Flash in the Pan

California (roll) dreaming


My son Remy was supposed to bring cheese and crackers to the ski team potluck, but he wanted to bring California rolls instead. It was a lot more work but a good idea. Everyone loves California rolls, and I’m well-trained in making them.

The California roll is actually from Canada. Japanese-born chef Hidekazu Tojo first served it in the 1970s at Jinya, a restaurant in Vancouver. Tojo sought to create a roll that would appeal to a North American audience that was often skeptical of eating seaweed and raw fish. He concealed the seaweed by rolling it with the rice on the outside, and he used fake crab and avocado to mimic the experience of eating raw tuna. Originally called the inside-out roll, the staff at Jinya noticed guests from California were especially enthusiastic about it, so they changed the name.

I was Remy’s age when the California roll was new and still exotic, but today it’s a standard. My local supermarket stocks them premade, as well as every ingredient used to make them, including the imitation crab. 

I made my first California roll in a sushi class when I was 15. We met one night per week for eight weeks. The roll was only a few years old at the time and was popular and revolutionary enough that we spent an entire class learning how to make it. We used plastic wrap to keep the rice from sticking to the bamboo mats as we rolled them inside out.

The rice gets mixed with a surprising amount of sugar to balance the salt and vinegar. Altogether, the sweet, salty and sour flavors in the rice alone account for three out of the five basic tastes. The roll’s bitterness comes from the seaweed and wasabi, and the fifth and final basic taste, umami, is in the seaweed, avocado, fake crab and soy sauce.

These universal flavors appeal to everyone, including those who don’t purport to love sushi. At the potluck, Remy’s rolls were the toast of the party. Kids were running around in their ski boots with their fists full of sushi rolls, and the platter was quickly wiped clean.

Sushi rice

This is how we made rice in sushi class. You will need a pot with a lid; a large mixing bowl; and a wide, thin, wooden or plastic spoon. You will also need a fan or some type of flat, lightweight object to wave at the rice — a large Tupperware lid works well.

Makes 8 rolls

Two cups sushi rice (short grain, Japanese)
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar

Rinse the rice in the pot by covering it with water and sloshing it around with your fingers. When the water becomes milky with rice starch, dump and replace it. Do this as many times as necessary until the water runs clear. 

Drain the rice and place it in a pot with 1 3/4 cups of fresh water. Let it soak for 30 minutes. Put it on the stovetop and turn the heat to high for five minutes, then turn it down to medium-low for 10 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, dissolve the salt and sugar in a bowl with the vinegar. It will take some stirring with a whisk or fork.

Transfer the rice to a large bowl, ideally a wooden one. While fanning the rice, use the flat spoon to fluff it. Always slide the spoon into the rice edge first and be careful not to mush the rice. You will see the steam flying from the fan. Keep fanning until there is no more visible steam. Pour the sweet and salty vinegar over the rice and mix it in with the flat spoon.

Let the rice cool to room temperature.

California rolls

You will need a bamboo sushi mat, available in large supermarkets, Asian supermarkets or online, and a sharp knife. If you want to roll inside out, you will also need plastic wrap.

2 cups prepared rice, cooled to room temperature
1 package nori seaweed
1 12-ounce package imitation crab, preferably in stick form
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into long, thin pieces
2 avocados, cut into long, thin pieces
Optional: mayo
Soy sauce and wasabi for serving

In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup each of rice vinegar and water. Use this to keep your hands wet so the rice won’t stick to them, to seal the end of the roll and to wet the knife to keep the rice from sticking to it when you cut the rolls.

Lay a sheet of nori on a rolling mat. Spread 1/3 cup of cooked rice over two-thirds of the sheet, leaving the final 3 inches bare.

If you want to make inside-out California rolls, flip the riced nori onto a piece of plastic wrap atop the sushi mat.

Slice a stick of imitation crab in half, length-wise, along the grain. Lay the two pieces end to end across the middle of the rice, flanked by cucumber, avocado and mayo. Carefully curl the mat around the sushi so the rice surrounds the contents, squeezing the mat as you roll it a little bit at a time, keeping everything as tight as you can.

Wet the knife with vinegar water and slice each roll into six to eight pieces. (If you rolled it inside out, peel off the plastic before slicing.)


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