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Japanese finger food: sushi

Where does sushi have its origins? Contrary to popular belief, sushi isn’t a Japanese dish. Many centuries ago, it was invented as a method of preserving fish by people in South-East Asia. The fish was placed inside cooked rice to provide an airtight method of storage for up to three years.  It wasn’t until many years later that people started to eat the rice casing with the fish and the original form of sushi was born. Rolled sushi, which is the most well-known variety, has existed since the 18th century or thereabouts.

Today, sushi rolls are eaten practically everywhere in the world. There are restaurants and bars in every city where sushi lovers can enjoy the bite-sized Japanese rice snacks. More and more people are now attempting to make their own sushi - even nigiri and temaki. The instructions provided below will help you to make the perfect sushi at home.

A step-by-step guide to making classic sushi

Sushi rice is a basic sushi ingredient that is delicately seasoned after cooking by dressing it with vinegar, sugar and salt. Most sushis are also rolled in parchment-thin nori leaves - roasted seaweed leaves that are rich in minerals and vitamins. You can be as imaginative as you like with sushi fillings and toppings and popular choices are cucumber, avocado, seafood or fish. The sushi names denote their filling, shape or size. Tekka maki are sushi rolls with tuna, kappa maki contain cucumber sticks and kampyo maki are filled with seasoned pumpkin sticks. Here are four basic sushi recipes for you to try out.

Maki (sushi rolls)

The image that immediately comes to mind when somebody mentions sushi is that of little rice snacks rolled up in in nori. Here’s how to make them.

You’ll need a bamboo sushi mat (makisu) to roll the sushi. Spread out the mat and place a dry sheet of seaweed (nori) on it. Then put a thin layer of rice (max. 0.5 cm thick) on top of the nori. Make sure that the layer of rice tapers off towards the top end of the nori. You can alternatively leave an approximately 1 cm wide strip of the nori sheet uncovered - this will make it easier to roll later on. Then spread a vertical strip of wasabi (hot green horseradish paste) down the centre of the rice. Now you have to decide on a filling. Place a row of the filling of your choice on the wasabi strip down the centre of the rice. Now it’s time to roll up your sushi. Use the bamboo mat to help you roll up the nori sheet with the filling. Ensure that you apply even pressure and press the nori edges together so that it seals the rice in the roll. Cut the rice roll into six equally sized pieces and your sushi is ready!

Temaki (hand-rolled sushi)

Temaki sushi looks like a small ice-cream cone with filling. Hand-rolled sushi is perfect for parties, as finger food or for dinner guests because it’s quick to make and you can let your guests make their own sushi meal. Simply prepare the ingredients in advance and place them on the table. Here's how to do it.

Cut across the seaweed sheets horizontally to divide them into two and trim the edges. Place half a sheet on your hand with the shiny side down. Press around 30 g of sushi rice onto the left half of the nori sheet and spread a very thin layer of wasabi on top. Then add a filling such as avocado or sumiri strips. Roll up the nori sheet and filling into a cone-shaped sushi. Seal the edges with a little rice and enjoy!

Nigiri (hand-made sushi)

To make nigiri sushi, the rice is first shaped in the hands and then various toppings are added. The main toppings are shellfish, fish and omelette. Here’s how to make nigiri sushi.

Cut the fish using a sharp knife into approximately 5 mm thick slices, keeping the blade at an angle. Hold a fillet of fish between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand and add a thin layer of wasabi paste. Moisten the palm of your left hand with diluted vinegar solution and make an oval-shaped ball out of around 16-18 g of sushi rice. Now press the rice ball and the fish fillet together and carefully shape it with your fingers.

Uramaki (inside-out roll)

This western variation of sushi is called inside-out rolls or California rolls. The rice is on the outside of inside-out rolls and the nori is on the inside. Follow these instructions for great inside-out rolls.

First of all you have to cover the bamboo mat in plastic wrap so that the rice won’t stick to it. Start off as if you were making a maki sushi by placing rice on the nori sheet and putting the bamboo mat on the top end. Then fold up the bottom end and turn the mat over so that the rice is in contact with the mat. Add another thin layer of rice followed by a layer of Japanese mayonnaise and wasabi. Now put your chosen filling on the rice (e.g. salad, sumiri, avocado, cucumber) and roll it up with the sushi mat. Gently pull out the plastic wrap as you roll, and press the finished roll to seal it. Decorate the finished roll with sesame seeds or caviar before cutting it into 6 to 8 pieces. Bon appetit!

Japanese sushi rituals

Always wash your hands before eating!

The Japanese are very committed to cleanliness, especially when they eat. Traditionally, when the Japanese invite guests over to dine, they hand them a warm, moist cloth called oshibori to clean their hands. Never place a used oshibori cloth next to your plate. Keep hold of it and your host will collect it from you.

The proper way to dip sushi in soy sauce

Sushi is generally served and eaten on wooden platters while the rice is still luke warm with a little bowl of soy sauce for dipping. Traditionally, sushi is eaten with Japanese chopsticks but you can pick up larger pieces of sushi and eat them as finger food. Remember to dip the sushi in the soy sauce and never to pour the sauce over it! When you eat nigiris, dip the topping side and not the rice side into the soy sauce. Between each sushi, it's a good idea to eat a piece of pickled ginger (gari) to neutralise the taste of the last one.

Japanese for sushi gourmets

Before starting a sushi meal, the Japanese don't say 'bon appetit', but 'itadakimasu'. Literally translated, this means 'I'm going to start eating'. After the meal, the Japanese thank the host for the sushi by saying 'Gochiso sama deshita' or 'Thank you for the food'.

What other things are served with sushi?

The Japanese often drink sencha tea (Japanese green tea) with sushi. Sometimes they also serve sake (Japanese rice wine), either as an aperitif before the meal or with the meal itself. The Japanese replenish each others' glasses and make a toast by saying 'kanpai'. They always make sure that their fellow diners have full glasses, though it would be considered impolite to refill their own. Miso soup, the classic Japanese soup, is also a must at any sushi meal. It is prepared with tofu and soy bean paste, and eaten either before or after the sushi.