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California calorie-cutters

The sushi's manifestations are many — Japanese, Californian, Taiwanese and Thai. Isn't it time for an Indian version?


CALIFORNIA MAKI or California rolls are California's reinvention of Japanese gunkan-sushi — Japanese sticky rice rolled in a seaweed sheet, cut into small rolls and served with a variety of toppings and specific dips. In California, California rolls are as ubiquitous as pizza or the other American staple, macaroni with cheese.

Successful adaptation

The California roll was invented because Californians did not feel comfortable eating raw fish, a popular Japanese topping on their sushi rice. In all fairness to the Californians, raw fish definition Japanese style can be rather adventurous covering echinodermata, crustacean and many creatures seen only at the bottom of deep sea beds or in marine biology books. The California roll is the conservative side of sushi where the fish is always cooked or smoked and familiar, and there is a large vegetarian menu on offer.

As a spin off to successful adaptation, there is the Hawaiian roll, with pineapple and Russian salad, The Philly with smoked salmon and cream cheese, the Seychelles roll with an assortment of shellfish, the rainbow roll and spider roll, there is even an avocado and smoked eel roll invented by Mick Jagger called the rock o' roll, or so a Californian restaurant claims.

Diversion from tradition

The Japanese being purists do not acknowledge California rolls. If I were Japanese, I suppose, I would cringe if I saw mayo on my elegant sushi. But the California roll allows the Zen discipline of traditional sushi to be distracted by a bit of American excess. And it comes in all-American sizes versus the tiny minimalist original sushi.

The California roll may be the last big thing in California, but having enjoyed sushi in all its splendid manifestations - Japanese, Californian, Taiwanese and Thai - I have often wondered why it has not become the next big thing here. We have all the right ingredients for assimilation. We are rice eaters, half our population commutes to San Jose and many of our successful "diasporic" cousins live in Sausalito and Marin County. So by now, we should have been natural born sushi or California maki eaters. We are genetically encoded to assimilate and subsume - we assimilated Burmese hoppers after the Chettiars went to Burma, we made a good fiery baingan ka bharta out of Turkish baba ganouj, and the Chinese must be forever grateful that we have added Shetty spices to fried rice and Punjabi tadka to hot and sour soup. Which is why I personally believe they have backed our entry so strongly to the U.N. Security Council. And there are the wonderful pizza varietals called Chettinad pizza and tandoori pizza that the Italians may not consider classic but any urban Indian child is likely to claim as our national dish.

Sushi and idli

When it comes to sushi, the Californians have mutated it; we only have to refine it. The cal count makes it irresistible - 140 cals for five pieces of cucumber/asparagus/avacado sushi versus 280 cals for a plate of papri chaat (520 depending on the chutney's sugar content), one pakora - 280 cals, 200 cals for one slice of plain pizza cheese tomato, no toppings. (The only Indian dish that matches sushi cal for cal is the idli).

To create your own Indian-California-Japanese roll, here are some suggestions. Sushi rice rolled with delicate shark puttu, the kind made only at Velu's military kitchen in Chennai. Or with a smattering of one of your mother's custom designed podis, sprinkled with black sesame seeds into the roll with a dash of sesame oil, but not too much or the taste will be incompatible with wasabe, palak, the north Indian favourite, pickled broccoli, smoked brinjal, bekti, smoked hilsa. You can make a futomaki, a big family sized roll and experiment - asparagus, avocado, steamed omelette, cucumber, sweet gourd; the vegetarian-eggetarian variations are endless. (Seaweed? seaweed is vegetarian like spirulina.)

The art of rolling

It is simple to make sushi rice but there is an art of rolling the rice. If you can roll khandvi or patra Gujarat's favourite farsans, then chances are you can do a sushi roll. Sushi rice should be shiny and well immersed in sweet vinegar when hot, then cooled with a fan to bring down the temperature before spreading on to the seaweed sheet. Sushi rice is glutinous and I haven't been able to find an adequate Indian substitute. But now sushi rice and nori or seaweed sheets are available at select stores. A bamboo mat is recommended for rolling.

Place seaweed sheet on mat, spread rice over. Place filling (cucumber if used should be deseeded) along the length of the roll and then roll mat to form cylinder. Press to form and hold. And then roll it out carefully and cut into pieces. Serve with wasabe, horseradish paste which is fiery, green and strong, available in tubes, sachets and in powder form, soy sauce - a lighter version than the one usually available at shops, and gari, pink ginger which is usually used to cleanse the palate after each sushi. Sushi should be eaten with fingers or chopsticks, never with knives and forks.

The distinct flavour of seaweed, meats and chicken do not go well with sushi. The Californians sometimes roll their sushi rice and nori inside out so it is easier to chew, but that rolling is a bit of an art. As long as you remember that the taste of sushi is best savoured with delicate flavours, you will have a dish that can be served as the perfect breakfast, the perfect lean cuisine lunch and the perfect cocktail canapé. "The pleasant experience of eating something you have never tried before will extend your life by 75 days." That's an old Japanese saying. The Californians may have reinvented sushi but the Japanese still have the last word on the art of eating. Arrigato!

GEETA RAO

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