How to Throw the Ultimate Sushi Party at Home
Chefs Namiko Chen and Sho Boo show us the way.
My grandmother in Tokyo has two rules when it comes to homemade Japanese food. First, all cooking is just BS-ing around until you get the taste right—a rule I live by in my own kitchen. Second, most Japanese food, with the exception of sushi, always tastes better homemade than at a restaurant.
Hidden in the first rule is a vast postwar history of grandmothers, aunties, and mothers who experimented with whatever ingredients and spices they could scrounge together, inventing and mastering now-classic Japanese soul food such as curry rice and nikujaga. Implied in the second rule is a tacit admission of Japanese homecooking’s limits—when it comes to sushi, it’s best to leave it to the professionals.
However, in wake of the COVID-19 vaccines and everyone beginning to gather again, sushi-hungry Americans across the country have taken matters into their own hands, not only heralding a new era of takeout sushi and at-home omakase sushi parties like Homakase, but also making sushi at home themselves.
Take it from Namiko Chen, the home cook behind the internet’s biggest English-language Japanese cooking site, Just One Cookbook, who told me that she has seen a triple-fold increase in traffic since the first wave of lockdowns last year. “One of our most popular posts right now is making sushi rice,” Chen says. “Throughout the pandemic, our traffic for [sushi] recipes has skyrocketed”
But, is it possible, or even advisable, for a layperson to serve up a good plate of sushi at home? According to Maki Kosaka’s head sushi chef Sho Boo, if you’re attempting an omakase-style sushi experience, with nigiri and rolls, the short answer is: no. “It’s extremely difficult for a home cook to recreate professional-level sushi at home,” Boo says. But, if you’re looking to have fun with it—to, as my grandmother would say, BS around a little bit—Boo recommended curious home chefs to try a time-old Japanese family tradition: a temaki (hand roll) sushi party.
“The beauty of it is that it’s easy, endlessly customizable, and can be enjoyed with everyday ingredients you can find at American supermarkets,” Boo says. “Just because it’s sushi doesn’t mean you need raw fish to enjoy it.”
Chen also agreed that temaki sushi was the best way for everyday home chefs to prepare sushi at home. “Japanese people never make nigiri sushi at home, we make temaki sushi,” Chen says. “Temaki sushi is truly home sushi. That’s the true experience.”
Perfecting the sushi rice
The most important part of making temaki sushi, according to Chen and Boo, is making the sushi rice, also known as sumeshi (酢飯) or shari.
“Some home cooks have a misconception that they need to get the best fish to make sushi,” Chen says. “But the quality of the rice and nori is more important and can make or break your experience.”
Both Chen and Boo recommend buying short-grain rice directly from Japan. Chen’s choice of grain is koshihikari rice from Japan’s coastal Toyama prefecture. Boo adds: “You really can buy any type of short-grain rice from Japan and it will be delicious. Matsuri, Nozomi, Tamaki—most Japanese restaurants in the United States use these types of rice.”
Once you have your rice, make sure to rinse it until the water runs clear so it’s not starchy when you cook it. If you want to imbue your sushi rice with a rich, umami flavor, both Boo and Chen recommend laying a sheet of konbu on the rice before cooking—just remember to get rid of the konbu after the rice is done. “The moisture inside of rice should be less than the regular steamed rice,” Chen notes. “You have to cook with less water because we add sushi vinegar later.”
After your rice is cooked, it’s a battle against time: immediately transfer the rice to a separate container (Chen uses a baking sheet) and pour a healthy amount of sushi-zu, or sushi vinegar onto the rice. Then, mix the rice “as if you are slicing it.”
“If you mix it too much, the rice can get too sticky and starchy,” Boo says. “It’s crucial to quickly mix the rice in a slicing motion, as though you are breaking it apart, but to not overdo it.”
Your rice should cool down as you’re slicing it, but if it’s still steaming hot, Chen recommends turning on a fan or using a hand fan as you’re mixing. You want your rice to be “lukewarm, or skin temperature” by the time you’re done.
Make nori the star of the show
Now that you’ve got the sumeshi down, it’s time to turn to the second most important part of the show, and arguably, the star of temaki sushi: nori or seaweed.
“I always say, just get the most expensive nori from Japan at the market,” Chen says. “When you buy inexpensive nori, it’s often tasteless or becomes gummy upon contact with the rice. Nori has to be crisp, flavorful and maintain its structure when you wrap it.”
Chen recommended getting nori from the Ariake Sea in Southern Japan, which famously produces crisp, umami-rich seaweed. Boo recommended getting Shirako or household name Yamamotoyama seaweed, but if those are inaccessible to you, “just buy the most expensive one at the store.” And, as always, make sure it’s imported from Japan.
“You want every single bite you take to be crisp and flavorful,” Boo says. “Buying high-quality nori really makes all the difference.”
Have fun with the ingredients
Part of what makes temaki sushi special, Boo says, is its accessibility and endless customizability. “The joy of cooking is bringing your own originality to a dish,” she says. “We all have different tastes, so it’s important for people to experiment with their own ingredients and have fun with it. Some people like it with tuna, uni or ikura, but others may like it with kimchi and sauteed thin-cut beef. With temaki sushi, anything goes.”
If you’re looking to enjoy sashimi-grade fish for your temaki sushi, Chen recommends purchasing blocks of sashimi-grade fish from either a Japanese market in your area or online from places like Catalina Offshore Products or Suruki Supermarket. If your fish comes frozen, defrost it in cold water for 30 to 40 minutes, after which it’ll be “easier to cut because it’s half-frozen.” When cutting, make sure you cut your fish in quarter-inch “carrot sticks” against the grain so the fiber lines are horizontal—this ensures the fish doesn’t fall apart. You can also enjoy your temaki sushi with other seafood ingredients, such as ikura, hamachi, fatty tuna (toro), scallops, uni and, ama-ebi (sweet shrimp).
If you want to get really wild, Chen’s family brings a blow torch into the mix when they have fattier fish like toro tuna or salmon. Sear the fish for a quick 5 to 10 seconds, drip some citrus juice like lemon or yuzu on it to cut the fat, and prepare for a roll that “tastes like heaven.”
Seasonal vegetables, such as cucumber, shiso leaves, and kaiware daikon (daikon radish sprouts), are also an integral part of temaki sushi, and can be layered with your fish to add texture and flavor. Boo recommends getting vegetables and ingredients that are easy to bite through. “I recommend chopping your vegetables into thin sticks, but if it’s a hard, fibrous vegetable, like asparagus, you can boil it so it’s easier to bite into,” she says.
But, really, Boo stresses, anything goes, whether that be chopped-up okra, butter-sauteed shiitake mushrooms (a Boo favorite), pickled daikon radish, or even seaweed salad—the possibilities are endless.
Make your own soy sauce
If you really want to make your temaki sushi experience special, Boo recommended making your own dashi-infused soy sauce, instead of using regular soy sauce.
“At Japanese sushi restaurants, we use something called nikiri shoyu, which is sake, mirin, katsuobushi (bonito flakes), and soy sauce put together and adjusted for taste,” Boo says. “Each restaurant has their own special recipe for their shoyu, so you can have as many different types of soy sauce as there are restaurants.”
The easiest way to make nikiri shoyu, per Boo, is to add konbu dashi soup stock to soy sauce in a pot and boil it. Once it starts boiling, add katsuobushi to it and watch for the flakes to sink to the bottom. Once it sinks, turn the heat off and leave it in for “a few minutes” before taking the katsuobushi out. Adjust to taste with the konbu dashi, as needed. Or, if you want to skip all that, you can just add konbu dashi to soy sauce and adjust to taste.
But, if you don’t have the time to make nikiri shoyu, Boo said, store bought soy sauce is fine. Just remember to dip your fish in the soy sauce before putting it in your roll. Don’t dip your cone into the soy sauce or your seaweed will get soggy.
Put the party all together
The sashimi has been cut. The sushi rice prepped. The vegetables sliced. The nori purchased. The friends called and arrived. As the French say, your mise-en-place is ready to go. Now, it’s time to put it all together.
Chen likes to cut the seaweed into quarters and make “sushi tacos” for her temaki sushi parties, but you can also cut your seaweed in half to make rolls. If you want to make a hand roll, flatten some skin-temperature rice on one end and add your ingredients on top—just remember to put soy sauce on whatever protein you decide to add. Roll the corner up to form a cone shape and keep rolling until you’re done. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but as Boo said, the fun is all in the process.
“Temaki sushi is best enjoyed as a party, with family or friends,” Boo says. “Since you’re doing it at home, it’s best to have fun with it and create an experience that is unique to you. It’s a party after all.”