In Japan, chefs often go through 10 or more years of training before earning the title itamae, sushi master. But that doesn't mean you can't become a maki master in your own home. Tuna Bar owner and executive chef Ken Sze says making a salmon avocado, spicy tuna, or other favorite roll — raw fish included — needn't be intimidating.
"Honestly, sushi is not that hard if you have a little patience and a sharp knife," Sze said. "The hardest part comes before the rolling, with the fish before it's filleted."
Find a reliable fishmonger who can recommend and debone various cuts for you, and the process becomes fully doable. Sze says maki (rolls) are the ideal place to start, because the outer layers — rice and seaweed — can help cover up any technical mistakes that might happen along the way.
"If your cuttings aren't perfectly uniform, it's OK — you're not working for me, so you don't need to be too hard on yourself," Sze joked. "Even if the roll's a little messy and the fish isn't sliced exactly like your sushi chef would, it'll still taste good."
The only essential tools for making sushi at home are a sharp knife and a bamboo rolling mat.
The first step, and arguably the most important, is to invest in a sharp knife. If you already own one, pull out that sharpener and make sure your blade is 100 percent ready to go.
"A chef's knife will work, but if you want to get serious, invest in a Yanagi knife," Sze said. "The blade is super-thin, which makes it easier to slice."
A bamboo paddle for fluffing rice and chopsticks are also nice to have. Both can be purchased online or at various stores in Chinatown.
Everything else you can get at the grocery store. As you shop, refer to the following list:
Nori (seaweed wrappers)
Sushi rice (see recipe)
Sushi- or sashimi-grade fish (read more on this below)
Veggies and toppings of your choice (avocado, cucumbers, scallions, mayo, sriracha, sesame seeds, etc.)
Plastic wrap (to cover the bamboo mat for easy cleanup)
Feel free to get creative with ingredients — that is, after all, one of the best parts of making sushi at home.
It would be easy to mistake sushi rice for plain white rice, but it has a bit of strategy and seasoning behind it.
Sushi rice — white, short-grain rice — has higher levels of starch, which means it's stickier. It's cooked in a 1:1 ratio of water to rice, as opposed to the traditional 2:1, and then seasoned with a vinegar solution.
"When pouring the vinegar, you want to picture the rice like a family. Every kernel gets some food, some vinegar," Sze said, noting that it's important to add the seasoning a little at a time. The goal is to distribute it as evenly as possible. A bamboo paddle or a spatula can help.
"You want to fold in the vinegar, not smash it," Sze said. "The kernels should remain intact when you're done."
After seasoning, place a warm, damp cloth over the bowl of rice until you're ready to use it.
"If the rice is too cold, it's harder to spread, but when it's too hot, it makes the seaweed soggy and it will break," Sze said, noting that just-warm-to-the-touch (slightly above room temperature) is ideal.
This might the most intimidating part of sushi-making. But seeking out a fishmonger with whom you can build a relationship will help make it less scary.
"A fish supplier is like a good hairdresser — the more you go to them, the higher your confidence becomes, and then you begin to feel comfortable asking for recommendations and trying new things," said Joseph Lasprogata, vice president of Samuels & Son Seafood Co. "When you're going to eat something raw, you want it to know it's the freshest of the fresh."
Sze sources all of his seafood from Samuels, a wholesaler near the stadiums in South Philadelphia. Samuels' retail store, Ippolito's Seafood in East Passyunk, supplies smaller orders. (Note: Ippolito's is undergoing renovation. In the meantime, Samuels has put a retail section in its headquarters at 3400 S. Lawrence St.)
Madame Saito, who teaches sushi-making classes near Headhouse Square, recommends Hmart, with locations in Upper Darby, Elkins Park, and Cherry Hill. Sashimi-grade fish is also available from grocery stores like Whole Foods, but Sze says it's best to call ahead and place an order.
"You should let them know you're making sushi, so they give you the freshest cut," Sze said.
Choose farm-raised fish, which includes tuna, dayboat scallops, and aquaculture varieties like barramundi and branzino.
"Anything wild, you have to freeze to get rid of potential parasites — it's a health-code regulation to address things on the side of caution," Lasprogata said. "Then you have to invest in learning about all the different defrosting techniques."
Farm-raised salmon and yellowfin tuna, two classic sushi fish, are safe to start with. If possible, order it with the skin off to save time — otherwise, be prepared to work your knife skills to remove the skin.
Also, check to make sure the fish has a dry shine and doesn't smell fishy.
"Texture is also an important indicator of freshness. You want the fish to bounce back when you press it," Sze said. "If it sinks in or feels soft and mushy, it's probably been sitting around for a bit."
Store the fish in the refrigerator and use it within a day. (Your refrigerator temperature should be 35 to 38 degrees.)
When slicing, cut across the grain of the fish and aim to produce four-inch strips that are about ¼-inch thick.
"Just cut as best as you can," Sze said. "Don't think too much into it. Making sushi at home is meant to be relaxed and fun."
How to assemble
Once all ingredients are prepped and you're ready to roll, place a sheet of nori on a bamboo mat and scoop half a cup of sushi rice into your hands. Shape the rice into an oval and place it on the left edge of the nori. Use your hands to spread the rice from left to right.
"Be gentle. You don't want to smush the rice, so keep a light touch as you're pressing," Sze said.
Next, layer your ingredients across the roll lengthwise, starting with the most solid ingredients — generally the fish or the avocado — and continuing with the looser ingredients in the front. The rice can be positioned on the inside or the outside of the roll.
Roll the bamboo mat up and away from you, using your fingers to curl the nori and rice around the filling. Give the roll a gentle squeeze, and then continue to work it forward until the outer edges are sealed. Once finished, gently press on the left and the right side of the roll to neatly secure the ingredients inside.
To cut, transfer the roll from the mat to a board or other flat surface. Dip the tip of a long, sharp knife into a bowl of warm water. Let the water run down the length of the blade to dampen the knife. Starting toward the back of the knife (closest to your body), use a long slicing motion to cut the maki in half, and then cut each half into thirds to form six even pieces, rewetting the blade as needed.
"The less motion the better when slicing," says Sze. "You want it to look more like a rocking action then a sawing."
Serve with a side of soy sauce and wasabi, as well as pickled ginger, if desired.
Mistakes to avoid:
When it comes to making sushi, Sze has several golden rules.
Never use a dull knife. You're more likely to injure yourself — and butcher your roll — with a blade that's not sharp.
Always dampen your knife before slicing. A dry knife will cause the rice to stick and the roll will fall apart.
Avoid using too many ingredients. The more ingredients, the harder to roll.
Go light on the sauces. Excess sauce will make the roll too wet.
Avoid a heavy hand with the rice — a thin layer will do the trick.
Find a fishmonger you can trust. It'll expand your fish options and ease your mind.
Where to take classes
Sze starts each two-hour class at Tuna Bar in Old City with a demonstration of how to filet a fish from start to finish. Participants are guided in making their own sushi rolls, which are paired with saki during a chow-down session at the end of class. Everyone goes home with a mini-sushi kit featuring uncooked rice, homemade rice vinegar and spices, a rolling mat, and a Tuna Bar T-shirt.
5 to 7 p.m. Aug. 19, Tuna Bar, 205 Race St. $125, eventbrite.com/e/sushi-making-class-tickets-47094667418
Private sushi lessons with Madame Saito
Take a date or a friend for a private lesson with Madame Saito, proclaimed by some the "Queen of Sushi" in the Philadelphia area. With 30-plus years of teaching experience, Saito offers three levels of classes, beginning with an introductory course explaining the fundamentals of sushi rice and maki-making. Ingredients and rolls (like Saito's nontraditional Philly cheesesteak roll) can be requested in advance. At the end of class, each student can expect to enjoy about six handmade rolls. Level 2 adds nigiri to the course, and the final "master" class dives into the art of sashimi and fish slicing techniques.
Classes by appointment. Tokio HeadHouse izakaya, 122 Lombard St. $250 for Level 1 (all prices include two people); $350 for Level 2; $500 for the master course. 215-922-2515, queenofsushi.com