Although she probably doesn’t even know it, the person most responsible for my undying appreciation of all things edible and insatiable hunger for new food adventures, is my best friend’s mother, Annie.
For their family, eating anything and everything outside of the North American ‘norm’, was the norm. I came from a pretty standard household on the culinary front, and Annie opened up a whole world of tastes and possibilities for me. And as Annie was the first woman I met that truly loved cooking, meals at their house always left me full of wonder and wild inspiration. She also enjoyed taking us for dinner, and some of the more memorable meals out were at Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, and Macedonian restaurants – cuisines I’d never even heard of, places I’d never dreamed of. When I was about 13, Annie took her daughter and I out for my first sushi and I was not immediately hooked… so many different flavours, textures, and aromas that I just couldn’t wrap my head or tastebuds around.
My deep appreciation for the art form of sushi is what kept me going back to try it over and over. I think it was my forth or fifth try, years later in fact, that my palette was ready for the flavours. Suddenly, I loved it. I tasted all the every element separately, but understood their perfect synergy. The delightful balance of textures made sense. And I could finally understand the relationship between their design and flavours – how one informed and inspired the other. It was the ‘ah-ha’ moment in that relationship for sure.
Now I am not only a sushi lover, but also love to connect to the practice of making sushi. Training to become a sushi master can take decades of dedication, practice, and consciousness and as I keep practicing, I’ll have to settle with knowing the basics and munching on my humble, imperfect rolls.
Making sushi may seem like an intimidating undertaking, but the basics can be simple, and very gratifying. The first roll or two may fall apart on you, but try again and you’ll eventually get the hang of it. Luckily, all your mistakes will still be delicious!
All in the Details
Anyone who has enjoyed a good sushi meal will tell you that it’s not just about the rolls themselves, but also the accompanying details. Sushi is traditionally served with three other condiments: soy sauce, pickled ginger, and wasabi. I love to make my own so I can control the ingredients and flavours. Sometimes these mass-produced accompaniments can have ingredients that I choose to avoid and when I’m focused on a quality end result it’s worth the extra effort if you have the time!
Pickled ginger that accompanies sushi is called gari, and is meant to be a palette cleanser between rolls. The pink colour is occurs when young ginger is placed in an acidic liquid (vinegar). Unfortunately, most commercially produced ginger is artificially dyed and contains refined sweeteners.
Here is a totally fabulous recipe for pickled ginger using simple, whole-food ingredients. It only takes 45 minutes start to finish, so if you are making this sushi recipe, start with the ginger and it will be ready to eat when your rolls are. Boss!
Quick-Pickled Ginger + Tezu
- 4 Tbsp. / 60 ml brown rice vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. water
- 2 tsp. liquid honey or light agave
- 2 tsp. sea salt
- 1 tiny piece beet root or juice optional for a lovely pink hue
- 60 grams/2 oz fresh ginger root organic if possible
- First you’ll have to make the tezu – the vinegar-water pickling liquid. Conveniently, this is the same dressing you’ll use to season your quinoa, so the amounts below are in fact enough for both the pickled ginger and rolls. Use half measures if you are only making the pickled ginger. Whisk together. Set half aside to dress the quinoa.
- Peel the ginger and slice it thinly on a mandolin, grater or exercise your awesome knife skills.
- Sprinkle the ginger with salt, toss to coat, and let it sit for 30 minutes.
- Using your hands, squeeze the whole lot of ginger out over a sink, rinse well with cold running water and squeeze out again until it is as dry as possible.
- Soak the ginger in a glass jar with half of the tezu (it should be submerged; if not add a little more). Let marinate for 15 minutes. Serve.
- Cover and store leftovers in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
Soy Sauce Explained
They look the same, smell the same, and even taste very similar. So what is the difference between soy sauce, shoyu, nama shoyu, and tamari? It seems a little confusing to this North American born and raised eater, but all of these salty seasonings originate from the same humble ingredient, the soybean.
One method of making soy sauce is by fermenting soybeans, water, wheat, and a special starter containing an aspergillus fungus. This mixture can be fermented for several years, which is the traditional method. A modern method speeds up the process by skipping the fermentation step, cooking the soybeans with hydrochloric acid, and adding caramel colour, corn syrup, salt and MSG. Common? Yes. Unfortunate? Yes. But are there traditional, whole-food options? Yes!
It goes without saying then, that I highly recommend purchasing good-quality soy sauce whenever possible. Choosing a soy sauce is like choosing a good bottle of olive oil or wine. Look for the words traditionally brewed, organic, and non-GMO. This is one condiment I will not compromise on – it’s worth the extra cost for purity, unparalleled flavour, and to support this ancient art. Plus, the conventional and less expensive versions of this seasoning can contain food dyes, refined sweeteners, preservatives, and chemical residues from processing that are not great to incorporate into your life if you have the choice.
Soy Sauce – this is a Chinese seasoning of which there are two varieties, light and dark. The light one is lighter in colour with a low viscosity, and it is extremely salty. This type is more expensive than dark and used as a condiment at the table. Dark soy sauce is deep in colour with a higher viscosity, and sweeter in flavour (usually due to additives such as caramel colour and/or molasses). Dark soy sauce is used more frequently in cooking.
Shoyu – This is the Japanese word for soy sauce. Shoyu is traditionally used as a condiment or seasoning after cooking, and for dipping sushi.
Nama Shoyu – Typically called for and used in raw food recipes, nama shoyu is unpasteurized soy sauce. However, because the vast majority of soy sauces are heated about 118°F / 47°C during pasteurization, you must read the label to confirm that the sauce is truly “raw”. Many brands label themselves nama shoyu even though they have been pasteurized.
Tamari – Tamari is another type of soy sauce, but perfect for people with gluten intolerance, as it is traditionally brewed without wheat. Absolutely check the labels to be one hundred percent sure. It must say gluten- and wheat-free.
Tamari has a stronger flavour than shoyu. It is usually used to season longer cooking foods such as soups, stews, and baked dishes. Tamari is used less frequently as a tabletop condiment or seasoning because its flavour can be overpowering.
All that said, I generally just keep shoyu in my kitchen, as I find it the most versatile of all the soy sauces. I also cook Japanese-style cuisine more often than Chinese. It’s important to acknowledge the vast difference and subtleties in Asian cuisines as they are often grouped together ignorantly and that does a disservice to us all — so many people, flavours, and food to celebrate, share, and enjoy!
Note: Always remember to keep soy sauces of any kind in the refrigerator. Yes, it goes bad. A bottle of open soy sauce will keep for two to three months.
The wasabi plant is a root from the Brassica family of vegetables, which include cabbage, and mustard. When wasabi is ground up and mixed with water, it becomes wasabi paste, the little green blob of brain-tingling heat that adds a level of peril to each bite.
Wasabi is difficult to cultivate, which why it is so expensive. Due to its high cost, wasabi powder is often blended with horseradish or mustard powder, and some green food colouring. Certain brands don’t contain any wasabi at all. Therefore when you are purchasing wasabi, always look for genuine wasabi powder. The ingredient list should only include wasabi, and no artificial food colouring. Never buy ready-made wasabi in a tube. It is most certainly dyed and contains additives to preserve its moist consistency.
Look for genuine wasabi at high-end grocery stores.
Because horseradish is plentiful in Denmark, and far less expensive than wasabi I buy the root fresh and grate a small amount directly onto inside of the sushi just before rolling it. It’s totally delicious and delivers the same sinus-clearing effect that we all know and love. This is my way of eating a little closer to home, combining what I have access to while inspired by global cuisines and traditions!
Okay, now onto the sushi. You can of course use the traditional rice if you like, or any other whole grain. I really like quinoa because it’s soft and fluffy, and tastes amazing with the nori. Just make sure that whatever grains you use, they are on the moist side, but not mushy. Add water to increase moisture if necessary.
Fillings are only limited to your imagination. Because spring is here, I chose to go with a mostly green veggie palette. Lightly blanched asparagus, radish, sweet pea pods, spring onions, young lettuce (yes, it’s delicious in sushi rolls!), avocado, and cucumber. Use whatever you have on hand and what is in season. You’d be surprised to know that this meal is in fact a great way to use up all the little bits of veggies hanging out in the fridge that you haven’t found a use for.
Tips & Tricks for Making Successful Sushi
1. Cut all the vegetables into a consistent width, so that you don’t create a “bulge” in the roll – this can encourage the nori to split.
2. Be careful not to overstuff the roll. This is not a burrito.
3. Select a maximum of three or four fillings per roll. You want to allow each ingredient to shine – with too many elements, the flavours of the individual fillings become muddled.
4. Moisten your hands as you assemble the rolls, especially when spreading quinoa over the nori. Keep a small bowl of lukewarm water next to where you are working so that you can continually dip your hands as needed. You can also use this water to moisten the bare end of the nori sheet to create a seal so the roll stays closed.
5. Use a very sharp knife. This is where ceramic knives really come in handy! Of course a sharp metal knife is totally fine, just make sure it has a razor edge, otherwise you’ll end up with a big, smashed-up mess.
6. It is important to wipe the blade of the knife clean with a damp cloth after every single slice of the roll.
Sushi-Inspired Spring Quinoa Rolls
- 1 ½ cups quinoa white, black, red, or a combo
- 3 cups water
- your choice of spring vegetables (radish, green beans, greens, tender herbs, carrots, beets, etc.)
- toasted sesame seeds
- If time allows, soak your quinoa for up to 8 hours. Drain and rinse well.
- Put quinoa in a pot with water. Bring to the boil, reduce to simmer, cover with a lid and cook for 15-20 minutes until the water has been absorbed (do NOT stir!). If you need some guidance making quinoa, check out my video here.
- When the quinoa has cooked, transfer it to a large bowl to halt the cooking process and cool it down. When it is no longer piping hot, you may add just under half (only half!) of your tezu, the vinegar preparation. Fold to incorporate and taste for seasoning. Add more salt if necessary. The quinoa should have a distinct sweet acidity, but not be overpowering. Now cover loosely with a towel and let the quinoa cool completely.
- While the quinoa is cooking, prepare all the filling ingredients. Blanch the vegetables you want cooked and cut everything into long strips for ease of rolling.
- Place a sushi mat (or piece of plastic film) down on a clean cutting board with the slats running horizontally. Place a nori sheet, shiny-side down on the mat, 2cm from the edge closest to you. Use wet hands to spread a thin layer of quinoa evenly over the nori sheet, leaving a 3cm-wide border along the edge furthest from you. Arrange the fillings across the centre of the quinoa. Grate fresh horseradish root over top, then sprinkle with sesame seeds.
- Use your thumbs and forefingers to pick up the edge of the mat closest to you. Use your other fingers to hold the filling while rolling the mat over to enclose. Gently pull the mat as you go to create a firm roll.
- Continue rolling until all the quinoa is covered with the nori and you have a neat roll. Shape your hands around the mat to gently tighten the roll. Use a wet sharp knife to cut into pieces. Arrange sushi on a serving platter and serve with pickled ginger and shoyu.
So Annie, I dedicate this post to you for truly expanding my horizons and teaching me not to fear new foods, but to embrace them. Who knows where I’d be today if you hadn’t made me that maznik, introduced me to injera, or let me stir the pot of risotto. I can only hope to pass on a spark of the fire you lit inside me, and inspire those around me to let their guard down and just try something different. I suppose that in many ways, that is what this blog is all about. For that, I thank you.