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How To Make the Perfect Sushi at Home, According To a Master Sushi Chef

Sushi, a culinary art form that is both elegant and complex, is now more accessible than ever to the ambitious home cook. Although high-level sushi still takes a lifetime of knowledge and practice, the market disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic have made previously unattainable high-quality ingredients available to the consumer.

Derek Wilcox, the head sushi chef at Shoji at 69 Leonard Street in Manhattan, has a lot of insight into these developments. Born in upstate New York, Derek grew up in Virginia before moving to Japan after culinary school. His culinary experiences in Japan are unique — he is one of the only foreigners to ever train at Kyoto’s infamous kaiseki restaurant Kikunoi and Sushi Aoki in Ginza. Tokyo. In the Japanese culinary world, Derek is known as a shokunin,  ‘artisan’ in Japanese. To be a shokunin is a philosophy, a way of life where an individual is in a constant state of thriving for perfection, never ceasing to improve their particular art form.

Chef Derek Wilcox with an amberjack. 88tamashii/Instagram

Sushi Techniques

According to Derek, there are three key factors to high-end sushi — simplicity, quality of ingredients, and tradition. Simplicity of ingredients allows the ingredients (the rice or fish) to shine. Americanized rolls such as dragon rolls might be tasty for their purposes but the extra garnishes can mask the true flavor of both rice and fish. For quality of ingredients, use the best version possible — the finest Japanese rice, soy sauce, fresh grated wasabi instead of the standard tube version, and fish. Finally, tradition, a key factor as high-level sushi chefs train for decades. Sushi chefs spend a lifetime perfecting their rice, selecting the best fish, practicing knife skills, and combining flavors.

Because of the pandemic, the ambitious home cook can now access two of these factors — simplicity and quality of ingredients. Simplicity is more of a state of mind and knowledge. However, specialty importers who previously only served high-level sushi restaurants now also cater to the consumer. This gives the consumer (if one can afford it) the ability to purchase the same level of seafood previously only available to the best sushi restaurants in America. These importers were forced to adapt because of the pandemic dine-in shutdowns.

Where to Order Sushi Grade Seafood

Shawn Harquail/Flickr

There are several excellent importers now available for consumers. In Japan, sushi chefs frequent the markets such as Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo for the best products. In America, most high-end sushi chefs get their seafood from a specialty purveyor. The following are some of the best purveyors previously only available within the industry.

  1. True World Foods
  2. Regalis
  3. Yama Seafood

When choosing fish, start with your favorites. Tuna is always a good choice and has a good combination of both lean and fat. For those seeking a fish that popular in Japan but not common in America, try kinmaedai (splendid alfonsino in English). A red-skinned fish about a foot in length, every part of the kinmaedai is usable. Relatively easy to scale, the flesh can be used for sushi or sashimi and the bones and head are great in soup. The head is also delicious grilled. However, the skin is not edible unless it is blanched or seared. The skin can also be removed for a cleaner taste.

Sushi Rice (Shari, Sumeshi)

kimishowota/Flickr

(By Derek Wilcox, Shoji at 69 Lenard Street)

Like most sushi chefs, Derek considers the rice to be the most important part of the sushi-making process. In Derek’s opinion, if the rice is well-made, the sushi will still be delicious even if the fish is not perfectly sliced. Ideally, make the shari with Japanese grown koshihikari rice, although California koshihikari is an excellent substitute.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups rice
  • 4 oz good quality rice vinegar
  • 1 1/4 tbsp good quality sea salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp sugar

Method:

  1. Wash 2 cups rice (using the cup that came with your rice cooker) and soak in water for 30 minutes.
  2. Cook in the rice cooker, but use 10-20% less water than usual.
  3. In the meantime, combine 4 oz rice vinegar, 1 1/4 tbsp sea salt, and 1 1/2 tsp sugar and whisk to dissolve.
  4. When the rice cooker finishes, transfer the cooked rice immediately to a wooden tub or bowl, sprinkle the seasoned vinegar evenly over the rice, and quickly mix with a paddle using cutting and folding motions.
  5. Fan the rice for 10-20 seconds, turning again once or twice, until it shines. Rest covered with a damp cloth for 20 minutes before forming sushi.

Fisherman’s Bone Broth (“Ushio-jiru”)

Shawn Harquail/Flickr

This is a great way to utilize the whole fish after the filets have be used for sushi. Serve before or after the sushi.

Ingredients:

  • Kinmedai (or any leftover fish) heads and bones
  • 6 1/2 cups water
  • 6 3/4 oz sake
  • 1 tsp dried kombu kelp
  • Salt
  • Yuzu peel and mitsuba herb to garnish

Method:

  1. Heavily salt fish heads and bones, leave for 30 minutes, wash, and pat dry. Refrigerate and let age for 1-2 days.
  2. Bring a pot of water to a simmer, just under a boil, and blanch the pieces of fish heads and bones for a few seconds, just until they turn white around the edges.
  3. Dunk in ice water and clean off any scales or blood. Discard the blanching water.
  4. Place the cleaned bones and head in a clean pot with 6 1/2 cups water, 6 3/4 oz sake, and 1 tsp dried kombu. Bring to a simmer, skim off and discard scum, and simmer for 30-45 minutes until reduced by about a third.
  5. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt. Serve the broth with pieces of fish head in the bowl (the meat in the head is the best part!) Garnish with yuzu peel and mitsuba herb.

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Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a New York-based food and features writer, editor, and NYU graduate. His fiction has appeared in The Line…
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