Think sushi and one would visualise a rolled-up rice cake with a slice of salmon or a crispy prawn tempura with some dark soy and wasabi by the side. Today, India has a lot more takers of Japanese cuisine — sushi in particular — amid an influx of foreign nationals as well as a growing interest in the culture and cuisine of the country. More takers in India has also translated to an expansion in the sushi palate to cater to non-seafood eaters, vegetarians and even vegans — with variants like asparagus tempura, kappa maki, avocado and cream cheese rolls coming to the fore.
At its core, fermented fish combined with rice, vinegar, salt and other ingredients forms a sushi roll. What we know of today, though, is the brainchild of Japanese restaurateur Hanaya Yohei. He introduced nigirizushi or nigiri, in 1924, wherein seafood is placed on hand-pressed vinegared rice.
“The game changer was when sushi was introduced in the West, especially in the early 1900s, due to Japanese immigration. It started gaining popularity after World War II concluded. When Japan regained power and was open for tourism, more and more people got acquainted with this unique dish,” says Rattan Kumar, executive chef at YouMee.
“For many, sushi is comfort food. In Japanese cuisine, we have a wide variety of products with rice at the centre, typically emphasising seasonal products. Sushi fits perfectly into that. With fresh fish, vinegared rice and seasoning, you can create a quick and delicious dish,” says chef Masaharu Morimoto, or Iron Chef, as he’s known in Japan.
An inclination to all things healthy
One of the biggest myths that’s being busted one morsel at a time is that sushi is restricted to seafood lovers alone. Not only in India, but world over, ingredients such as asparagus, avocado, cucumber, cream cheese, etc. are coming up in a big way. “Chefs are re-imagining sushi by replacing ingredients like fish with tofu or jackfruit. Additionally, they are incorporating more vegetables like mushrooms, avocado, eggplant and asparagus into their sushi rolls,” says Manoj Sharma, executive chef at RCB Bar & Café in Bengaluru.
Much of the trend also has to do with the concept of Shojin Ryori, the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks in Japan. A typical shojin ryori meal is centered around soybean-based foods such as tofu, with seasonal veggies and wild herbs that are believed to bring balance and alignment to the body, mind and spirit. Japanese chefs across the world are taking inspiration from this age-old practice, thereby paving the way for vegetarianism and veganism in Japanese culinary practices.
Another major reason for the trend to pick up, chefs believe, is the shift towards a more holistic wellness approach governed by healthy food choices. “Concerns about the environment and sustainability have prompted individuals to seek alternative options that have a smaller ecological impact. Additionally, the growing focus on health and well-being has led more people to adopt plant-based diets; vegetarian and vegan sushi provides a nutritious and lighter alternative. Furthermore, culinary innovation and changing perceptions played a role as chefs began to experiment with new ingredients and flavours. Inclusivity and catering to diverse dietary preferences have also driven restaurants to offer vegetarian and vegan sushi options alongside traditional fish-based rolls,” notes chef Pervez Khan from Wakai Bandra, Mumbai.
Know thy sushi
With Japanese restaurants coming up in a big way, the market has opened wide for options aplenty. But, if you are fairly new to the concept of sushi or wish to brush up your knowledge, here’s a brief lexicon:
Nori: This paper-like sheet is what binds the roll together. In Japanese, nori denotes the edible seaweed species of the red algae genus Pyropia. In a traditional sense, sushi is assembled on a sheet of nori.
Sashimi: A form of sliced raw fish, sashimi needs no cooking. Fillets of tuna, sea bass and salmon are served alongside wasabi and soy sauce.
Inarizushi: This consists of seasoned rice stuffed in sweet and savoury fried tofu pockets called inari. It’s a delightful vegan option.
Kappa maki: A classic sushi roll, it features cucumber as the main ingredient and offers a refreshing, crunchy taste.
Oshinko maki: This incorporates pickled vegetables such as daikon radish, carrot and takuan, adding a tangy, flavorful touch.
Uramaki: A form of sushi that is inside-out, it is prepared by rolling vinegared rice around a nori sheet, laced with flying fish roe or toasted sesame seeds for that flavourful crunch.
Hosomaki: In this form of sushi, vinegared rice and veggies are not always wrapped in nori.
Temaki: It is sushi in the hand roll form and is made from vinegared rice, sashimi or veggies enclosed in a nori cone.
[Inputs by chef Morimoto]
Roll it like a boss!
On a day when you feel particularly experimental, experts recommend the following:
– Making sushi at home is not tough; it’s just about having all the tools, ingredients and practice. Japanese or Korean brown rice or black rice are ideal. Also keep nori or wakame handy.
– Sushi tastes the best when rice is at our body temperature. Hence, use a container to keep it at that temperature. Ensure your hands are not too wet when touching sushi rice, as wet sushi rice will crumble when you apply on the nori or try to form a ball for nigiri. Simple, hand-rolled temaki is easy to make and mess-free.
– Always pay attention to detail. Take note of the correct ratio of ingredients in the sauce and the order of adding seasonings. That makes all the difference.
– Play around with ingredients like avocado, cucumber, carrots, sweet potato, shiitake mushroom and tofu. Use pickled ginger or radish to add tanginess.
– Embrace the inclusion of leafy greens such as spinach or kale. Explore the realm of vegan protein alternatives, such as tempeh or mock crab meat, to evoke seafood-like flavours. Elevate your rolls further with condiments like teriyaki or even spicy vegan mayo.
– If you want to give your dish an Indian touch, you can incorporate Indian chutneys, pickles and fusion fillings featuring ingredients such as paneer, curry leaves, coconut shavings, etc. These will give a tasty twist to traditional sushi.
[Inputs by chef Shimomura Kazuya of Wasabi by Morimoto and chef Kinyo Rodas Tristan of Koishii, The St. Regis Mumbai]
Author tweets @srinidhi_gk