Let’s Make Oshizushi!
If there’s one thing that people like to hear when discussing what to bring for a pot luck party, it’s the word Sushi. That delicious, healthy and beloved food of all my friends. In the old days when a piece of Nigiri Sushi can cost as much as S$2.00, it can work out to a substantial portion of my disposable income if I were to get a plate of 60 pieces for the party. And unless I am bringing this to a vegan’s potluck party, the sushi tend to be the first to disappear from the table, leaving me feeling that I had been too stingy and should have bought 120 pieces instead. As a consequence, I learned to make my own Sushi, and that made it very affordable to bring sushi for a pot luck.
I soon learned that it is a lonely and boring chore to be hand pressing 120 pieces of Nigiri Sushi. Making Temaki (Handrolls) or Futomaki will be easier on me as the big slices will be more filling for less work. But then, the Nori will be softened if I made it beforehand, and if I were to make it at the party, I’d be busy making maki all the time and still have a queue of people waiting for their roll to be made. I’ve tried by bringing all the ingredients and demonstrated to my friends how to make their own hand roll, but some will prefer to scoop the rice and ingredients into a bowl to eat — not an elegant solution.
Then one day, my niece returned from Osaka with an Oshibako (押し箱), a wooden press for making Oshizushi (押し寿司). Finally, I have a way to make sushi that looks and tastes good and I don’t have to kill myself making every bite sized piece by hand.
A speciality of the Kansai region, Oshizushi is simply a block of sushi rice and ingredients that have been pressed together in the Oshibako to form the sushi.
Let’s Make Sushi
The Daily Necessities of Life!
The Oshibako is made up of 3 pieces: The Frame, The Base and the Pressing lid
Before I use the Oshibako, I seasoned it by soaking in diluted rice vinegar solution in the wooden Handai (飯台) for half a day. I had to weigh the wooden Oshibako down using this Indonesian Pestle called a Lombok. I used 1 cup of rice vinegar to 4 cups of water.
How to cook Sushi Rice
Sushi rice or Shari (/シャリ) is actually simple to make. If you have cooked rice at home, (and which Asian person hasn’t?), it is simply cooking rice. Only with some more effort… Let’s start at the very beginning. You can’t use regular Thai Fragrant rice, or Basmati rice to make sushi. You need a short and fat grain Japanese rice that when cooked, produce a sticky texture. When you buy Japanese rice, also note that the item they call “Sweet Rice” is actually Glutinous rice and is not suitable for making sushi.
Today, I’m making for 3 persons. So I scoop three cups of rice. Note that the cup is not a measure of liquids that western education had taught us. Instead, it is the cup that came with the Electric Rice Cooker. A cup is equivalent to around 180 cc.
Three cups Japanese rice
This is the cultivar of Japanese rice I am using to make the Oshizushi. JA is a co-operative of Japanese Rice farmers so the species of rice may be different in different locations.
Take note of the crop production date on the packaging. If it is a new crop, the rice will need slightly less water to cook.
Measure the water to the mark on the electric rice cooker. I’m using 3 cups of rice, so I fill water to the line number 3 for White rice. Some rice cookers have a separate measure for Sushi Rice.
The first step is to rinse the rice. Do not believe the packaging that it is “rinse free”. If you want to make good delicious rice, you got to rinse it well. Pour cold tap water into the rice, give it a stir and quickly empty the contents into a strainer. The first rinse is quick, to wash away any nasty chemicals etc before it gets a chance to permeate the rice grains.
Next few steps are the same – refill pot with cold tap water, and gently knead the rice to remove starch. The milky, cloudy water is the starch that is washed away. Place strainer over a receptacle and drain rice into the strainer. Do not discard the milky water. It can be used for many other purposes, or at the least, good for watering the plants.
Repeat the process of rinsing, taking care not to knead the rice too hard as you rinse it, because the grains swell with water and soften up. After you have rinsed till water is clear, (It’s not feasible to get crystal clear water. But when you refill the water and you can see the rice grains clearly, it’s good enough). It’s time to measure the water and soak the rice.
If you have an electric rice cooker with a measure for water, follow the recommendations. If you don’t, have a rice cooker, then use equal measures of water for the number of cups of rice you used, and here is where it gets a bit complicated:
• If you are using a powdered sushi vinegar mix, you need no water adjustment.
• If you are using a sushi vinegar, use a bit lesser water than the recommended mark as the vinegar will wet the rice. In my case, since I will use sushi vinegar, I will scoop out some water till it is clearly below the line.
• If you are using new rice, use a bit less water as new rice tends to be softer.
• If your electric rice cooker has a separate scale for sushi rice and white rice, and you are using powdered sushi mix on an old rice crop, use the scale for White rice. If using liquid sushi vinegar, use the scale for Sushi.
Start Timing the soak for 30 minutes.
After you had measured out the water, wipe the outside of pot clean and place away to soak. In sunny Singapore, soak for half an hour. And use the time to prepare your sushi ingredients.
Home made Sushi Vinegar
You can use store bought powdered sushi mix which is very convenient. You can also buy sushi vinegar in bottles. However, if you make your own sushi vinegar, you can adjust the taste to your own liking. I have two formulas that I found from the internet which work for me. Use them as a baseline to adjust to your needs.
Kanto Style 関東風
Tokyo style sushi is normally with raw fish and enjoyed with a drop of soy sauce so the rice need not be strongly flavoured.
½ cup Rice Vinegar
1½ tablespoons White Sugar
1⅓ tablespoons Salt
Kansai Style 関西風
Kansai style sushi normally is flavoured more strongly and the fish are pickled or seasoned. So there is no need to use additional sauce. This makes it a convenient sushi to take to picnics and parties as there’s no need for extra sauce dipping saucers etc.
½ cup Rice Vinegar
5 tablespoons White Sugar
1½ tablespoons Salt
This rice vinegar is fermented from glutinous rice. There’s other vinegar that’s a chemical soup of mainly acetic acid. I’d stay away from those kinds and use naturally fermented vinegar.
Refined white sugar is good enough. No need the fancy named stuff that people use for gourmet coffee and baking.
I cannot find the regular salt at home (I don’t own the kitchen) so I’m using Himalayan pink salt. But regular salt will do best.
Mix the seasonings with vinegar and stir. It gets cloudy like this.
Put the pot of vinegar over a low fire to help you dissolve the salt and sugar. Be careful not to allow the vinegar to boil as it will evaporate. Just warming the vinegar is enough. When the contents have dissolved, the solution becomes clear.
Himalayan salt is not ideal here because it leaves a pink sandy residue that need to be filtered away after the solution have cooled. Set the lid on and put aside to cool.
Preparing the ingredients
Today, I’m only using young Kyuri (Japanese cucumber), avocado and smoked salmon. The lemon is only to keep the avocado from oxidising. And since the Shari rice has vinegar in it, you won’t notice the lemon’s sour taste in your avocado.
Using the lid of the Oshibako as a guide, cut Kyuri into size.
Slice the Kyuri into 1mm thick slices, and soak in a bowl of ice cubes and cold water so it will stay crunchy.
To get the most juice out of a lemon, roll it on a hard surface till the lemon becomes soft. When you buy lemons, choose those that have fine pores and smooth skin if you can. You will get more juice out of those. This lemon has medium pores and medium rough skin, so the juice is lesser and the rind is thick. I only used half a lemon’s juice.
Choose avocado that have ripened. A ripe avocado has dark skin and gives when pressed.
Slice Avocado into 3mm thick slices and squeeze lemon juice over them to keep them from turning brown.
My wife bought a 250g pack of pre sliced, smoked salmon, I’d have preferred the salmon without the herbs but I’m glad she went out to buy the ingredients so I’ll use it. Slice your smoked salmon if it is not already sliced.
You can also use other pre-cooked ingredients. Snow Crab (Zuwagani), Boiled Tiger Prawns, Seared Snapper (Tai Aburi), Seared Wagyu beef (Gyuniku Aburi), and Grilled Unagi can make delicious Oshizushi.
OK, enough rambling. The rice is cooked!
Flavouring the Rice
Scoop out the hot rice into a wet Handai (wooden rice tub). Make sure you had wet the Handai before use. Pour Sushi vinegar you had made earlier onto wooden Shamoji (しゃもじ) so that it drizzles down onto the hot rice. (Do not do this with cold rice).
Gently use the Shamoji to ‘slice’ through the rice at 10mm intervals. Scoop from bottom of tub and turn over, then repeat the ‘slicing’. This ‘slicing’ will mix the vinegar into the rice. Taste your rice while you mix it, as the quantity I have used may be too strong for your liking.
Be gentle with mixing the rice as overdoing it will result in the rice turning into a sticky paste.
Spread out the rice evenly in the Handai for cooling.
Normally, a hand held traditional fan called an Uchiwa (うちわ) is used to fan the rice. I just turn on the electric fan at its medium setting and allow it to blow down into the Handai of rice. If you want to use my lazy method, make sure that you clean your fan thoroughly. You don’t want extra pieces of “black pork floss” coming off the fan blades or grille and settling into your rice.
Cooling the rice with a fan allows for even mixing of the vinegar. Turn rice over once more to ensure all is cooled and mixed evenly. The rice will develop a shiny sheen by now. Well done, you have made your Sushi Shari.
Cover the Handai tub with a moist clean cloth and set aside for a couple of hours to properly cool. Do not place in the refrigerator as it will dry the rice up. Do not cover with polybag because of the condensation. Just use a clean dishcloth, wet it thoroughly, wring away the water and cover.
Using the rice immediately will result in rice that sticks to hands uncontrollably and you have to use too much vinegar water to handle it. So plan in advance to give you time.
I took this time to get me a shower and reply to whatsapp messages.
Putting it together
Wet Oshibako with the vinegar water it was soaked in. Place frame over base. Carefully put in a layer of smoked salmon or any of your ingredient of choice.
Moisten your hands in the vinegar water, then collect some Shari rice to place evenly over the Salmon. Do not miss out the corners!
Take out the chilled Kyuri slices. They are now plump and crunchy. Dab off excess water with a kitchen towel and place a layer over the rice.
Lay on the Avocado, but don’t do as I did. Instead, choose the green sides to line the sides evenly. You may need to trim the Avocado to achieve this, but it will form a nice even green layer on your Oshizushi.
Pack full with Shari rice to the brim.
Fit the Oshibako cover, put a heavy chopping block over the whole contraption and press with all your weight, till the two ridges of the Oshibako cover is level with the Oshibako’s frame. You want to press the rice hard so that it does not crumble to pieces when you try to cut it.
Slide Oshibako frame upwards to remove. Next, slide a knife under Oshibako cover to break the vacuum and free it. Turn the block upside-down. If you had wrapped the covers with cling wrap, they become easier to free.
Slide a knife under Oshibako Base to break the vacuum and free it. Your Oshizushi is ready for slicing. Take a lesson from my mistake — see the ugly white pieces that mar the pink of the Salmon? Those are membranes that I’ve missed clearing off from the meat. They are edible, but it just mars the colour. I cut them out and ate those pieces myself, so others see the pretty bits. But it still taste Oishi lah!
If your Oshibako has slits cut into the side of the wooden frame, remove the cover first, wet your knife with vinegar water, and slice with the help of the slits. The frame will help you cut through without breaking apart the sushi. If yours is like mine, without the slits, then you need a very sharp and thin blade, wet it well with vinegar water, and cut with one stroke to avoid tearing the sushi apart.
Another lesson to learn from my mistake. I did not put enough effort to ensure the fish and the avocado were lined up evenly against the sides. As a result, the side view of the Oshizushi is not a neat line.
Aesthetics of Sushi
After cutting to slices, place them on a bamboo leaf or in this case, slices of Kyuri so that the rice don’t stick to the plate. Being able to take out the piece easily to eat enhances the eating experience.
When presenting the Oshizushi on a dish, slightly slant the slices from the dish, and staggering the slices creates a tension in the layout, making it look more dynamic. Similarly, choose strong colours to contrast with the white rice. Care must be taken to choose even sized pieces of Kyuri for the base, so that your dish appear impeccable. Bad pieces are only seen by myself (and you). Haha.
I had wanted to use a sheet of Nori for the base of this piece of Oshizushi. But then I heard that the person for whom this was made was out of town, so placing a sheet of Nori will not work as it will get wet, lose its crisp and fragrance by the time she got back. So a quick swap to frying some white sesame till fragrant and dusting it on the base, converts the base to become the top. After a day of storage in cling wrap, the rice will stick to the avocado well, and the avocado will not stick to the plate, thus also forming a decent base.
There’s no hard and fast rules in presentation so it’s more fun to experiment and adapt.
Oshizushi can be eaten as it is. There is no need for Wasabi or Soyu (Soy sauce). The smoked salmon already is savoury, avocado is tangy from the lemon juice bath, rice is flavoured from the Sushi Vinegar. So that dish of Soyu in the background is only a prop for the picture as it’s not needed. In another post, I’ll tell you how to transform ordinary Kikkoman soy sauce into tasty, special soyu for sushi.
So how does this type of sushi taste? The plump Shari rice is sweet and juicy and I could eat a lot of the rice just as it is! Combined with the creamy, tanginess of avocado, refreshing crunch of Kyuri and umami filled smoky, savoury deliciousness of Smoked Salmon, it has a shiokness that I term Oishiok!
Try this dish yourselves. I hope you enjoy it too, and do drop a comment about how yours turned out!
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