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Monday, January 7, 2008

Mango Salsa Sushi Fusion

I recently agreed to participate in a food blogger exchange of sorts, called Taste and Create. You are paired with another blogger and then challenged to look through their site, pick a recipe, make it yourself, and blog about the experience. I have been impressed by all the high quality blogs out there, so the exchange sounded like a perfect way to get my feet wet. I hesitated, only for a moment: I am living in a rented house in West Africa, which currently means that I do not have an oven (no baking recipes) and I have somewhat limited access to exotic foods (no pomegranate syrup) and even some "regular" ones (sporadic access to fresh basil). But then I realized I only had to find one recipe, one on an entire site, and of course there had to be one recipe I could make, even with my limitations.

And then I got the email and saw who I had been paired with: Sushi Day.

I was simultaneously thrilled and concerned. I was thrilled because I had really been craving sushi for some time. I had actually brought nori all the way from home, tucked away in my suitcase, so that I could scratch that sushi itch when it struck. But I was concerned because ahi grade fish is absolutely unavailable anywhere in the country. There are a few high-end sushi restaurants, but I am told they fly their fish in themselves daily. There is no nice little fishmonger at the Whole Foods counter ready to wrap me up some ahi grade tuna. I know of a Japanese girl living in Accra for who makes her own raw fish sushi with fish she buys in the market here, but let us just say that my desire not to get ripping ill combines with my highly doubtful fish evaluating skills to preclude raw fish sushi that isn’t certified by someone more expert than I.

I figured that I could easily put together some tasty vegetarian sushi. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell Sushi Day doesn’t feature much vegetarian sushi. The only fully vegetarian offering I was able to find was for Kappa Maki (avocado roll), which just seemed so basic that it wasn’t really in the spirit of a blog exchange.

Memorable Maki? Youbetcha. Growing up in Wisconsin, we only really like our fish fried and served at a bar on Friday night. But when I got to college my incredible roommate Shira introduced me to sushi. She started slowly with vegetarian rolls. I fell in love with Futomaki and from there just took the plunge and never looked back. Even still, every single time I have sushi or maki rolls I have a little moment where I think back on my fabulous friend and all the experiences she introduced me to.
After browsing through mouthwatering pages of delicious “I must try that later” raw fish makis, I finally found one that really captivated me. Sushi Day created the Mango Salsa Sushi roll after being inspired by the popularity of mango salsa. The elements of mango salsa are then reordered into a gorgeous, colorful, and unique maki roll. It had shrimp in it, but I figured I could wrangle up some shrimp (cook it) and I’d be set.

I went on an epic journey in search of shrimp or some reasonably similar crustacean. The first two stores I went to had nothing. This is significant because there are really only about four or five cosmopolitan grocery stores in the entire capitol city, so I was burning through options fast. I went looking through two fish markets hoping to score some fresh crustaceans. They often sell something that the hawkers call a lobster, but I imagine that is really because the term commands a higher selling price, and I suspect they are langoustines. At any rate I couldn’t find any creepy-crawlers of the sea. So I boarded a tro-tro and went to the newly built Accra Mall. A grand mall on the order of anything you would expect in the US, this mall features a South African owned Supermarket called Shoprite. If it could be found anywhere, I reckoned it could be found at Shoprite. And I was sort of right. Finally, after prowling through every fridge and freezer section, in the very back of the store, I found one sad, freezer-burned package of shrimp. There were five, count them: five, shrimp inside. The quarter-pound of shrimp was $11. With all due apologies to Sushi Day, at that moment I decided I would be making this roll without the shrimp.

Gathering the rest of the ingredients wasn’t difficult. I was actually concerned that I would be unable to find cilantro. They do cultivate and sell it locally but it is still a relative specialty product, so there is no guaranteed supply. Sometimes you go to the market and it’s there in little baggies and suddenly you revise your imagined food plans for the upcoming week because you can get cilantro. But you can never plan on it. However, the foodie gods were smiling on me, perhaps taking pity on my failure to secure shrimp, so I got the cilantro with no problem. The mango, avocado, and red onion are regularly available in this delightful tropical climate, so I was set.

I boiled the rice vinegar and sugar on the stove as the recipe instructed. I was a little concerned about the quality of our rice vinegar. It comes from Ghana’s only Asian grocery store, but the bottle is entirely in Chinese. I believe it is rice vinegar only because that was what the label on the shelf said. When I got it home and popped it open I was a tad concerned that it smelled like rubbing alcohol. T and I put our heads together in the kitchen.

Me “Do you think it is rubbing alcohol?”

Him, wafting the scent dramatically from the bottle, “Mmmm, no. It smells like a cross between rubbing alcohol and rice vinegar. But they were selling it in the food section.”

Me “Okay, well, lets hope it tends more to the rice vinegar side when you eat it.”

I knew all about boiling the vinegar and sugar together because of a handy little link of the recipe. I have to say the Sushi Day website is very well put together. Ever recipe is cross-linked to detailed descriptions elsewhere in the site. That way expert sushi-makers do not have to wade through overly tedious details about routine particulars (making sushi rice) but unskilled novices can readily access all the details they need to build competence at sushi making.

So where do I rate on that scale? Funny thing. Right after Terry and I had first started dating, we made dinner together with another couple. Terry, ever the maven in the kitchen, decided he wanted to teach me to make maki rolls. His friend Ryan, who was joining us with his girlfriend Maggie, was also a sushi-roller. One or two California rolls into the experience I had really picked up the knack of rolling. I think it actually steamed T a little that I had so quickly surpassed him at a kitchen skill. So while I recognize myself no great master, in my little heart of hearts I don’t think of myself as any great sushi slouch either.

So I was totally unprepared for how awkward it was to try to roll the maki “inside out” as the recipe directed. I have eaten rolls with the rice outside innumerable times and taken that little bit of artistry totally for granted. Well no longer. As you can see from my pathetic exemplar here, I managed to get the rice spread on the sheet, and even to flip the sheet. I managed to roll it, mostly, and press it as directed. I was, in fact, thinking that maybe I didn’t totally suck. Ha. And then I tried to cut the darn thing. Perhaps the rice was still a bit too warm. Perhaps my sad little knife was a bit too dull. Whatever the reason, I soon wound up with something that more resembled some grand rice and seaweed salad than the gorgeous maki from Sushi Day.

If you try this recipe: I recommend becoming comfortable with rolling rice inside before you attempt the more advanced artistry of rolling the rice outside. If you are a beginner, I recommend putting all the goodies inside to start, and then work your way to the advanced moves as you become more comfortable. I think the shrimp would be perfect in this roll, but if you are vegetarian I thought the omission was also perfectly delightful.

My failure to secure shrimp also forced me to alter Sushi Day’s presentation in another way. Sushi Day presents the roll with the shrimp and onion on the inside, the rice on the outside, and the avocado and mango thinly sliced and alternating like gorgeous colorful “scales” on the outside. It is really a stunning presentation. But without the shrimp it seemed sort of sad and strange to roll it with only onion on the inside. So I put the onion, cilantro, mango and avocado all inside and tried rolling one with the rice on the outside.

I probably should have persevered, but I confess that I was feeling really protective over my hand imported nori wrappers. I didn’t want to waste wrappers producing lumpy inferior makis, so I reverted to my comfort zone and rolled that darn tricky rice inside the nori wrapper. This was as easy as I remembered it being.

I thought the maki was beautiful when putting it together, and took tons of photos. This is a very strong flavor combination. It can be a bit sweet depending on the quality of your mango and the proportion of mango to avocado. I think the shrimp, if I could have found it for less than $40 a pound, would have been a great addition and really balanced out the flavors. I found myself fixating on the pretty shapes of the cilantro. I think if I could have accomplished the rice-outside rolling technique, I might have tried to press the whole cilantro leaves into the rice, because I think it would have been beautiful. The touch of the unexpected cilantro and red onion was just the right amount to surprise the palate.

Eating this sushi was an absolute treat that scratched all my sushi desires. The only trick was that it made quite a lot. My husband and I found it hard to get through all the maki we had made because the flavor of the roll, which is so powerful and delicious, can be a bit overwhelming if you eat 15 or 20 of them yourself. If anything, I think this is a compliment to the really unique and delicious taste of these rolls. I will definitely be making them again, particularly in combo with some more traditional rolls.

The final word. This beautiful east-meets-south fusion maki is a unique and memorable flavor combination that I will definitely make again. It would be a great show-stopper served along with more traditional makis, like tuna maki, salmon maki, or even California roll. The presentation is a bit advanced, and not for the faint of heart, but will definitely impress if you pull it off!


Allison said...

I'm glad you liked it! For future reference, here are a few of the vegetarian options on Sushi Day, although I'm not sure how many of the ingredients can be found in Ghana!


Marta said...

mmm, looks yummy. great photos erin :) i might go get some sushi tomorrow!

Erin said...

Funny thing, I've never made sushi with the rice on the inside! I love the inside out rolls, and I just learned to make them that way. If you ever give it a go again, my two tips are to 1) cover your rice with plastic wrap up until when you roll. It helps stick it into place and keep it there perfectly. 2) Run your knife under water before each slice. If it's too dull, go for a serrated (also run under water each time) and just take your time in cutting -- if you cut slowly, it won't tear or make jagged slices.

I don't live in Africa, but sushi grade anything is impossible to find near me, as well (Costa Rica). There are literally 6 sushi restaurants within 10 minutes of my house, but I suspect they fly it in and/or go to the beaches to pick it out and I, like you, don't trust myself to do that. So I'm stuck with surime (fake crab). Mangos are one thing you couldn't avoid here if you tried, so this looks like a great way to dress that fish-crab up. I'm very excited to give it a go, thanks!

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