Pared back cuisine – Sushi making for complete beginners

If you’re in awe of Japanese cuisine and mystified by the art of sushi making, don’t be scared. Without in any way taking away from ancient Oriental culinary traditions, there’s absolutely no reason why you cannot learn the basics of making delicious sushi rolls at home.

You may have heard that it takes a minimum 5 years of diligent training for an aspiring sushi chef to even be allowed near the sushi rice, and that great sushi masters are highly honoured and revered in Japan. Obviously, you’re never going to achieve those dizzying heights of accomplishment – but is it really necessary?

If you just want to learn how to make sushi, all you need is the right ingredients, some guidance and a bit of patience. There are many workshops available to get you started, or maybe your appetite will be whetted with the instructions and video demonstration below?

What exactly is sushi?

Sushi in Japanese means ‘it’s sour’; at its most basic, it is vinegared rice filled (or topped) with other ingredients. There are numerous different types of sushi but we’re going to concentrate on the best known and most popular Maki Sushi or Sushi Rolls: Rice and fillings are wrapped in nori (seaweed) sheets into a long cylinder using a bamboo sushi mat, then sliced into bite sized pieces. Sounds simple enough?

Sushi in Japan is actually very simple, typically containing no more than one filling, with minimal use of condiments. By contrast, Western style sushi rolls can be more elaborate, in terms of choice and number of fillings as well as combination of tastes. It’s a good idea to try both to see which you prefer.

The basics of sushi making are really very straightforward. You need:

Sushi Rice

Sushi rice is a white short-grain rice that is widely available in grocery shops. If you’re trying to avoid refined products, you can also use brown short grain rice, ideally mixed with around 15% sweet (sticky) rice. 1 cup (200g) of uncooked rice is sufficient for 3 whole sushi rolls. To flavour your rice (optional, depending on your fillings), use sushi su; a rice seasoning that consists of vinegar, sugar and salt.


Wash the rice under running water, then place in a saucepan with 1 1/4 cups of water for each 1 cup of rice. Cook the rice on a high heat, stirring every minute or so until the water boils, then lower the temperature to minimum and cover the pan. Check the water level after 6-8 minutes – if it’s all gone, the rice should be cooked.

If you use brown rice, the pressure cooker method is quickest and easiest. Use 1 ½ cups of water per 1 cup of rice, add a pinch of salt and cook under pressure for 40 minutes.

Using a wooden spoon, remove the rice from the pan and place into a large bowl, then add the rice seasoning if using. ½ cup of seasoning per 3 cups of uncooked rice is about right. Stir well, then let the rice cool down naturally (not in the fridge) before it’s ready to handle.

Nori Sheets

Nori is a type of mineral rich, edible seaweed that’s typically pressed into square, paper-thin sheets. Use the deep green, almost black pre-toasted type (yaki nori) for making your sushi rolls.

Sushi Mat

A bamboo sushi mat is not strictly speaking essential but it’s definitely recommended, especially for beginners. Rolling sushi takes a bit of getting used to, and any assistance is surely welcome. You can sushi mats cheaply in any Asian supermarket.


Place a sheet of nori (smooth side down, rough side up) onto your bamboo mat. Using clean, moistened fingers, place a ball of cooled rice carefully in the middle of the nori sheet and spread out evenly to no more than 1cm thick. Cover the full width of the sheet but leave about 2-3cm at the top and bottom. Be careful when handling the sticky rice on the delicate nori!

Sushi Fillings

You can make your maki rolls either vegan/vegetarian or add a fish filling; it’s entirely up to you. Raw vegetable fillings to try include spring onion, cucumber sticks, carrot sticks, red pepper sticks, thin avocado slices. If you’re going to use raw fish in true Japanese style, do make sure you get sushi grade raw tuna or salmon. Otherwise, smoked salmon or any cooked fish will be perfectly OK. For vegans and vegetarians, cooked tempeh sticks are delicious.

Finally, you may like to enhance the flavour with various condiments such as wasabi or Dijon mustard, soy sauce, pickled ginger or other Japanese pickles (shiso or daikon pickles are very nice) or umeboshi (salt pickled plum) paste. Experimenting with different flavours is all part of the fun!


Choose your fillings and place them in a straight line, edge to edge from left to right, one line per ingredient. Popular maki roll combinations include:

  • Tuna, cucumber, daikon, avocado
  • Spring onion, cucumber, carrot, tempeh, mustard
  • Salmon, cucumber, spring onion, soy sauce

Start in the middle of the rice square and work your way up and down, but make sure you don’t overfill your maki roll!

Rolling sushi

Finally, it’s time to roll it all up.

Placing your thumbs underneath the bottom of the sushi mat, and holding the filling in place with your index/middle finger, lift the edge closest to you and up and over the filling. Press down and towards you to prevent the roll from being too loose before you release the bamboo mat and start rolling forward until the top edge of the nori sheet. Moisten the nori edges and roll towards the end, pressing all the time until your roll is secure.

You should end up with a long cylindrical nori roll that you can cut with a sharp, moistened knife into bite sized pieces. Voila!

The process itself is not difficult but does take a little practice. Here’s a video demonstration that may be helpful.


Dakota Murphey is an experienced, UK based writer for experience day specialist Into the Blue. Trying as many new cookery classes as possible, and challenging her palate to taste the many fascinating cuisines from around the world