My First California Roll

photo by Albert Law :
photo by Albert Law :

We were standing at the sushi bar. Toshi stepped forward and stood in front of the long cutting board.

“First, wet your hands in this bowl of water. That’s very important because otherwise, your hands will be full of rice. If and when that happens, just wash your hands in the sink and start over.”

There was a sink, right in the middle of the sushi bar. Water was running continuously so all the chefs could wash their hands quickly.

“Then grab some rice – about this size.” Toshi showed me a rice ball that was the size of a tennis ball. I imagined it was more rice to fit in a rice bowl. It looked big, or more rice than I thought it would go into one a Roll. He placed it on the top left the corner. “Now, start spreading, oh I almost forgot, remember to place rice on the back side of Nori.”

Though most Japanese should know this, Nori has shiny smooth side and rough, not the shiny side. Shiny side is the outside, and rough/not-shiny is the inside. No matter what roll you are making – inside out, seaweed out, hand roll – rice always goes on the rough/inside.

“Spread the rice using the only left hand, like this.”

Toshi begun to press and spread the rice from left to right of Nori. The rice moved, as if it was like play-doh or some soft bread dough.

“At the same time, make “U” shape with your right hand to guide the rice so that you cover only the top half of the nori.”

His hands moved very quickly. I already felt like I forgot many of the steps. It looked as if the rice was coming from his right hand.

“Your right hand is more important. I mean, both of your hands are important. In the beginning, many people think it’s the left hand that is doing all the work and forget to move the right hand, so you must remember to use both hands the same time. It’s a little bit like playing piano.

Only the top half of the Nori was covered with sushi rice.

“From here, spread the rice on the top and cover the bottom half, starting from the right end, center and the left. Also, keep in mind to make the rice nice and fluffy. When you press the rice too hard, you lose the texture, and the rice gets mushy. That’s no good. The texture of the rice is one of the most important things in Sushi. When you are finished spreading the rice, sprinkle some sesame seeds and turn it over so that rice is down, Nori is up.”

I remembered that part because I have seen it enough times. Toshi continued.

“Place some crab mix right in the center. As a matter of fact, put it hair below the center. It’s easier to roll that way. Then some cucumber strips and avocado slices.”

Toshi put then all the ingredients neatly, all the way across the nori, horizontally.

“Now we are ready to roll it up.”

Toshi grabbed the bottom end of nori with both hands and started to curl up and tuck in the top end before sealing the roll first; then another ninety degrees turn, so the seam is facing Toshi, not to the customer side.

“Pick up the makisu/bamboo mat and place it over the roll.”

All the makisu had the plastic wrap to prevent rice from sticking to it. You may wonder what did they do before the plastic wrap in Japan? Well, they did not have to because traditional Japanese rolls are all Nori out, so rice would never touch the mat. Since California roll is an American invention and rice outside, we must cover makisu with plastic. Otherwise, it will be covered with rice.

“Just squeeze the roll gently over makisu a couple of times, as you slide your hands left and right.”

When Toshi removed the makisu, there was a beautiful long roll, sitting on the cutting board.

“Cutting is difficult. You can move the knife back and forth like a saw and cut through. An experienced chef can do this with a single stroke like this.”

He quickly moved the knife forward once, pull back, and the roll was cut into two.

“The wrong way is to force your knife down, which will smash the roll, like this. Make sure your knife is wet before you cut, so wipe with your towel, blade facing out, not toward your palm. Never place the knife into the bowl of water because that is dangerous. When you have your bowl of water, that is OK to do that, but because we are sharing the bowl, never dip your knife in the bowl because when we get busy, you may accidentally cut other’s hand. Now, you try it.”

I was nervous but excited at the same time. I picked up a sheet of nori and put it down on the cutting board. I wet my hands in the bowl of water, took off the rid from the rice warmer, grabbed some rice, unsure if I had the right amount in my hand or not. I rolled up the Sushi Rice in my hand to form a tennis ball and my hands were already sticky, rice sticking to the palm of my hand. I quickly put down the ball of rice on nori, washed my hands in the running water.

Many people think Sushi Rice is “Sticky” Rice. However, it is (mostly) short grain rice. Japanese rice is short grain, and that is what Sushi Chefs use in Japan. The reason it is “sticker” is that Sushi Rice has Sushi Vinegar, which has Rice Vinegar, Salt and Sugar. Sugar is what bind each grain of rice together, like glue and also, makes it extremely challenging to handle with your hands. Wetting your hands is a must, but when your hands are too wet, rice will start to break apart. When handling, you need to find the happy medium – not too dry, not too wet hands.

I started to spread the rice with my left hand and it just did not spread at all. I kind of mushed the rice. Rice was uneven on the sheet of nori. It was spotty. By this time, my hands were ricey again. Not good, not good, I said to myself silently. I must have tried it several times, each time getting a better handle of sushi rice, until I was able to place some crab, cucumber, and avocado to roll it up. I picked up makusi and applied some pressure to form a roll, then cut into six pieces, just like Toshi told me.

My California Roll looked nothing like the one Toshi made. His California Roll was round, fluffy, cut evenly, the same height and had the same amount of fillings in each piece. Mine? Uneven rice, fillings, height, a sad looking California Roll.

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