It may not be the most exciting part of sushi, but the vinegared rice or sushimeshi (鮨飯) is what makes sushi sushi. By some accounts, the word sushi is a contraction of the words su which means "vinegar" and meshi which means "rice". Another creation legend is that the kanji character for sushi "鮨" resembles the Chinese character for salted fish "鮓" and so perhaps the origins of sushi lay somewhere in southern China. In any case, raw fish without the rice is just sashimi.
In Japan, where hundreds of varieties of fresh sashimi-grade fish are flown in from around the world to local fish markets, the best sushi restaurants differentiate themselves based on their technique, not just the variety and freshness of their fish. The rice in particular is what separates the truly extraordinary sushi restaurants from the merely good, and how they make it is a closely guarded secret.
Great sushi rice teeters the line between tender and hard. Each grain of rice retains its original shape, and yet they magically stick together, without being gluey or gummy. The seasoning is a balancing act between sweet, sour and salt, well seasoned, but not so much so that it detracts from the fish. Most importantly the grains sport a lustrous shine that would make a shampoo model jealous.
While it may surprise some, not all rice is not created equally. Even amongst short-grain rices there are huge variations in texture, color and shine based on the species, where it was made, what the weather was like, how it was milled, and even how fresh it is. A pound of recently harvested premium rice can fetch upwards of $20 in Japan. Unfortunately we don't have quite the selection of rice here in the US, but lookng for rice labelled as "new crop" is a good start. How the rice is washed, cooked, and seasoned are equally important, so here's my technique for getting the best sushi meshi out of the rice you have available to you.
Lastly, if you're looking for great quality fish thats safe to eat raw, Luxe Gourmets has a good selection of salmon, hamachi and tuna that's the best I've seen in the US. Since the fish they carry is intended to be eaten raw, and handled by experts who know how the fish is going to be used, the fish is better quality and safer to eat than most stores outside Japan.
- NOTE: A rice cooker cup does not equal 1 US cup. If you don't have a rice cooker, use the weight measure.
- Put the rice in a sieve(with holes small enough so the rice doesn't pass through) over a bowl and wash the rice with cold tap water.
- Use your hands to remove the excess starch off each grain of rice by using a gentle rubbing motion. If you scrub too hard you will break the rice, so don't be too rough.
- When the water that runs off is mostly clear, drain the rice.
- If you're using a rice cooker, add the rice to the bowl of the rice cooker and add cold water to just under the 2 cup line (you want the rice to be on the firm side as you'll be adding the seasoned vinegar after the rice is cooked). If you don't have a rice cooker, add the rice to a large heavy bottomed non-stick pot, then add 1 1/2 cups of cold water.
- Let the rice sit in the water for at least 30 minutes. This allows the grains of rice to soak up some water before cooking, which results in shinier rice with a better texture.
- If you are using a rice cooker, turn it on and let it do it's thing. If you are doing this on the stove, turn the heat onto high and bring the rice to a boil (be careful not to let it boil over). Turn down the heat to low and cover with a lid. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Once the rice is done, turn off the heat and let the rice steam for 10 minutes.
- While you wait for the rice to cook, combine the vinegar, sugar and salt in a small bowl. You can microwave it for a bit to help dissolve the sugar.
- After the rice has had a chance to steam, it should be firm, but the core should not be crunchy. It should be sticky, but each grain of rice should retain its own shape. If your rice was fresh, the surface of each grain should be glossy.
- Dump the rice out into a very large bowl, the key is that you want a container with a lot of surface area so you can spread the rice out. Pour the vinegar mixture over the hot rice.
- Set the bowl on a damp towel to keep it from sliding. Using a shamoji or broad flat wooden spoon in one hand and a fan or piece of cardboard in the other, gently combine the rice and vinegar using a side-to-side cutting motion with the edge of the spoon. You want to separate each grain of rice, so the vinegar penetrates every surface, but you don't want to break the grains of rice or mash them together. Use the fan in your other hand to fan the rice. This cools the rice and helps the excess liquid evaporate quickly, which gives your rice a nice shine and prevents it from getting mushy. It's a bit tricky mixing and fanning at the same time, so if you can get a helper or use an electric fan it will be much easier.
- The rice is done when the surface is no longer wet and slippery, the rice is fluffy, and each grain is very shiny. It will still be a little warm, but it should not be hot. Spread the rice out over the surface of your bowl, and cover with a damp towel until you're ready to use it.