New South Style Sushi: Rolling like the River

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Is it just me, or is the South crazy about sushi? It can’t be just me. I eat my share, but not enough to keep all the sushi restaurants in business. And business must be booming, because they are becoming as ubiquitous across the South as barbecue joints and waffle diners.

Country Outfitter New South Style

It looks to me as if sushi and Southern appetites go together like white on rice. If you break down traditional Southern flavors – salty, sweet, and spicy, with a comforting, bland starch on the side – and wrap it all up in seaweed, you’ve got a fusion roll. And we’re not exactly strangers to exotic ingredients, either. I mean, it hardly gets gastronomically weirder than sucking on crawdad heads. A little smoked eel doesn’t scare us.

I appreciate traditional sushi, but I also love seeing how Southern chefs are reinterpreting the cuisine. The Cowfish in Charlotte, NC uses down-south ingredients like blackened tuna, bacon, and even fried green tomatoes to give sushi a Dixie spin. The menu description of the Deliverance Roll reads like something you’d find at a southern state fair:

“Tender pulled pork, tangy BBQ sauce and tempura onion strings rolled with seaweed and rice, tempura battered and flash fried.”

Fried alligator is the star ingredient in The Ragin’ Cajun Roll at Tsunami, in Baton Rouge, LA. And spicy crawfish appears no fewer than three times on the menu at my favorite neighborhood date spot, Sushi Café, in Little Rock, AR.

Country Outfitter New South Style

My husband and I love eating sushi so much, we took an introductory class in preparing it at home. It’s so much easier than I would have guessed. We practiced with standard beginner ingredients like Julienned cucumber, imitation crab, and avocado, but I’d love to try some of Mississippi chef Marisa Baggett’s recipes, like Pickled Okra Futomaki or Cat-erpillar rolls using sustainably raised catfish instead of freshwater eel.

I’ve also heard of some innovative cooks using collard greens instead of seaweed sheets for wrapping sushi rolls. Genius!

If you haven’t eaten sushi before, much less made it, here’s a few tips:

Get a trusted recommendation for a sushi restaurant and look up the reviews. Your first sushi experience is not the time to gamble with blind chance.

  • Try sitting at the sushi bar, where you can chat with the chef and watch the sushi being made.
  • There will be no-fish and cooked fish options on the menu, but don’t be squeamish about going raw! Good first-time choices are firm-textured tuna and salmon.
  • Sushi always includes rice, either rolled in seaweed with the other ingredients (maki), or molded into a platform for fish (nigiri). Sashimi is raw fish served without rice.
  • Your sushi should come with traditional condiments: a jar of soy sauce, slices of pickled ginger, and wasabi (a spicy green paste). There will be small dishes for pouring individual portions of soy sauce for dipping each piece of sushi. We like to mix the wasabi into our soy right away (and lots of it!), though purists prefer to keep them separate so they can adjust the seasoning for each kind of sushi. The pickled ginger is for cleansing your palate between selections.
  • It’s perfectly polite to eat sushi with your hands, or you can use chopsticks. Each piece should be eaten in one or two bites.
  • Asian beer or sake are the traditional beverage pairings, but I’m partial to a nice bourbon. In other words, don’t get too hung up on the rules. Relax, experiment, and enjoy!

Need a new outfit for your sushi night out?