"It looks easy, but it’s not easy at all," says the legendary Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.
The first time you attempt to roll sushi, there’s one thing you’ll have to quickly accept: you’re bound to make a mess—but that’s not a bad thing. “Mistakes are good news because how else can you learn? Even I still make mistakes,” explains legendary Japanese chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, a.k.a. the Nobu behind the eponymous empire, after teaching a new sushi class at Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris.
“The first time will never be perfect, but try two or three times and it will get easier,” he says. If you sit at enough sushi bars and watch the masters at work, their fluid motions make sushi rolling seem as simple as pouring a cup of sake. “It looks easy, but it’s not easy at all,” Nobu says with a laugh. “It’s all about the details.” When you actually get your hands wet and realize that more rice ends up on the floor than inside the roll, you’ll understand why apprentices at Master Chef Jiro’s three-Michelin-star Japanese restaurant devote ten years to perfecting their knife skills and learning how to “press the sushi as if it were a baby chick.”
“We have to go through so much training, and I didn’t start immediately with sushi,” says Nobu, who spent his first three years washing dishes and delivering takeout orders as an apprentice chef at Matsuei in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Nobu would take the bus to the Tsukiji fish market every morning and carry the fish basket while eyeing how skillfully his boss selected fish. “During those three years, I always watched my mentor and I always practiced,” he says. The chef would even roll up a small cloth pretending it was rice as a way to master his hand motions before receiving the long-awaited promotion to oimawashi, where he assisted the sushi chef with smaller tasks like simple norimaki rolls.
Don’t have 10 years to dedicate to perfecting this art? With these six tips from Chef Nobu, you’ll be rolling like one of the highly trained pros in no time.
5 is the magic number.
When it comes to ingredients, sushi rice is right up there with fish. Sourcing top, Japanese-style sushi rice is half the battle, but the way you prepare it is key to getting your rolls to stick. Nobu recommends remembering the number five. Start by rinsing your rice five times before straining it completely and letting it sit for about half an hour. Then use five cups of rice to five cups of water and let the rice cooker work its magic. When it’s time to start rolling, remember five portions of sushi rice for one piece of nori.
It’s all about the fish.
“Sushi means best quality fish, and that is one of the most important ingredients,” Nobu says, adding that fish should be local, if possible. While sushi chefs have access to some of the best fish markets on the globe—and know exactly what to look for when choosing fresh fish—not all of us are lucky enough to have an on-call fishmonger, so we have to settle for the next best thing: a trip to the supermarket. Even if you can’t tell snapper from salmon, the same rules apply at the seafood counter as the market. Go local and ask for sashimi-quality cuts.
A common mistake is using too much rice, but thanks to the rule of five, you’ll never have this problem again. Lay out one piece of crispy nori seaweed —the adjective crispy is key here—and place your five scoops of rice inside, leaving space on the either side of the sheet. Then, it’s a two-part roll. “Roll hallway, reopen, and then roll the other half,” Nobu explains while mimicking the motion with a napkin. “Everything has to be balanced.” It’s this two-part process and the double rolling that’s the key to perfectly round sushi that maintains its shape (and actually sticks together). One other pro tip: roll with wet hands, but not so wet that they’re dripping with water.
A little soy sauce goes a long way.
Sushi rice is already blended with rice vinegar, salt and sugar—or in Nobu’s case, monk fruit, which acts as a natural sweetener. Since the rice mixture contains salt and soy sauce is heavy on sodium, Nobu recommends only adding a dash of soy sauce on the side. “You already have a lot of flavor in sushi rice, so it’s not necessary to add extra flavor,” he says. “Simple is better.”
Don’t go overkill on the wasabi.
The same rule for soy sauce applies to wasabi, which plays a two-part role: it adds spice while helping kill any bacteria from the raw fish. Wasabi—whether fresh or in powdered form—is an essential element to the entire combination. Sushi contains a small scoop of wasabi delicately slathered on the layer of rice, so there’s no need to add an additional dollop on top. And that whole mixing wasabi in your soy sauce habit? That’s one to quickly cut out.
When all else fails, turn to sake (cups).
Rolling sushi is hard work, so if you’ve tried a thousand times and want a quicker party trick that still does the job, Nobu recommends his own personal invention: cup sushi. Take a traditional chirashi sake cup and turn it into a mini version of a poke bowl, adding rice and then layering nori and sliced fish like tuna, yellowtail or salmon. You can even throw in ingredients like asparagus or foie gras, if you want to get fancy. According to Nobu, anything works. Not only is cup sushi much easier, it looks good on Instagram, too.