Roll Your Own

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Whether it's a birthday, a Japanese-themed New Year's Day party, or just for a lunch or dinner party, I like to celebrate with sushi. It’s fun to make hand rolls with friends and to experiment with taste combinations. You may be surprised at just how easy it can be to roll your own vegetarian or vegan sushi. The main task is assembling all the ingredients.

Sushi is delicious, satisfying, and healthy, and, with a little practice, it looks as good as it tastes. You can eat it with your hands or with chopsticks. Sushi can be served as an appetizer or light meal, or as a main course. It goes great with miso soup and seaweed or cucumber salad, and, as for drinks, water, tea, beer, sake, and white wine all go well with sushi.

According to the Sushi Encyclopedia, sushi has its roots in Southeast Asia where fish and meat were salted, then fermented for long periods of time with rice. Originally, when the fermented fish was taken out of the rice, only the fish was consumed and the fermented rice was discarded. About a hundred years later, vinegar was “added to cut the preparation time.” The version of sushi that we know today evolved from a version created by Hanaya Yohei around 1824 in Edo (now Tokyo)—it “was not fermented (therefore prepared quickly) and could be eaten with one's hands.” Sushi has been popular ever since. According to Food and Wine magazine, sushi began arriving in the US a “decade or so after World War II. A sashimi dinner in the 1950s at Miyako in San Diego, if you knew to go there, would run you $1.25. By the mid-1970s, the chef at Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles had invented the California roll.”

Spring is a great time to experiment with all the tender veggies available and make vegetarian sushi. To get started, all you need are a couple of tools and a few basic ingredients. Once you have these in your pantry, you can use whatever vegetables you have on hand to make delicious and interesting sushi.

Sushi Tools
You really only need two special tools: a bamboo mat for rolling and a rice paddle. You could get by without them by substituting a big wooden spoon for the paddle and instead of making maki rolls, let everyone make their own temaki (hand rolls). If you decide to make rolls, a bamboo mat is inexpensive and can be found at a Japanese market, kitchen specialty shop, or online. For $4, you can order a Joyce Chen Sushi Kit on amazon—that gives you both the bamboo mat and the rice paddle.

Sushi Pantry Items
Most of these can be found at a Japanese market or well-stocked grocery store.

  • Sushi rice (short or medium grain white rice)
  • Sushi vinegar (or make your own with rice vinegar, recipe below)
  • Nori (seaweed in sushi sheets)
  • Pickled ginger slices (for garnish)
  • Soy sauce (each person should have a small dish of soy sauce to dip in)
  • Wasabi paste (if you like this spicy mustard)

Suggested Vegetable Sushi Recipe Mix-and-Match Fillings

  • Cucumber (skin left on, cut into thin long strips)
  • Avocado slices
  • Shiitake mushroom (if dried, soak for 30 minutes then squeeze water out, remove stems and slice thinly)
  • Bell pepper (cut into long thin strips)
  • Carrot (cut into long thin strips)
  • Asparagus (lightly steamed; if small, it can be left whole, if not, cut lengthwise into strips)
  • Daikon radish (cut into long thin strips)
  • Pickled plums (seeds removed)
  • Shiso leaves (these have a strong taste, tear into tiny pieces and use sparingly)
  • Lettuce leaves

How to Prepare Sushi Rice
Adapted from

1 cup short or medium-grain white rice
1¼ cups cold water
Sushi vinegar (*store-bought or make your own, recipe below)


  • Place rice in strainer.
  • Rinse under cold water until water runs clear.
  • Drain well.
  • Transfer rice to heavy medium saucepan.
  • Add 1¼ cups fresh cold water to pan.
  • Cover and let soak 30 minutes.
  • Uncover and bring mixture to boil.
  • Reduce heat to low.
  • Cover and cook until water is absorbed and rice is just tender, about 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat.
  • Let stand covered 15 minutes.
  • Transfer rice to large glass bowl.
  • Drizzle sushi vinegar over rice.
  • Gently toss rice with vinegar mixture using a rice paddle or a big wooden spoon.
  • Cover rice with clean damp towel and let cool completely to room temperature (do not refrigerate).

Homemade Sushi Vinegar*
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt


  • Combine vinegar, sugar and salt in small saucepan.
  • Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves.
  • Remove from heat.

Vegetarian Sushi Preparaton
Now that all your ingredients are ready, invite your friends to make their own hand rolls, which is very fun. You may also prepare some rolls to serve on a platter. If you are making rolls, remember to keep your hands moist so that the rice won’t stick to them so much. Keep a bowl of water and a couple of damp towels nearby.

Temaki (Hand Rolls)

  • Cut nori sheets in half.
  • Have each person place nori in their left hand (unless they're left-handed, then their right) and add a small amount of rice.
  • Add a little wasabi, if desired, and veggie filling of choice.
  • Wrap nori around the filling and roll on the table from left to right.
  • Dip into soy sauce and eat and enjoy!

Maki (Sushi Rolls)

  • Soak the bamboo mat in water for a bit so it will be less sticky.
  • Dry off excess water so the bamboo mat is just damp.
  • Put a piece of nori on it and cover with a thin coating of sushi rice.
  • Near the middle of the rice, put a thin row of vegetable ingredients horizontally. (Hint: don't put too much filling until you get the hang of rolling.)
  • Roll up the bamboo mat, pressing it forward and shaping the nori to create the roll.
  • Unroll the mat and place the roll on a cutting board.
  • If the edge of the nori is not sticking down and making a seal, use your finger to wet the edge with some water and roll it again.
  • Wet a sharp knife with a wet cloth. Cut the sushi in half, then cut each half into three pieces to end up with six pieces.
  • Arrange maki on a platter.
  • Eat with your fingers or chopsticks—dip into soy sauce and enjoy!

Clean-up and Leftovers
When you're finished making rolls, soak the bamboo mat in water for a bit, then use a brush to clean it. Vegetarian sushi rolls can be made ahead of time. Arrange rolls on a platter, and then cover in plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. Leftovers can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and eaten for lunch the next day.

My favorite filling combinations are: avocado and cucumber, and pickled plum with tiny pieces of shiso leaf. You can really use your imagination on the fillings, so try something new!



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