Note: It's sushi week at Serious Eats. We're kicking it off with a sushi style guide and notes on how to make sumeshi, the vinegared rice that makes sushi, well, sushi. Each day this week, we'll feature instructions on a different basic form of sushi-making. Why? Because that's just how we roll. —The Mgmt.
The term "sushi" is often synonymous with "raw fish" in many diners' minds but it in fact refers to the vinegared rice in the dish, not the topping or filling (which may or may not consist of raw fish).
Just like Spanish jamon, French confit or Korean kimchi, sushi was originally created as a means of preservation. At some point before the 16th century, it was discovered that salted fish packed in rice underwent a particular form of fermentation that not only preserved the fish, but created a whole host of the savory flavors prized by the Japanese and now identified as umami.
Fish would be preserved for a period ranging from several months to several years. The rice was discarded, and the fish was consumed either thinly sliced, or as a flavoring in other dishes. By replacing the fermentation process with a splash of vinegar and sugar and using fresh fish instead of fermented, modern sushi was invented in early 19th century Edo (modern day Tokyo).
It's really the Japanese version of the sandwich. Now, now, I know you're asking—what's meat between a couple slices of bread have to do with raw fish and rice? Well, just like sandwiches, sushi is a convenience food intended to be eaten directly out of your hands. In fact, when modern sushi was invented, it was served primarily out of street pushcarts, as theater concessions, or as snacks in gambling halls. Indeed, tekka-make (tuna rolls) are named after the tekkaba (gambling halls) where they were commonly served.
Though there are regional specialties from every corner of Japan (and even Korea!), this style guide will outline the six most common forms in restaurants and homes today.
Vinegared rice (sumeshi) is the most important aspect of any form of sushi. It's made by combining rinsed and steamed short-grain rice, rice vinegar (often flavored with kombu, or sea kelp), sugar, and salt. Balancing the sweet and sour flavors and achieving the perfect rice consistency are the challenges. The process for making sumeshi may seem a bit fussy at first, for anyone who appreciates sushi, the results are worth it, and the steps become simpler and simpler as you go on.
- Step 1: Rinse the rice. Use a high-quality short grain rice (koshihikiri is the most respected variety) specifically labeled for making sushi. My favorite homegrown brand from California is Tamaki Gold. Measure out the rice, place it in a strainer, and rinse it under cold running water until the water coming out runs clear. This extra starch would make the rice far too sticky if left on the grains.
- Step 2: Steam the rice. The easiest way by far is to use a rice cooker. Add the rice to the machine, add water in a ratio of 1.1 cups of water per cup of rice, turn it on, and forget about it. If you want to do it the hard way, bring the rice and water to a simmer over high heat in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Place the lid on the pot, reduce the heat as low as it'll go, simmer for 15 minutes, remove from heat, and let it sit until all the water is absorbed, about ten minutes longer.
- Step 3: Make the vinegar. Combine vinegar, sugar, salt, and a strip of konbu (optional) in a small saucepot and heat until the sugar and salt are dissolved. The ratio of this mixture may vary according to taste, but I generally use 1/4 cup of rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar, a teaspoon of salt, and a 2x2 strip of konbu per cup of uncooked rice.
- Spread the rice. Here comes the fussy part. You need to transfer the rice into a non-reactive container that will allow it to sit in an even layer no more than 2 inches thick. There are bamboo containers called sushi oke specifically designed for this task, but any container will do really. I suggest a glass Pyrex casserole dish, or a plastic lexan container.
- Fan and season the rice. If you've got someone willing to sit next to you and fan your rice as you mix in the vinegar solution, you are a luckier man than I. I resort to attaching a clip-on fan the my kitchen cabinet door and have it blowing across the rice as I sprinkle it with the vinegar solution and gently fold it into the rice with a cutting motion using a rice paddle. The goal here is to season the rice without crushing and cutting the grains, all while removing as much excess steam and moisture as possible.
If all goes well, your sumeshi should come out slightly sweet and tart, full of distinct grains, and have a texture that holds together when compressed, but is not overly sticky.
If it all seems to go south, don't despair. Just remember that in Japan, there are young apprentices who take two years perfecting their sumeshi preparation!
In the meantime, I promise your results will still be perfectly edible, and probably delicious. Excited yet? You'd better be, because we just passed the point of nori turn!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.