I’ve been asked if I learned about sushi while living in Japan (in a word—no) and I’ve been asked if I have too much free time (clearly I don’t, or I would make sushi more often). But most of the questions I get are about the ingredients I recommend for making authentic-tasting sushi at home. Where to shop? What to choose? How to store? How to use?
Indeed, “how to use” probably warrants a book’s worth of answers, but the what and the where are straightforward enough to fit into the visual guide below. Be warned that my options are based on what’s available in Warszawa—and my preference is for top-quality 100% natural raw ingredients that contain raw ingredients and nothing more. Sometimes this means I seek out specialty shops or place special orders, often spending more to get... my kind of less. If, like me, you like your food pure and slow—you may find that using some or all of the following ingredients is the secret to making amazing sushi at home.
The slide show below pairs a selection of ingredients—some specific, some general—with hover-text commentary based on my sushi-making experience. Have fun and... itadakimasu.
The right equipment is nearly as important as the right ingredients, though you can still make excellent sushi without a rice cooker, hangiri, makiyakinabe, oshizushihako or oroshigane. In fact, the only piece of equipment you truly need (unless all you’re making is nigiri) is a simple bamboo rolling mat or, better yet, several—preferably in a range of complementary textures and/or sizes. Cheap and ubiquitous, these can be found at kitchenware shops, Asian markets and the foreign foods aisle of most grocery stores.
If you read the small print you’ll find that nearly all of the sushi rice available outside of Japan is grown either in Italy or in California. What’s important is that your rice should be a relatively new crop (old rice has poor texture) and you should keep your supply consistent. Cooking rice to perfection is a challenge, and once you have more or less mastered a technique that works with one brand (and the same equipment, and the same amount...)—you’re well off sticking to it. I’ve been using the ultrapremium USA-grown Kagayaki brand for several years and I’m invariably happy with the results. The 2 kg bags seem to have disappeared from the Kuchnie Świata chain of shops, but now I get Dziki Ryż in Puławska to special-order a package for me whenever I need one. (Alas, sometimes there’s a wait. In the interim, I use what’s available.)
This is my favorite rice vinegar for all Japanese cooking—and of course for making sushi su, the traditional mix of rice vinegar, sugar and salt that turns plain rice into sushi. In the Warsaw area, Carrefour and Kuchnie Świata both usually stock this authentic (USA-made...) Japanese vinegar, but make sure you’re getting the real deal—and not some harsh “grain-flavored spirit vinegar” or one of the many adulterated blends of “sushi seasoning.” Note that the acidity of this (and only this) Mizkan product is a mere 4.2%. If the rice vinegar you’re using is stronger, try diluting it with a splash of water to bring the kick down a bit.
Contrary to what most gaijin believe, it’s not the nori that makes the sushi—it’s the rice. Nevertheless, nori is the essential wrapper for maki rolls—and lower-quality sheets tend to tear. Whichever brand of nori you’re buying, get the “gold” variant and you should be fine. (Note that whenever I’ve tried the “silver” variety—or a non-graded brand of nori sheets—I’ve been disappointed.) And since the 50-sheet package isn’t actually more expensive than five packs of 10 sheets, go for the separate packs: the nori stays fresher.
I’ve tried all the available organic brands, including Clearspring, Lima, Arche and Yakso, and of course I’ve tried Kikkoman, as well as some pricey artisanal kinds of shoyu and tamari imported from Japan. My favorite? Yamasa. (I even confirmed this with a blind test.) Available at all the Asian shops, many regular supermarkets and Makro, it’s the clear winner, not just in terms of flavor, but also with regard to the availability/consistency principle. The half-liter plastic refills are perfect for my needs—and the small 150 ml (reusable!) glass pouring bottle is great for serving a meal’s worth of shoyu at the table.
I’m a big fan of the smoky, nutty richness of toasted sesame oil, and ever since I tried the luxurious version from La Tourangelle, I can’t go back to the acrid flavors of the Woh Hup or Tao Tao versions (and even the disappointing, if pretty, alternative from Marks & Spencer). But La Tourangelle products are hard to find around Warsaw, and ordering them online is a hassle. Luckily, I have found an excellent and readily available replacement in the huile de sésame grillé available from Carrefour. It’s organic, it’s inexpensive... and it looks great poured into that lovely La Tourangelle container I’ve been keeping around.
This is the one and only Japanese sweet cooking wine that I buy. I usually get it at the Free Delikatesy, located at the Europlex center on Puławska. Yes, it’s expensive—but it’s incomparably better than the rest of what’s available. In fact, in my experience bad mirin is worse than no mirin, so if I can’t get the good stuff from Terrasana, I’ll improvise with sake and sugar or even a regular white drinking wine.
Sometimes I sip some gently warmed sake while making sushi, and maybe that’s enough of a reason to consider it an essential sushi ingredient. The other uses? If I have an open bottle in my fridge, I add a glug of it to the cooking water for sushi rice. And if I’m out of the only mirin I think is worth using (see previous), I’ll use sake and sugar to approximate the mirin effect in classic preparations such as ohitashi, tamagoyaki and teriyaki sauce. I buy two kinds of small-bottle sake (pictured) at Makro. I’m not sure I find the one in the blue bottle superior to than the basic one on the left, so I alternate. The pull-tab carafe brings back memories of Japan, but the screw cap on the Junmai Ginjō has more functionality.
The pickled purple apricot—ume—is a decidedly Japanese specialty and its fruity- sour-salty tang can be found either in the fruit itself (a traditional tsukemono that’s usually pickled with another Japanese classic, shiso leaves) or in a deliciously tart condiment consisting of the pickling liquid, known as ume su. While it is entirely possible to make sushi without ume—nothing else will add zing to an avocado in quite the same way (or make a bento filled with plain rice look like the Japanese flag). I stick to the organic brands because conventional ones are loaded with junk. By the way—pickled ume keep for years in the fridge and are a macrobiotic miracle cure for headaches.
Did you know that the green paste known as wasabi almost never contains any actual wasabi? Still, whether it comes pre-mixed in a tube or in the form of a powder, it’s a respectable ingredient in its own right, made with plain European horseradish root and green dye. I search vigilantly for powders that contain only natural ingredients. My favorite, from Clearspring, even contains 10% true wasabi—but it’s expensive and hard to find. A good substitute is the Kona brand, shown on right, with a boost from spirulina and turmeric. It lacks the Clearspring’s complexity (and reconstitutes into a smoother paste that’s a brighter, lighter shade of green), but it’s a great second choice—at a third of the price. I get both at Dziki Ryż in Puławska, though so far they have had to special-order the Clearspring.
Ever since I read the list of ingredients on a jar of sushi ginger, I’ve been... making my own. But since I can’t find young ginger in Warsaw (and have failed so far at the reportedly easy task of growing ginger in a pot), I use mature ginger, sliced paper-thin across the grain and marinated in the usual mix of rice vinegar, water and sugar. The resulting gari is both more fibrous and more spicy than the stuff in the jars, yet most of my guests discover that they really like it. Note the jar of pickled daikon radish (know as takuan) shown next to the ginger. Stinky, crunchy and sweet, this is another special (love-it-or-hate-it...) sidekick for Japanese food. I make some of both every few months for storing in the refrigerator and using as needed. If I run out—gasp—I don’t serve ginger at all.
Shown here is a no-additives mix of sea vegetables (to use a term I find more appetizing than both “seaweed” and the Polish “glony”) for reconstituting in water and mixing up into a condiment-slash-salad with nothing but some sugar, plenty of toasted sesame oil and a garnish of pan-roasted sesame. While this can be used to fill gunkan maki, I usually just serve some in a bowl for sharing at the table. And because I learned to like this dish while living in Copenhagen (and learning the basics of sushimaking from Marta), I insist on calling it tangsalat. Tang—now there’s a word for algae that I actually like.
Here are two positively exotic ingredients that combine to form dashi, the lightning-quick stock that is the essence of umami flavor—and the basis for most of Japanese cuisine. Strips of kombu are nature’s number one source of glutamic acid. Katsuobushi flakes, in turn, are richly smoked paper-thin shavings of aged bonito fillet or skipjack tuna. I don’t bother with instant dashi of any kind, because the slow food version is instant enough and the ingredients are readily available (both from Dziki Ryż in Puławska and from Kuchnie Świata). Entire cups of dashi go into Japanese soups and stews—but on many sushi nights I make just a few spoonfuls for the tamagoyaki. I reuse the kombu by cooking it with the rice and then I add it, julienned, to the shiitakes or the sea vegetable salad.
Much of sushi is fish-free, but the fish is the star of the show. Generally, I keep things simple by pre-freezing portions of a top-grade salmon fillet (which I purchase farmed-in-Denmark or wild-from-Scotland from Happy Fish at Bazar Olkuska). I fridge-defrost what I need over several hours on sushi day, cleanly carving my slices for the nigiri before the fish is fully thawed. I use what’s left in a negitoro-style salmon tartare, minced and seasoned with soy sauce, the juice of grated ginger, sesame oil and chopped onion or scallions. In addition to salmon, I also like to use cooked shrimp, scallops or monkfish to make fat futomaki rich with avocado and mayo. If you’re feeling adventurous, check out the Fish Lovers pop-up markets for a truly special catch of the day.
Sesame, or goma, is delicious when toasted and easy to find both at health food stores and wherever ingredients for sushi are sold. The black seeds owe their color to pigments in the fiber-rich outer seed coat. The white seeds come in both hull-free (“decorticated”) and hull-on varieties, with the former more delicate in flavor and texture and the latter more rugged and less prone to scorching. I’m currently stocking black sesame (for sprinkling onto light-colored foods and grinding into gomashio) and its finer-textured no-hull white cousin (for all other uses). Mix and match with different foods to find your favorite combinations. And remember that sesame is oil-rich and prone to spoilage: buy small amounts and keep in a cool, dark place to preserve freshness.
When I first tried maki with shiitake mushrooms that had been simmered in a mixture of mirin and soy sauce, I liked neither the fleshy flavor nor the gummy texture. But repeated exposure has made me a convert, and these days I include shiitake hosomaki on my sushi menu. I’ve swapped the simmering step for overnight marinating to preserve the mushrooms’ legendary health benefits (which are said to diminish upon exposure to heat). I buy dried shiitake (sometimes also called poku) at Dziki Ryż in Puławska, choosing fat, small ones with pretty crevassed tops and intact gills. Store your shiitake in a jar with the original “do not eat” packet to absorb any moisture and use two or three dried mushrooms per skinny roll. It’s easy: reconstitute in water, discard stems, slice caps thinly, mix with just the right amount of a homemade teriyaki-style sauce and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight before using.
Increasingly easy to find at Polish supermarkets and fruit stands, avocados are the creamiest, most indulgent vegetable (okay, fruit), especially if you go for the nearly black, pebbly-skinned veriety known as Haas. A ripe avocado yields to pressure but still offers resistance. Watch out for ones that are too soft, which are likely to be brown with rot and inedible. And be advised that some avocados seem perfect but aren’t—like a corked wine, they reveal themselves to be spoiled just as you need them most. So get extra. Buy avocados when firm and, if necessary, leave out to ripen until they are not-too-soft, then transfer to the refrigerator for longer storage. Use a sturdy knife to slice in half vertically. To pit cleanly use your knife and a little force to bury the sharp edge of the blade in pit: it will lift out easily, attached to the knife. If you’re using only half—save the half with the pit in the fridge, wrapped in plastic. Whether storing or using, drizzle the exposed flesh with lemon or lime juice or some ume su to reduce the unslightly browning effects of oxidation.
That’s all for now. So pour yourself some sake and start rinsing your rice. And remember—eating sushi with chopsticks is strictly optional. In Japan, folks often pick up nigiri and slices of maki with thir fingers, using their ohashi—chopsticks—for mounds of ginger or seaweed salad instead. Just make sure you use only the back ends of your chopsticks to transfer foods from the communal bowls to your plate—and that you stick to putting the regular ends in your mouth. Clever and hygenic, right? Just like the Japanese.
All writing and images by Natalia Osiatynska. Photos taken in daylight with the Leica X1.
Note that the author’s recommendations are independent and personal, with no formal endorsement or sponsorship by the producers and vendors mentioned in the text.