegar concoction, and fanning it until cool. And, obviously, no crushing or smushing the rice at any time. It sounds like a lot of work for plain old rice, but it’s definitely worth it: the result had a fresh, clean taste, and a texture that was just sticky enough. By the way, here’s a little trick to cool the rice: if you can, use a small electric fan – or, do what I did (thanks to Laurent’s brilliant idea), and use a hair dryer with a “cool” setting (obviously, do not use the regular, warm setting).
So, I succeeded in making good rice, but that’s just about the only part I was really satisfied with. My actual sushi making skills need a lot of work.
We were challenged to make three kinds of sushi. The first was the Spiral Roll. Ideally, your fillings should form a spiral pattern inside your roll. As you can see, mine (crabstick, tuna, scallion, salmon, and cucumber) sort of got squeezed together, and the pattern isn’t all that clear.
Next were nigiri, which are not rolls, but clumps of rice topped with fish (or anything else). Mine certainly looked a lot better than my Spiral Rolls, but I wasn’t completely happy with them, either. As I recently learnt from The Story of Sushi, a good nigiri should not be too tightly packed: the rice clump should hold together, but easily disintegrate in your mouth. I tried my best, but the nigiri were still too heavy for my taste. Nonetheless, this was my favourite sushi of the bunch, because it really allowed us to savour that amazing tuna. The salmon, which I had bought at a regular store, was chewier than the tuna, but still very fresh and tasty.
Finally, there was the Dragon Roll (or Caterpillar Roll). This is an inside-out roll (with the rice on the outside), topped with avocado and decorated to look like a dragon or caterpillar. As you can see, mine doesn’t quite look like either.
The thing is, I did this challenge under more stress than I would have liked. Knowing that making sushi usually yields a lot of food, we had invited Laurent’s parents over to share the meal. But since sushi can’t be shaped too far in advance (otherwise the nori sheets absorb too much moisture), I had to make it on the spot, with everybody waiting. Our guests were as nice and accommodating as could be, but I just can’t cook well under pressure, especially when the preparation requires precise, delicate gestures – like rolling sushi. I got all fidgety and just made a mess. And I didn’t take nearly as many pictures as I normally do, because I didn’t want to keep everyone waiting too long.
However, I did give the Dragon Roll another shot – after everyone had left. This time, I topped it with sesame seeds and smoked salmon, with a fresh salmon and cucumber filling, and took the time to decorate it. It was better, but you’ll notice I took the picture without cutting it. That’s because my knife completely destroyed it. Seriously, I’m asking for knives for Christmas. However, I have to day: sesame seeds + smoked salmon = yummy.
OK, so I’m not quite the sushi chef yet. But I was very happy to reconnect with sushi and with Japanese cuisine in general. So I’m thinking of this as a long-term, ongoing challenge, with this month being merely the first step. In fact, I think I’ll be paying Miyamoto Foods another visit very soon.
Check here for the original (very detailed) instructions, to make sushi of your own. And don’t forget to check the Daring Cooks Blogroll! A huge thanks to Audax and Rose for this great challenge!