What is it about making sushi at home that scares us? Is it working with raw seafood? The art of making sushi rice that holds together yet seemingly melts on your tongue? Or is it knowing that the best sushi chefs spend decades honing their craft?
Scared yet? Don't be: making your own sushi is a joy. Especially with Sake restaurant's executive chef Shaun Presland – who has been cooking Japanese food for 22 years – here to hold our hands.
Presland's training included two and a half years in Japan and seven years dedicated exclusively to sushi. In 2009 he helped swing open the doors of Sake's first restaurant at The Rocks and has since overseen Sake openings in Double Bay, Melbourne and Brisbane.
"Good sushi is an edible art form," he says. "[Making it] is super creative – it's good for the soul. And it's delicious and healthy."
You do need to allow plenty of time, however. "Be prepared to devote a whole day to it," says Presland. "The dry stores can be purchased well in advance – rice, soy, ginger and vinegar, and a nice mayonnaise and chilli sauce for rolls, but seafood is best bought on the day you use it."
The key is to properly set up your workspace before making the sushi. Cook the rice, prepare the fish, meat, vegetables and garnishes, and get out all your equipment, utensils and serving dishes. To avoid those pesky bacteria outbreaks, leave your prepared ingredients in the fridge (except for the rice) until you're ready to roll.
Maki rolls and nigiri (a rectangle of sushi rice topped with something like raw salmon) are great types of sushi for beginners.
Tools of the trade
A sharp knife is crucial, ideally one with a long blade for slicing fish and cutting sushi rolls. There's no need to race out and buy an expensive Japanese sushi knife; if it's sharp, it'll do the job.
You'll also need a chopping board; Presland suggests having one especially for sushi to avoid cross-contamination – a cheap plastic board is fine.
Also handy are plastic squeezy bottles for toppings such as mayo, and two makisu – the woven bamboo mats used to roll sushi. If you're making uramaki (the inside-out rolls), wrap one of the mats in cling film.
Finally, you need something to fan the cooked rice with (more on that below). Presland suggests buying a cheap hand-held fan or simply using a square ice-cream container lid and some good wrist action.
The right rice
"The most important technique in preparing sushi is making sushi rice," says Presland. Use a plump, short-grain rice such as Sunrice's "Koshihikari" rice. Wash it until the water runs clear, then "polish" it by draining the water and using your hand to gently scrunch and release the rice approximately 30 times, then rinse. Do this three times then let it rest in a sieve.
To cook the rice, Presland uses a 1:1.1 ratio of rice to liquid, with the liquid portion being about 90 per cent water and 10 per cent sake. The sake helps to soften the grains, but using water alone is also fine. "Water with a higher mineral content cooks a nicer rice, as does water that has had time to settle," he says. Ideally let the water sit overnight or at least a couple of hours.
Cook the rice in an electric rice cooker, then leave it covered in the pot for 15 minutes. Alternatively you can cook it in a saucepan using the absorption method.
Every chef has a secret recipe for the rice vinegar-sugar-salt seasoning. Presland recommends using a ratio of 6:2:1 (see recipe below). Mixing hot rice with this sushi vinegar mix and then cooling it is what makes the rice shiny and sticky.
Use your fan or lid to cool the rice to around 40 degrees – roughly body temperature. At this temperature, it will feel like it's melting in your mouth.
Flavours and fillings
When it comes to the fillings, you can't go wrong with tried-and-tested combos such as salmon and avocado or spicy tuna and cucumber. If you want to get creative, "think about flavour, colour and texture", advises Presland. Try adding a crunchy element such as tempura, pickles or sesame seeds. And you don't have to use raw fish. "You can use tinned tuna and mayonnaise, smoked salmon, chicken, roasted vegetables," says Presland. "One of my favourite rolls ever was a cold-smoked cherry tomato with avocado, green tea salt and a squeeze of lemon."
Importantly, says Presland, "don't overdo it; I think a lot of people try to put too much in one roll".
Pro tips and tricks
Presland's top tip: have a small bowl of water and a wet cloth close by, and use damp hands. "The rice is so sticky with sugary, vinegary goodness … but you don't want it in your armpits and up your elbows. It can get pretty messy."
There are entire books on sushi presentation, but Presland has a few handy tips. Firstly, consider the colours: "If you can get red, yellow and green on a plate, you're laughing." When plating nigiri, "think of it like a car park where you've got to do a 45-degree-angle reverse park," he says. "Everything has to be backed in on an angle, all nicely in a row."
Add some pickled ginger to the plate (which is meant to be a palate cleanser, not an additional sushi topping), and have soy sauce and wasabi on hand.
Finally, Presland says it's best to avoid refrigerating the sushi after it's made, because "the rice will harden and taste terrible". So eat up.
For sushi rice:
3 cups rice
3 1/3 cups water (or 3 cups water and about 1/3 cup sake)
For rice vinegar mix:
Mix below ingredients together and stir through cooked rice
150ml rice vinegar
50g white sugar
This will make more than you need to make the cooked rice sticky enough for rolling, but you can use leftover vinegar mix as a good salad dressing.
Tuna and avocado uramaki (inside-out roll)
1/2 nori sheet
150g sushi rice
30g tuna (raw, sashimi-grade)
1 stick of cucumber (same length as the nori)
1 large pinch of tempura crunch (fry your own or buy tempura flakes (tenkasu)
1 tsp fish roe (Presland uses Daiei Tobikko from jfcaustralia.com.au)
1/2 tsp chives
1 squirt mayonnaise
Lay the nori shiny side down. Cover it with a layer of rice, about two to three grains high. Add all the ingredients (except roe and chives) in a line across the middle, from left to right. Roll and secure with the sushi mat. Smear the roe and chives on one side of the roll. Cut into six pieces with a long, sharp knife.
Spider maki (deep-fried soft-shell crab roll)
30g/4 pieces fried soft-shell crab (1 hotel-size crab cut into 4 pieces)
1/2 nori sheet
150g sushi rice
5g spicy fish roe (Presland uses Takehachi Masago Mentai)
1/2 tsp chopped chives
Coat the crab pieces in potato starch and deep fry. Follow the same method above to make the roll.
Learn how to create your own sushi with Shaun Presland at his The Essentials session ($50) at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, 11:30am-12:30pm, Sunday, March 8. See melbournefoodandwine.com.au