Sushi From the South
Chef Marisa Baggett is on a roll creating Southern-inspired sushi in Memphis (recipe included).
by Kayla Smith
Marisa Baggett was only 18 years old when she started cooking and only 22 when she opened her own restaurant and catering company called The Chocolate Giraffe in her hometown of Starkville, Mississippi. This accomplishment was impressive on its own, but Baggett didn’t stop there. She had no experience with sushi – making or eating it – when a client requested the food for a dinner party. “I did some research, gave it a try and fell in love,” she says. After moving to Memphis to work briefly in an Asian restaurant, she left the South for California, where she became the first African American woman to graduate from the California Sushi Academy.
That was in 2003, and she’s been living her dream ever since. Baggett returned to the South in 2004, working as a sushi chef in Memphis and gaining national recognition for her unique combinations from the likes of Essence magazine, The Atlantic, The Hiragana Times in Japan and James Beard Foundation. Her attention to sustainable seafood and use of local ingredients also earned her the title of one of Mother Nature Network’s “Top 40 Green Chefs under 40.”
“The spirit of Japanese cuisine, including sushi, is to use what’s regional, what’s around you,” she says of her Southern-inspired rolls. Ingredients like pickled okra, green tomatoes and green beans, along with kudzu jelly, allow her to create a sushi experience that is distinctly Southern, while remaining true to the Japanese tradition.
After working at Do Sushi Bar and Lounge in Memphis, Baggett decided to teach sushi classes full-time and can be found at gourmet food markets in the city and Tsunami restaurant. For the aspiring sushi chefs at home, her first cookbook Sushi Secrets: Easy Recipes for the Home Cook is now available and promises a one-stop sushi experience for anyone from Maui to Mississippi. Get a sneak peek with her recipe for a Pickled Okra Roll below.
Pickled Okra Thick Roll
It’s not uncommon to use pickled vegetables such as eggplant, burdock root, and daikon radish as fillings for sushi rolls, Baggett explains. “In my first days of creating sushi in Starkville, Mississippi, recipes for pickled vegetable sushi popped up in nearly every sushi recipe I could find. The challenge was that I could not find them in our local, closet-sized Asian market (much less pronounce them!) I improvised and decided that pickled okra would be my local go-to sushi pickle.” She gets hers from the local farmer’s market but also suggests checking supermarkets for commercially jarred okra on the pickle aisle. Mild and spicy varieties work, depending on personal preference.
Four, 4×7-inch sheets nori or soy paper
3 cups prepared Traditional Sushi Rice (recipe below)
8 green beans, trimmed and blanched
One 4-inch long carrot, cut into matchstick strips
8 large pieces of pickled okra
1⁄4 of a small red bell pepper, cut into matchstick strips
4 tsp cream cheese, softened
4 tsp corn kernels, blanched
2 tsp minced green onion, green parts only
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
Place one sheet of nori on a bamboo rolling mat. Be sure that the short end is parallel to the bottom of the mat and that the rough side is facing upwards. Wet your fingertips and spread about 3⁄4 cup of the prepared sushi rice evenly over the bottom 3⁄4 of the nori. Arrange two green beans in the center of the rice. Top with 1⁄4 of the carrot matchsticks and two of the pickled okra pieces. Add 1⁄4 of the red bell pepper matchsticks. Smear 1 teaspoon of cream cheese across the rice. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of corn kernels, 1⁄2 teaspoon green onions and 1⁄2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds across the fillings.
Wet your fingertips again and slide your thumbs underneath the mat while grasping the fillings with all other fingertips. Roll the bottom of the mat just over the fillings and tuck the fillings snugly under the fold. Lift the edge of the mat and continue rolling until the roll is complete. (Keep the mat from getting stuck inside the fold during rolling.) Gently shape the roll by pressing your forefingers on the top of the mat while simultaneously pressing your thumbs and middle fingers into the sides.
Repeat steps with the remaining nori and fillings. Allow each roll to rest seam side down on a cutting board at least 2 minutes. To serve, use a sharp knife dipped lightly in water to cut each roll into five pieces. Serve immediately with soy sauce for dipping, if desired. Makes 4 rolls (20 pieces).
Traditional Sushi Rice
Note: Don’t be put off by the 1-1⁄2 hours needed to complete this version of sushi rice. Most of it is hands-off time. For your patience, you will be rewarded with perfectly flavored rice that spreads easily.
21⁄2 cups short grain rice
2 1⁄2 cups water, minus 3 Tbsp
3⁄4 cup Sushi Rice Dressing (recipe below)
Cover the rice with cool water in a medium bowl. Gently swish the rice in a circular motion with your hand taking care not to break the grains apart. Pour the water off and repeat three times. Place the rice in a fine mesh strainer and rinse it with cool water. The run off water should begin to look clear. Allow the rice to drain in the strainer for 10 minutes.
Place the rice and measured water in a rice cooker. Once the rice cooker is started, cook for exactly 40 minutes. Most likely the cooker will indicate that the rice is done before 40 minutes have elapsed, but be patient. Do not lift the lid or stop the process before the time is up. While the rice cooks, place a wooden spoon or rice paddle in a shallow bowl of water to soak. This will prevent the cooked rice from sticking to the paddle while tossing with the Sushi Rice Dressing.
Dump the steamed rice onto a large, flat cutting board. With the soaked wooden spoon or paddle, gently “cut” the rice into pieces like a pie. Pour 1⁄4 cup of the dressing over the rice and toss well. Continue adding the dressing in 1⁄4 cup intervals to the rice, tossing well after each addition. Spread the rice into a thin layer and let it cool for 10 minutes. Gently flip the rice over with the soaked wooden spoon or paddle and let it cool for 5 minutes. Place the rice in a large, non-metal bowl or container and cover with a damp, lint-free dishcloth until ready for use. Use the rice within 4 hours. Makes about 6 cups.
Sushi Rice Dressing
3⁄4 cup rice vinegar
1⁄3 cup turbinado sugar (raw sugar), finely ground
3 tsp sea salt
Mix together rice vinegar, turbinado sugar and sea salt in a small, non-metal bowl. Whisk dressing vigorously for about 2 minutes or until most of the turbinado sugar and sea salt has dissolved. Set aside until ready for use. (If doubling the batch to make extra or use for salad dressing, store remainder tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks.) Allow mixture to reach room temperature before using. Makes about 1 cup.
A native of Picayune, Mississippi, Kayla Smith is an intern with Deep South. Find out more about her in our Contributors section.