Maki-zushi is probably one of the most attractive types of sushi that I know of and there is no end to the possibility of creating variations. In all its simplicity, maki-zushi consists of a sheet of nori which is rolled together with sushi rice and various fillings, gu. The rolls can be thin (hosomaki) or thick (futomaki), and the nori sheet can be on the outside of the rice and the filling or on the inside with the rice on the surface, namely, an inside-out roll (uramaki). They can be made with just about anything and you do not need fish, but can instead make them exclusively with vegetarian fillings.
The filling can consist of a single ingredient or several and can be arranged with more or less artistic flourish. It is a form of art to make maki rolls which, when they are sliced, display the most beautiful patterns, pictures, or symbols. Here the colour combinations and contrasts play a major role.
How to make Maki-Zushi
Place a sheet of nori on the flat side of the bamboo rolling mat (makisu) with the shiny side down and one end of the sheet lined up with the end of the rolling mat that is closest to you. A suitable amount of sushi rice is put in a wide strip on the sheet and is then distributed evenly all over the sheet, leaving only about 3 cm (1 inch) uncovered at the end that is away from you.
From this point on it is important to work quickly because the nori draws the moisture out of the rice and becomes softer and more fragile as time goes on. First, with your finger tips spread a little wasabi on the rice at the end nearest to you. Next, place the filling (gu) lengthwise on top of the wasabi. Now, holding the mat with both hands, use it to roll the whole works together, exerting a light pressure as you roll forward. At the same time, as the mat is progressively uncovered hold it up and away from the sushi. When you get to the other end, there should be a little overlap where there is only the nori sheet. After a few moments, the moisture in the rice will cause the two nori surfaces to stick together and the end of the sheet will sit tight against the sushi roll. If you wish, you can help the sticking process along by placing the sushi roll so that the overlap is on the bottom and it will soon form a fine seal. Anything that sticks out at the ends of the roll can be pushed in or cut off. But in some cases the bits that are poking out can have a decorative effect.
For maki-zushi you need to use nori sheets, which are available in a number of grades. The finest quality consists of very thin uniform leaves that have a shiny blackish green side. I prefer yaki-nori, which is toasted, as it must be completely dry and crisp. Because it absorbs moisture easily, it is stored in airtight packaging. As soon as nori is exposed to moisture, it becomes soft and breaks very easily. Therefore, when making maki rolls, you have to find a delicate balance between avoiding handling the nori sheets unnecessarily with your damp fingers and at the same time keeping your fingers moist while you are placing the rice and filling in the roll.
For the thin maki rolls (hosomaki) only a half sheet of nori is used, while the thick ones (futomaki) need a full sheet. I generally use fine, thin nori sheets for the hosomaki, which are typically ca. 2.5 cm (1 inch) in diameter, whereas I prefer thicker and more robust ones for the futomaki, which are about twice as wide. If you feel like experimenting with making very thick rolls, you can use a half sheet lengthwise, if necessary lengthening it with another half sheet. The two sheets can be ‘pasted’ together by overlapping them slightly and crushing a few grains of rice between them in the seam. Really thick rolls are most easily assembled by rolling them directly with the hands and then using the mat at the end to press them together.
You probably will not be completely satisfied with the end products the first few times you make maki-zushi. Making first class rolls, which have a perfect seam and in which the filling lies exactly in the middle, requires practice. But once you get the hang of how to grip the roll, it becomes easy. A good tip is to use quick, determined movements during the rolling process. The more you hesitate, the greater the chance that the roll will end up with ragged edges and that the sheet of nori will not make it all the way around. For this reason it might be a good idea to start by using a full sheet of nori, even for a thin roll, but you will quickly discover that a roll with a double layer of nori is not nearly as delicate. After a while you will learn to adjust the quantities of rice and fillings so that the sheet just goes all the way around in a single layer and has a small overlap.
Once the roll is finished, it is cut up before being served. Thin rolls are normally sliced into six equal pieces, ca. 3-4 cm (1½ inch) long, which are served arranged as a group. The cut is usually made straight across, but a nice decorative effect can be achieved by cutting diagonally across every second time. The knife must be completely clean, with no rice on the surface, and it must be moistened with water in order to produce a clean cut.
Thick rolls are cut into thinner slices, about 1.5 cm (¾ inch) thick. Practice is required to make the thick sushi rolls sufficiently firm to hold their shape as they are cut.
The ends of maki rolls deserve special consideration. You can either clean them up by trimming them before you begin to divide up the roll or you can leave them as they are and place them end side down on the plate so that they are not seen. It is, however, also possible to use the ends for decorative effect in the best sabi tradition. This will make them stand out as slightly odd and imperfect elements in the presentation of the platter of sushi.
You can also give some thought to decorating the ends by placing some filling on the outer edge of the rice before you roll everything together. For example, you could use a little watercress or a small bundle of enokitake mushrooms, both of which will look like an attractive tuft when the end pieces are cut off and stood on end. A trick I often use is to place a little lumpfish or salmon roe on the less perfect end piece, sometimes with a little avocado which sticks out a bit and is a good colour complement for the roe.
When you reach a slightly more advanced stage, you can experiment with pressing the thin hosomaki rolls into different shapes. Quite often rolls that are formed in this way are used as filling in really thick rolls, where they can help to create a very special pattern in the slices. For the simplest versions, the roll is shaped so that its cross-section will be triangular or square, or possibly tear-shaped with one sharp edge. When rolls of this type have been sliced, they can be arranged to form a number of decorative patterns, for example, a hexagon or a flower.
A particular type of large uramaki roll has a decorative pattern made from individual thin pieces of fish and avocado, or perhaps kiwi, which are placed on top and pressed into the surface of the roll after it has been made. If the topping is very soft, it is helpful to put a piece of plastic film on top of the roll when finally shaping it with the bamboo mat. The roll is then cut leaving the film on to maintain the shape. The film can easily be removed piecewise afterwards.
Some uramaki rolls are known as rainbow rolls (tazuna-zushi) because the interplay of colours, with stripes of red, green, and white, is reminiscent of a rainbow.