Sunday, January 16, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: California Part 1B (the Southern Half) - In Which I Try to Make Sushi

Southern (and, yes, Northern) California is also home to some of the best Vietnamese, Filipino, Indian and - yes - Thai foods. The last time I was in town I think I found more Thai restaurants than Mexican, Italian or Japanese. These are just some very large drops in the multicultural bucket that is Southern California. Take Japanese food, for example.

Snacking State-by-State: California

Official Name: State of California
State Nickname: The Golden State
Admission to the US:
September 9, 1850 (#31)
Capital: Sacramento (7th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Los Angeles (largest, & 2nd largest in the USA), San Diego (2nd largest), San Jose (3rd largest), San Francisco (4th largest)
Region: West, Pacific (small sections of the state can be considered Northwest or Southwest in terms of its food and culture); Pacific (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Acorn, Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut, Salmon
Bordered by: Baja California, Mexico (south), Arizona & Nevada (east), Oregon (north), Pacific Ocean (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: golden trout (fish), California Valley quail (bird), grizzly bear (animal)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Where to begin? "New California cuisine", diversity of ethnic cuisines, especially Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean (Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Salvadoran, Korean, Italian), citrus (especially in the south), wine (especially in the center and north), seafood, dates, and so much else

It was in Los Angeles that Japanese food, specifically sushi, spread to the rest of the country, all because of one special roll. The online Sushi Encyclopedia says more:
The California sushi roll, or simply California roll was invented in Los Angeles, California in the late 70's and is considered a big leap in sushi culture. It is also credited for spreading the popularity of sushi in the western world. Until the California roll was invented, most sushi rarely utilized ingredients that were foreign to Japanese cuisine. It was also out of the question to use imitation crab for a cuisine that concentrated on using the best seafood possible. []
California was the site of my first sushi experience. And though the California roll was not my first taste of sushi - at least I don't think it was - it was probably the first introduction to sushi for most Americans: that maki roll with cucumber, avocado and cooked crab and/or cooked shrimp and/or imitation crab in the middle. The California roll is unquestionably American, and it seemed like an appropriate place to get my feet wet in the world of making sushi.

The recipe: California Roll

The California roll was, perhaps, one of the most time-consuming recipes I have ever made. Mind you, this was the first time I had ever made sushi of any kind, so I was bound to go slowly. On top of that, I found myself constantly running out to buy this ingredient or that. It was not an efficient or money-saving experience for me. True, it will become easier, cheaper and faster as I make more. I sure hope so anyway.

The ingredients were many and varied:

* Sushi rice (one box of 2 1/2 cups of dry rice was about $3, but there are cheaper ways to obtain it). To that you must add the following three items:
* Rice vinegar (Einstein bought mirin rice wine vinegar instead, for $3, but that turned out to work fine anyway. I originally thought I had this, but the Chinese rice vinegar I had was much darker and probably wouldn't have worked for this recipe)
* Sugar (that I have)
* Salt (again, yes. Have that)

In addition, you need the stuff that goes in the roll:

* Cucumber ($1.49 per lb. I bought two but ended up needing one)
* Avocado ($1.50 for one)
* Crab (I bought about half a pound of Alaskan king crab legs for $12 per lb - that is, $6. I could've purchased imitation crab, but I was at Whole Foods, and for some strange reason theirs was actually more expensive than the real deal. Also because a Marylander such as myself just feels weird buying imitation crab, alright?)
* Nori (about $6)
* Sesame seeds (these I had)

And I needed a bamboo mat for rolling the California roll. I was surprised that this was only about $3.50, and even came with its own wooden paddle.

There are a few steps to making a California roll, and many books for the novice sushi chef. The one I ended up using was Sushi by Ryuichi Yoshii. Yoshii's book (one of many equally useful books he has authored on this subject) has many helpful photos, an illustrated glossary and lots of basic and more advanced, creative recipes. Yoshii's steps more or less parallel the following:

1. Make the sushi rice. First, wash it two or three times until the water is relatively clear.

Mine never got completely clear, and it is recommended that you not overrinse it. Let it drain for 30 minutes to an hour, and set it in the rice cooker.

Find something else to do. I was skinning butternut squash. You'll find out why next week.

I used a rice cooker which seemed to have made for an especially sticky rice at first, but ended up being just fine.

No rice cooker? Watch John Mitzewich, whose video still helped me greatly in my first ever sushi rice making experience. won't let me embed the video here. Just click on the man's name to watch how he does it.

I found this process to be the most difficult of the recipe: it seemed that both fanning the rice and drizzling the rice vinegar seasoning over it required the use of my right hand. Note: I am clearly not ambidextrous.

It will be ready for sushi-making when you can form it into a ball that stays together until you bite or dig into it.

I'm not expecting any job offers from Minato, Chiyo or RA Sushi any time soon.

In retrospect, making sushi rice (redundant, actually, since "sushi" means "vinegared rice") was easier than I thought it would be. But it still wasn't easy.

2. Next, prepare the roll itself (again, online tutorials such as this one from are very helpful): lay down the nori, then with wet fingers apply and smooth out sushi rice over most of the sheet.

Depending on whether you want an inside-out roll or not, flip over the rice-covered nori or not.

If you do want an inside-out California roll, sprinkle the rice with sesame seeds...

...and turn that puppy over.

Next, place the cucumber, avocado and crab in the middle.

Roll it up as tightly as you can. Here I failed, in retrospect. My roll could have been a bit tighter because some of the pieces were a little difficult to keep from falling apart, to wit:

Yeah, make that tighter.

Help! The avocado and crab are trying to escape!

As I made more, I did get better.

Oopsie! Some overhang. Better get those kitchen shears out.
Yes I know that's cheating. I don't care.

This California roll was especially filling, and why wouldn't it be? You need about a cup of sushi rice to make one roll that can be sliced into 8 to 12 pieces. On the other hand, I ended up using only half my avocado and cucumber. Lots of rice, not lots of vegetables. It was an educational experience, I must say, and it was satisfying to know that the freshly made sushi roll in front of me was made with my own hands. But with so much effort that had to be put forth, I may hold off on making another one at least until I'm done with this State by State thing.


Mitzewich, John. How to Prepare Perfect Sushi Rice (video)., date unknown.

Saveur. "Date Shake". ( Originally printed in Saveur Issue #70, November 2003.

Yoshii, Ryuichi. Sushi. From the Essential Kitchen series. Periphus Editions (HK) Ltd., Boston, 1998.

Yoshizuka, Setsuko. "Making California Rolls"., date unknown.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "California" page and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "California".