By definition, temaki is a sushi hand roll filled with the fish, vegetables, and rice. But that hasn't stopped interlopers from stretching the semantics of the term. What we're left with is an out-of-control food trend that's taken the form of the overstuffed, over-Instagrammed sushi burrito. Sure, both share similar components. But where the sushi burrito is a social media phenomenon, temaki is the kind of deliberate dish found in everyday Japanese cooking.
Just because it's artful, doesn't mean temaki is out of range for the regular home cook. That's part of the reason why Brooklyn-based fish shop Osakana opened up in the first place, according to general manager Luke Davin. The team wanted to make good-quality cooked and raw fish part of Americans' repertoire, not food saved only for splurges at Nakazawa. And temaki is one way to do that, Davin says.
“This is like the taco party of Japan. This is the cold cut platter at the family reunion.”
“This style is not the 'Oh it has to be perfect' school of high-art sashimi,” says Davin. “This is like the taco party of Japan. This is the cold cut platter at the family reunion.”
That casual form of entertainment lowers the stakes for making temaki. Yes, you'll want to practice your Japanese knife skills in order to slice fish and vegetables into beautiful, even pieces. And you'll need to get good at judging the right amount of seasoned vinegar to stir into your rice. But you can do all this in the privacy of your own kitchen before guests arrive. Then, you simply set out all the ingredients and let everyone roll up their own cones.
Remember: Don't sweat it too much. Most of your ideas about "stoic, stern sushi temples" is more myth than reality. With some help from Davin, here's how to make temaki at home.
You’ll want to purchase about 4 ounces of top-quality fish per person for a regular meal, says Davin. “For more indulgent feasting, you may want as much as 6 ounces of fish per person,” he says.
Blackfish, Spanish mackerel, salmon, and porgy are all good options.
Most importantly, talk to your fish purveyor and find out what’s fresh—anything that’s good will work in your temaki. Ask the fishmonger to clean and debone the fish, so you go home with a block of fileted fish to slice yourself.
If the piece of fish has skin on it, you have a few ways to proceed. The first is to remove it completely, a solid path for beginners especially. If you’d like to keep the skin intact—which adds flavor and visual contrast—you need to cook it briefly so it’s not elastic and chewy when you cut and eat. One way to do this is to ladle a few pours of boiling water down over the skin side, until the edges of the filet curls up.
Plunge the fish briefly into cold water right afterwards to stop the cooking. You can also place the fish skin side up under a broiler for a moment or two, just until the skin is charred.
Cool before slicing.
Examine the fish carefully to decide how you’ll cut it. You want to find the grain and cut across it, plus consider elements like the shape of the block, how thin you want the slices (pretty thin for temaki), and whether you left on the skin, which will affect the aesthetics of each piece.
To slice, find the longest, sharpest knife in your arsenal—it’s the length of the knife that will matter, Davin explains, rather than the strength of your arm. Move the fish as close to the edge of the countertop as possible. Start with the knife up, and slide it across the fish, then roll the knife down from the back to the front, until the tip touches the fish.
That’s when you can exert a little more pressure and pull straight through to make the final cut.
Cutting fish takes a lot of practice, so you’re likely to wind up with subpar fish slices. Don’t waste them. Instead, use them to whip up a quick tartare, says Davin. Add scallions into the scraped salmon, then season the mixture to taste with equal parts mirin and soy sauce and finish with sesame oil and shichimi tougarashi. Eat this on its own or use it as temaki filling too.
An array of cut vegetables adds color and texture to your temaki.“People don’t focus that much on the vegetables in Japan,” admits Davin, but featuring them is a key aspect of the “Brooklyn version.” Cutting them is “a very shape-driven exercise,” Davin explains, which means you want to think about how the shape of each piece will feature in your hand roll. For the most part, you’ll want not-too-thick, not-too-thin sticks that are between an inch and an inch-and-a-half long. For a crunchier vegetable, like a carrot, cut a thinner piece; a red pepper can be thicker. For a cucumber, try to avoid slices from the center that are all seeds.
You can do the vegetable prep in advance, so you’re not working when friends come over for temaki. When you cut your veggies, you might as well practice your Japanese fish-cutting technique, though if you julienne as normal, no one will really ever know. At Osakana, Davin soaks carrot, bean sprouts, and cucumber in a rice-bran ferment before cutting, which softens them and adds flavor.
You’ll need about ¼ cup of cooked, seasoned rice for each hand roll. Cook any short-grain rice (Davin likes a seven-grain mix) on the sushi setting in the rice cooker, if you have one. If you’re cooking on the stovetop, use a little less water and lower heat than called for in the package directions. When the rice is ready, use a wet wooden paddle to make a slicing motion through the grain.
“That fluffs the rice a lot better. You don’t want the rice to be packed now,” said Davin.
To season the rice, Osakana uses rice vinegar that’s been mixed with sugar and salt at a ratio of 100 grams of vinegar to 25 grams of sugar and 8 grams of salt. You want the rice to be steaming when you add the vinegar.
“That steam is the moisture leaving. The vinegar and sugar will replace that.” Ultimately, you want to season to taste, but about 1 tablespoon of the seasoned vinegar per 2 cups is a good start. Mix around with that slicing motion: “At first it will look very loose, but as the steam keeps evaporating, the rice will start to stick together.” You don’t want clumps but you do want sticky. It’s fine to do this ahead of time: “We don’t need it to be hot when we’re rolling, just when we’re mixing,” Davin explains.
Appearance counts for a lot in temaki. It influences the vegetables and fish you choose and the way you cut them, as well as the way you arrange everything for assembling. On one round plate, Davin makes small piles of each vegetable, then fans out the sliced fish.
In addition to that platter, you’ll you’ll want a plate for half-sheets of nori, a small bowl of sesame seeds, a pitcher of soy sauce, and the rice. Keep the nori in a zip lock, as it can take on moisture easily and only take out what you will use. Beside the rice, you’ll want a wooden paddle or spoon and a small bowl of water, which will allow you to dole it out without sticking.
The fun of a temaki party is that everyone can assemble his or her own wrap. Here’s how to do it. First, grab a nori rectangle. Holding the nori in one hand with the smoother side down, use the pointer and middle finger on the other hand to make a peace sign that’ll help you visualize a triangle from the top corner in towards the center.
(Think of the bottom of the peace sign as the bottom of your future ice cream cone; the wider part will be the open top of the cone.) Fill this in with rice until it’s one finger high. Then, arrange a piece or two of fish and one to pieces of a few vegetables on top of the rice, orienting them towards the top.
With the rice and the fillings, you’re always looking for the right balance, and you’ll learn to discover that perfect middle as you go. And, one etiquette note: “It’s poor form at a temaki party to put the spoon in the rice and leave it there,” says Davin. Put it back into its cup of water after scooping.
Once you’ve placed your rice, fish, and vegetables, roll up the rectangle starting with the bottom left corner and rolling until you’ve made a cone.
“When you nail it, the two corners will line up perfectly,” says Davin. You can seal the hand roll with a grain of rice.
Your temaki needs very little garnish. Finish with a drop of soy and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Take a bite right out of your hand roll—no chopsticks needed. Towards the end of a temaki party, things start to get a little more freeform, Davin says, so if your inclination is to abandon pretty little cones and start eating messy little taco bites on torn off squares of nori, you’re not alone.