I often hear from people how surprised they are by the lack of rolls at sushi restaurants in Japan. For those who only eat rolls, it can be a problem, but for those who 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 I love me some rolls! Along with the California Rolls, Caterpillar Rolls rank among my favorites. So when I get a craving for them here in Tokyo, I just make them myself.
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 insects 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. It's a delicious combination of flavors, so don't let the name bug you! It's definitely worth trying.
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 skewering 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 rice vinegar in the tangy sushi rice, crunchy cucumber, creamy avocado, and rich unagi, the kabayaki sauce provides a sweet and savory glaze that makes this Caterpillar Roll recipe a hit for all ages.
I've also come up with this recipe for a California Bowl, which has all the flavor of a California Roll without all the tricky rolling. It could easily be adapted to become a Caterpillar Bowl; just use unagi instead of the crab.
Caterpillar rolls are a type of non-traditional sushi roll made by rolling unagi and cucumber in nori and sushi rice, then the top of the roll is decorated with sliced avocado. The avocado creates a striped pattern on top that resembles a caterpillar, which is where the roll gets its name.
Caterpillar Rolls are most commonly stuffed with unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) and cucumbers, 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. Since this roll isn't spicy, wasabi would give it a nice kick. If you're doing a sushi night, how about making a batch of my spicy tuna roll recipe as well as my California rolls. If you would like a more interactive experience for your diners, try my Temaki Sushi and have them each make their own masterpiece.
- Make the kabayaki sauce by adding the soy sauce, sake, and sugar to a small saucepan and bringing it to a boil. Cook it 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 sushi mat) with plastic wrap to keep the rice from sticking. Prepare a small bowl of cold water to dip your fingers in to keep the rice from sticking to them.
- Carefully fold your sheet of 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 sheet 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 slices of avocado 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.