Making Sushi Is No Mystery

As Monty Python famously said, “And now for something completely different!” But since I do pen culinary-themed mysteries, I thought it only right and proper that I begin to sprinkle the occasional recipe into this blog. So here’s one to celebrate the new year!

As some of you probably know, my wife Robin and I spend half the year in Santa Cruz (where my Sally Solari mysteries are set) and the other half in Hilo, Hawai‘i, where we currently are. Hilo contains a large population of Japanese-Americans (though truly, they’re more Japanese-Hawaiian, as the culture here is quite different from that on the Mainland).

One of the traditions in Hilo for celebrating the new year is thus, not surprisingly, eating copious amounts of ahi tuna—either as poke (pronounced “poh-kay”—raw tuna marinated with such things as teriyaki sauce or seaweed and onions), or as sushi. As this is my first Chicks post since the beginning of the new year, I therefore thought I’d share with you how to make your own sushi!


Yes, you can spend a dozen years as an apprentice in Tokyo, learning the intricacies of steaming, cooling, and seasoning sushi rice, and the meticulously perfect way to slice the akami (lean) and toro (fatty) meat of the maguro tuna. Or, like me, you can jump into the fray willy-nilly, with no training whatsoever—other than sitting at the sushi bar of your local Japanese restaurant, watching the chef at work as you sip your Asahi beer and wait for your dinner.

I’ve discovered that, with a little practice—particularly in the rolling portion—it’s not at all difficult to make quite passable sushi maki and nigiri. Maki are the rolls, and nigiri are the pieces of fish laid on top of mounds of rice. (Learn about the history and different kinds of sushi here.) In this post, I will show you how to make maki.

First you need to steam some short grain rice (long grain won’t get sticky enough). It’s much easier with a rice cooker, but you can use the old-fashioned stovetop method if you like. When it’s done, scoop the rice into a bowl—the larger the better—and stir it gently periodically, to cool it down. (I’ve heard tell that the traditional Japanese method is to use hand-held fans to hasten the process.)

While the rice is still warm, stir in some white vinegar and sugar.


I didn’t measure my amounts; I just kept adding and tasting until it seemed right. But be  careful not to put in too much sugar. You don’t want the rice to taste sweet at all; it’s just there to cut the acidity of the vinegar. (You can buy packets of sushi flavoring powder to use instead, which actually works pretty well.)

While the rice is cooling, you can cut and chop your ingredients. I decided to make two kinds of sushi: shrimp, cream cheese, cucumber and macadamia nuts; and ahi tuna, papaya, avocado, and green onions. But feel free to experiment with whatever you think would taste good!


Although they’re not necessary, I always use sheets of nori—roasted seaweed—for my maki, as you don’t need a bamboo roller if you use it, and it’s much easier to roll the sushi with the nori.

Start by spooning some seasoned, cooled rice onto the nori sheet, which should be laid out horizontally.


Spread the rice out with your fingers (have a bowl of water handy, to dip you fingers in frequently—it will assist greatly with the process). Spread it as thinly as you can. Remember, it’s going to be rolled up, so there will be lots of rice, no matter how thinly you spread it. Leave about an inch free of rice at the top—this will be where you seal the roll together.


Now for the fun part: the assembly. For my shrimp rolls, I started with cooked shrimp (tails removed),


then added cream cheese, cucumber and mac nuts.


Start rolling it all up. Make sure to roll it as tightly as you can without all the ingredients squirting out the ends. A loosely-wrapped roll will fall apart when it’s sliced into rounds, and will be difficult to eat.


When you get to the end, use your finger to moisten the bare strip of nori at the edge with water, and then finish rolling. Press the roll firmly together with your hands, and set it in a roasting pan, seam side down. (Those 10×14 pans work great, as the nori are typically about 9” wide.)

For the ahi rolls, after I spread out the rice, I put on a layer of chopped raw tuna and papaya,


and then avocado and green onion.


It’s nice to let some of the ingredients stick out the end, so that when they’re sliced into maki pieces, the end slices have bits that stick up in the air. Here’s one of the ahi rolls before slicing:


Continue rolling until you run out of rice, ingredients, or nori. (There are usually 10 sheets of nori per packet.)

Cover the baking pan, and store the rolls in the fridge until service. They can be made several hours before eating if you want. Right before service, take them out and—using the sharpest knife you have—slice them into discs. It helps if you wipe the knife off with a damp towel after every few cuts. (See photo at top of post.)

Serve the sushi with gari (picked ginger), wasabi (Japanese horseradish), and soy sauce.

Itadakimasu! And Happy New Year!

Readers: Have you ever tried making sushi, or any other recipe that you thought might be scary to attempt? If so, how did it turn out?

32 thoughts on “Making Sushi Is No Mystery

  1. Thanks for the tutorial, Leslie! We have the best Japanese market, complete with a sushi bar, 2 miles from my house so I’ve never attempted to make my own sushi. You make it look easy to do so I’m going to have to give it a try one of these days!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Nice tutorial, Leslie! Yes, I can confirm that my job as a small child (4 years ago) was to cool the sushi rice with a hand paper fan. We made both maki sushi and onigiri for Japanese New Year each year. I like the ahi roll and your shrimp roll definitely has a Hawaiian touch: I have never seen mac nuts added to sushi before!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Omg, this looks soooo good! I’m with Kathy, LOVE the Mac nuts inclusion. I took one sushi class like, twenty years ago. I bought everything you need to make sushi. Then got lazy and didn’t use any of it.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. One super-easy way to do sushi is to prep all the ingredients in advance and then have a sushi-rolling party, where your guests make them, using whatever ingredients they want! I’ve done this a few times and it’s super fun (esp. if you have Japanese beer to go with the rolling)!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. You made me miss my Hawaiian home! We make musubi’s all the time when we’re here in Washington. But I’m definitely going to try the above recipe!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Okay, I have to ask: Can one make sushi without the seafood? With (cooked) chicken, or something? The pix all look so bright and pretty and I love the idea of cream cheese and mac nuts…Maybe on Ritz crackers? Leslie, you’re in charge of our Chicks cookbook!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, absolutely! You can use cooked veg (broccoli, cauli, beets, etc.), mayo (yum!), nuts, cream cheese, cucumber, sautéed mushrooms, seasoned tofu, Spam (a Hawaiian favorite), cooked chicken, pork, or beef–whatever sounds good to you! Although traditional Japanese restaurants have rules about the ingredients, who cares!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Well, well! I learned to make sushi when I lived in Japan in the 70s. I would never make nori maki without the mat, and I always measure the vinegar and sugar. Yes, they wave a fan over the rice to cool it! We used to go down to the fish woman and ask her for four people’s worth of fish. She would slice it in exactly the right size pieces.

    I’m also a purist, because I learned it in the motherland. Things like cream cheese, avocado, and mango will never touch my sushi! After my divorce my sons and I made a new ritual of making sushi every Christmas Day. And my story “Sushi Lessons” will appear in Mystery Most Edible, this year’s Malice anthology.

    So yeah, I have a little experience. ;^)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Don’t know if I’m too late for you to actually see this comment, LK, but you’ve totally inspired me! I think that would be a really cool skill to show off. You’re an impressive lady! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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