I often hear from people that are surprised by the lack of rolls at sushi restaurants in Japan. For those that only eat rolls, it can be a problem, but for those that are a little more adventurous it's a chance to try authentic nigiri sushi that you'd have a hard time finding in the US. While nigiri sushi prepared by the hands of a master sushi chef is a thing of beauty, I grew up in California and love me some rolls. Along with the California Rolls, Caterpillar Rolls rank among my favorites.
To be honest the origins of the Caterpillar Roll are anyone's guess. My hunch is that it was created by an enterprising sushi chef at an American strip-mall sushi joint who was trying to sell more unagi. Whatever the origins may be, the Caterpillar roll is probably single handedly responsible for turning something that was "ewww!" inducing (unagi is a slimy fresh water eel after all) a generation ago to something that's sold at supermarket sushi counters across the country.
If you've been to a sushi restaurant in the US over the past decade, chances are you've either had one or saw it on the menu. For those who haven't, let me reassure you that this isn't an episode of Bizarre Foods, where Andrew Zimmern eats butterfly larva. Indeed, there were no butterflies harmed in the making of this post.
It's called a Caterpillar roll because the rice is enshrouded with thin slices of overlapping avocado. With stripes of dark kabayaki sauce drizzled on top, and sesame seeds dotting the roll, it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to see the resemblance.
If you've ever wondered what the difference is between Kabayaki and Teriyaki sauce, you're not the only one. After a little research, it turns out that they're one in the same. The difference comes in the preparation of the dishes that the sauce is used in. Kabayaki is usually prepared by skewing things such as unagi, and then grilling them. The sauce is applied by dipping the skewer directly in a tub of sauce during cooking. Teriyaki on the other hand is made by grilling and using a brush to apply the marinade.
Since this roll is neither grilled nor skewered, I deliberated on what to call the sauce, but since the unagi is made kabayaki style it made sense to carry the same name over for the glaze. Together with the tangy sushi rice, crunchy cucumber, creamy avocado and rich unagi, the kabayaki sauce provides a sweet and savory glaze that makes this a hit for all ages.
Caterpillar rolls are a type of non-traditional sushi roll made by rolling unagi and cucumber in nori and sushi rice and then topping the roll with sliced avocado. The avocado creates a striped pattern on top that resembles a caterpillar, where the roll gets its name.
Caterpillar Rolls are most commonly stuffed with unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) and cucumbers and then topped with avocado. That being said, they can include other ingredients like tobiko, shrimp tempura, or crab.
Caterpillar rolls go great with pickled sushi ginger and some extra sauce drizzled on top. If you're doing a sushi night, how about making a batch of my spicy tuna roll recipe as well as my California rolls.
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup sake
- ¼ cup evaporated cane sugar
- 1 batch prepared sushi rice
- 2 packs unagi (cut into ½ inch strips)
- 2 avocados (halved, peeled, pitted and sliced)
- 1 hot house cucumbers (seeds removed with a spoon and julienned)
- 1 pack unseasoned nori
- Make the kabayaki sauce by adding the soy sauce, sake and sugar to a small pan and boiling until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture is thick and syrupy.
- You're going to roll your Caterpillar Roll with the rice on the outside, so you need to cover your makisu (bamboo mat) with plastic wrap to keep the rice from sticking. Prepare a small bowl of water to dip your fingers in to keep the rice from sticking to them.
- Carefully fold your nori in half, if the nori is fresh, it should easily split in half along the fold and make two 3.75 inch x 8 inch pieces. If it's not splitting easily, use scissors to cut the nori in half.
- Lay one piece of nori towards the bottom of the mat. Lightly wet your fingers with water, then add a small amount of rice onto the nori.
- Make sure your fingers are moist, then use your fingertips to gently spread the rice out to the edges of the nori in a thin even layer. Don't use too much pressure, or you'll end up mashing the grains of rice together.
- Flip the rice and nori over so that the rice is facing down and the nori is facing up. Place some cucumbers along the bottom edge of the nori, then top with the unagi.
- Tuck your thumbs under the bamboo mat, then use the rest of your finger to hold the filling in place. Roll the mat up and over the filling.
- When the mat has come all the way around the roll, you'll need to keep rolling with one hand, while using the other to lift the mat out of the way so you don't roll it into your sushi.
- Once the Caterpillar Roll is fully rolled, give the whole thing a hug with your fingers. This will compress the rice which will help keep it from falling apart when you slice it.
- Splay the avocado slices over the roll making sure each thin slice of avocado overlaps the next.
- Wrap the roll with the bamboo mat again, and give it one more hug.
- Transfer the finished Caterpillar Roll to a cutting board and use a long sharp knife (preferably a sushi knife) to slice the roll into 8 pieces. Start slicing the roll by putting the back edge of the knife on the roll and pulling the knife towards you, using the weight of the knife to slice through the roll. If you press down, you will smash the roll.
- Plate the roll, and drizzle with the kabayaki sauce. You can garnish with two sprouts (antennas) and some sesame seeds if you want, but they're not necessary. I also like dusting a little sansho powder on top.
Tricia Lye says
What beautiful rice rolls ( or do you call it maki ? ) I love avocado but never thought to incorporate it to Japanese food. Thank you!
Fabulous and enlightening too, great instructions. Will have to try this soon, thanks.
Gorgeously creative! i love it...
Biren @ Roti n Rice says
Beautiful rolls! Love the combination of unagi and avocados. I have been making a lot of rolls myself lately 🙂
Ah yes, let me run down to the store and get some eel. . Seriously, Unagi is one of my favorites, but where do you suggest I find it besides a restaurant?
Marc Matsumoto says
I don't know where you live so I can't really make specific suggestions. That said, Whole Foods carries it in some locations in the frozen food section. Also, almost any Asian market (chinese, japanese, korean, etc) will have it in the frozen food section. It usually comes whole in flat plastic packs.
very awesome pasome yes yse
Unagi can be hard to find. But there is an upcoming trend of substituting the more sustainable (and easy to find!) catfish. When broiled, it has a very similar texture to unagi.
What a great looking sushi roll! I love the freshness of these little rolls - with avocado! Looks great!
According to this reddit post (https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1jw5sf/iama_sushi_chef_with_over_25_years_of_experience/) an Itamae named Michelle Carpenter invented the Caterpillar roll.
Tony Caffe says
How is the Unagi Prepared? Is it cooked? Raw?
Marc Matsumoto says
Unagi cannot be eaten raw. While you can find it fresh (with some difficulty) in Japan, I've never seen it being sold in the US in any other form than vacuum sealed after being grilled with kabayaki sauce.
I started eating sushi when I moved to Japan in 1981.
I DETEST American rolls. I decided to eschew sushi in America unless I stumble across the rare sushi-ya that upholds traditional styles..
7-11 in Japan has better sushi than 99.99999% of the restaurants in the US.
Marc Matsumoto says
Sushi in the US can be bad, but the issue isn't with the concept of making modern rolls. It's the use of cheap ingredients and bad technique in most cases. American style sushi can be delicious if it's made properly.