When I was a PhD student, I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship for a study trip to Japan.
There, I visited all the key University labs and Research Institutes working in my field of research.
Beforehand, I'd bought a Railcard and had planned to stay in Youth Hostels over the country.
Due to the extraordinary hospitality of my academic contacts, however, I ended up staying with different Japanese families for the entire time, which was a real privilege.
I'll never forget one evening in the home of a Professor at the University of Okayama. His wife and three young children all sat round the kitchen table making sushi rolls, which we later ate for supper.
The children were so excited to meet an English person and thrilled to show me their food and customs. It was magic.
In Japan, making sushi is considered a vocation, an art form, and chefs, or itamae, train with almost military rigour for anything from 2 to 20 years to become proficient.
Traditionally, raw fish is used in sushi and cutting it up in the correct way appears to be akin to learning to perform brain surgery.
Even the preparation of rice is a precise procedure. Too much rice and it will be more than a mouthful; too little and it will be overpowered by the fish; too much pressure and it will be hard; too little and the pellet will fall apart.
Most of us don't aspire to the heights of becoming a senior sushi chef, so we can relax and enjoy creating simple vegetable sushi rolls, which are great for lunchboxes, snacks, picnics and parties.
This recipe for sushi rolls uses the sea vegetable known in Japanese as nori (Porphyra spp).
Nori is the most popular of all sea vegetables as it's versatile and easy to prepare. It has a sweet and salty taste.
Nori contains more protein than other sea vegetables, averaging a remarkable 40% by weight. It contains about 1.5 times more vitamin C than oranges and as much vitamin A as carrots. Nori is the only sea vegetable reported to contain the biologically active form of vitamin B12. The mineral content of nori is about 10% by weight, which is lower than other sea vegetables, but is still very high for a vegetable food.
Sea vegetables have numerous health benefits and are valuable for boosting mineral intake in your diet.
Nori is sold either as flakes or as sheets, which are folded 7 or 10 to a pack.
The flakes don't require soaking or cooking and can be sprinkled directly onto grains, or incorporated into purées, batters, sauces, dressings and dips to give an appealing herb-like flavour.
Nori sheets are best lightly toasted before use. This is done by rotating the sheet, shiny side up, over a low flame for a few seconds until its colour changes to a lighter green. Pre-toasted nori sheets are also available in the shops. Once toasted, nori can simply be torn into smaller pieces or cut with scissors into attractive shapes. These pieces can be added as a garnish to cereal dishes, soups and salads or mixed with nuts and seeds to make a tasty snack. Toasted sheets of nori can also be used to make sushi rolls and rice balls.
Makes 2 sushi rolls, at least 3 servings
- 2 sheets nori sea vegetable, toasted
- 1 cup short-grain brown rice
- 2 cups boiling water
- 1 tbsp brown rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp rice malt syrup
- 1 tsp peanut butter
- ½ tsp umeboshi plum paste (available online or in health food stores)
- 1 carrot (100g/4oz), finely sliced
- 1/3 raw cucumber (100g/4oz), finely sliced
- ¼ red pepper (30g), finely sliced
- 50g/2oz marinated tofu, finely sliced
- Few pieces of sushi ginger or 1 tsp mustard
Add 1 cup short-grain rice and 2 cups boiling water to a thick-based pan, cover with a lid and bring to a boil.
Turn down to a very low heat and simmer for 40-45 minutes until water has evaporated and rice is soft.
Mix brown rice vinegar and rice malt syrup together and stir into rice.
Allow to cool. You need to use short-grain rice as this sticks together, unlike long grain or basmati rice.
You can buy nori sheets already toasted.
If you have untoasted nori, simply hold the rough side of each sheet over a low flame for a few seconds until colour changes to a lighter green.
Cut the carrot and cucumber into fine strips. I cut the vegetables thinly on the diagonal and then slice the pieces into narrow strips.
Having prepared all the fillings, lay one sheet of toasted nori, shiny side down, on a bamboo sushi mat, with the stripping of the map running horizontally.
Spread 1 cup cooked rice evenly over the nori, leaving 1/3 inch (1cm) at the bottom, nearest you, and 1 ½ inches (4 cm) at the top, firmly pressing the rice into the nori
Gently spread nut butter, umeboshi paste, carrots, cucumber, pepper, tofu and sushi ginger horizontally in a strip across the rice.
If you add too much filling, you'll find it difficult to roll the sushi up.
Pick up the edge of the bamboo sushi mat and carefully roll it away from you around the ingredients, into a cylindrical roll.
Using your finger or a pastry brush, spread a little water on the exposed top edge of the nori to help the roll stick together.
Using a sharp knife dipped into water, cut the sushi nori roll into slices and serve garnished with chopped vegetables and salad.
You can create many variations with different fillings and flavours, just like sandwiches.
For example, you can include avocado with lime juice; spring onions (scallions); bean sprouts; roasted sweet potato or squash; sesame seeds; toasted walnuts; shiitake mushrooms sautéed in soy sauce; mustard; wasabi; regular mustard; steamed broccoli pieces or asparagus.
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