Easy sushi (or, how to turn boring ingredients into an exciting kids’ meal)

Being Japanese and all, I love sushi. Western people tend to equate sushi with raw fish, but that sort of sushi (called “nigiri”) constitutes only a small portion of the wonderful world of sushi. Besides, seafood is expensive, and sushi-grade fish even more so, so it’s not something we can afford to eat all the time. Which is fine, because other, more humble versions of sushi are just as delicious, and easy to make at home. And you know what? Kids love them.

Like these mini sushi rolls.











It’s the most humble of all sushi rolls, with nothing but cheese in it. But doesn’t it look fun and special, what with its mini size (yes I do like everything in mini size) with a little presentation going on with steamed carrot sticks and snow peas? My children, who keenly observed me plating the dish, actually started singing the “happy birthday” song, saying it looked like a cake.

And the best thing about it is that you can make it from boring pantry and fridge staples or leftovers. I always have rice, nori sheets and rice vinegar around in the pantry. I almost always have cheese and carrots in the fridge. The snow peas are from my little veggie patch in the backyard, which is handy to have when you tend to fear grocery shopping with two toddlers.

But isn’t it hard to roll up a sushi roll, you ask? Well, not if you practice a few times. It helps if you have the bamboo rolling mat you can buy at any Asian market. But even if you don’t have it, you can use a plastic wrap and a tea towel instead. Would you like to have a go? Here’s how I do it:

Step 1: cook some rice

For sushi, you want to use white, medium-grain rice. You don’t need an expensive packet of “sushi rice”; any normal medium-grain rice will do. But not long-grain, jasmine, arborio or basmati. You need the high moisture content of cooked medium-grain rice to make a nice, firm roll that doesn’t fall apart in your hands. Brown rice is also tricky, so it’s best to avoid it unless you are a sushi master. Which I am not.

Cooking rice is a no-brainer if you have a rice cooker. But don’t worry if you don’t, because you can still cook rice on stovetop easily. Here’s how: In a small pot with a lid, wash some rice (say, 2.5 cups for a family of four), changing water several times until the water is nearly transparent. Drain water.

As for the water-rice ratio, here’s what I do: Cover the rice with cold water and evenly spread the rice underneath. Gently insert your index finger straight into the water (90 degrees to the water surface), until your fingertip just touches the surface of the rice. The water should come up to the first finger joint, or a little less. This is the trick I learned — no, not from my Japanese mother or grandmother– but from a teacher at a French cooking school. Strange, I know, but it works every single time.

Cook the rice on medium heat, with the lid on. When the water boils, reduce heat to low, and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked when you taste it. No need to stir the rice while cooking. Turn the heat off, and leave the pot there with the lid on for another 10 minutes or so.

Step 2: Flavour the rice with rice vinegar

When the rice is done, bring to the boil about 1/2 cup of rice vinegar (Mitsukan brand is good, available at most supermarkets now in Sydney) for 2-3 cups of uncooked rice. Transfer the cooked rice to a big bowl, pour the hot vinegar over the rice, and immediately start gently turning the rice over and over with a flat wooden spatula (or a large wooden spoon or kitchen spoon), while at the same time, using your other hand, vigorously fanning the hot rice with something like an A4-sized booklet (sewing machine instruction manual is good). You can also ask someone else to do the fanning. The point is to evaporate the vinegar liquid quickly while the rice is hot, so the rice will have the nice vinegar flavour without being soggy. You want a nice, fluffy, and shiny sushi rice.

I promise, it’s not as difficult as it may sound. If you feel a little intimidated, just use plain cooked rice. It’ll still be fun and tasty.

Step 3: roll it up!

For mini sushi rolls, cut a sheet of nori (again, available in most supermarkets in Sydney) in half with scissors. Place the sheet in the middle of your bamboo mat (or on a plastic wrap spread over a tea towel folded in half), and spread rice over it evenly. You only need a very thin layer of rice, and you want to avoid rice at the edges. As you spread the rice, gently squish it, because you are aiming for tightly packed rice. Then in the middle, lay long sticks of cheese. Like this:











Other quick and easy fillings are: steamed carrot sticks, avocado, cucumber sticks, omelette cut into long sticks, and tuna flakes (even better mixed with mayonnaise). It’s best if you don’t use multiple fillings for the mini version. The most common mistake people make is to overstuff a roll.

Then you roll it up. First, you roll the nori just over the filling, a little more than half way, and then you squeeze the roll evenly to tightly pack the rice. Sorry, this photo doesn’t help at all, but here it is anyway:










Then you roll it all the way to the end (there is a little overlap of nori). Squeeze the roll again to shape it and to make sure it’s all nice and packed. Ta-da.











Then you cut it gently with a very sharp knife. Or serrated knives like bread knife work well here. And again, have fun with presentation!

Why do kids love mini rolls? Because they can pop the entire piece in their mouth. If the piece is too big, moist nori sheet can be a little tricky for little ones to chew off.

Happy cooking, and I promise the next post will be craft related….

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