Kiku Sushi

Writing about hidden local gems presents an agonizing conflict of interests. On the one hand, such excellence should be recognized, properly praised and encouraged to persist. On the other, drawing attention to a restaurant no bigger than a tool shed that already garners intimidating lines, puts it in danger of becoming even more overcrowded than it already is. Kiku Sushi needs no press to bring business through the door; on a completely unassuming, undistinguished Tuesday, wait time can stretch well into the darkness of night, no matter when you arrive. Well known for their commitment to quality, what potential patrons may not realize is the utterly innovative vegan menu.

It never turns up on lists for the best plant-based dining options, and yet it’s far more deserving of the honor than many predictable staples. We’re talking about more than the usual suspects here, with cucumber maki giving way to sumptuous specialty rolls that are every bit as creative as their fishy brethren.

That said, there’s plenty to relish from this bill of fare, starting with a number of truly killer apps. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy impossibly rich, savory spoonfuls of Mushroom Miso Soup, or meltingly tender Nasu Dengaku, without the fear of bonito lurking in the background.

Spicy Tuna takes shape from chopped tomatoes, of all things, generously seasoned with fiery shichimi togarashi. A hint of cumin-scented shiso leaf and the crisp bite of crunchy cucumbers creates a well-balanced, fresh composition that’s distinctly different from the typically mayo-laden approach, and dare I say, far better.

Made of mushrooms instead of mollusks, the Baked Scallop Roll is an umami explosion in a rice-wrapped package. Creamy avocado adds richness without smothering the nuanced, shockingly authentic oceanic flavor. Though your eyes and mouth may try to tell you differently, that’s not tobiko on top, but finely grated carrot that somehow becomes an unbelievably convincing imposter.

If neither seafood nor any vegetable-based facsimiles ever did appeal, then the Kiku Roll was made for you. Take futo maki to the next level, and one step beyond, and you’ll have some idea of the behemoth about to descend on your table. Fully deep-fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled generously with sweet soy and ginger sauce, one order alone could become a wholly satisfying meal.

In a similar vein, the Spicy Crunchy Roll should have wide appeal across all dietary preferences and tastes. Toothsome marinaded kampyo meets yuba and decadent piles of tempura flakes, impossibly grease-less and, as promised, resoundingly crunchy. The spice level is gentle yet bright, clear, and distinct, perfectly cutting through the indulgent topping.

Kiku Sushi clearly isn’t hurting for business, and while I fear jeopardizing my own chances at getting in the door, such edible artistry needs to be celebrated. For a restaurant that never sought vegan accolades, they certainly do treat their plant-based diners to a royal sushi experience.

Kiku Sushi
1316 Gilman St
Berkeley, CA 94706

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Sushi Cups for the Rest of Us

Love sushi but hate the fuss and mess of making it at home? You and me both. Despite best intentions, such ambition inevitably leads to walls spackled with sticky rice, sesame seeds burrowed deep within kitchen tiles, and nori plastered across the table. Rolling up the compact parcels isn’t such a demanding task on paper, but in real life when deadlines loom and hunger gnaws with terrifying ferocity, all bets are off. If it’s still reasonably edible by the time I give up and scrape the mangled scraps into a bowl, I’d consider the venture a reasonable success.

For anyone else in the same sort of sushi boat, I’d like you to meet your new life (and sanity) preserver. Edible cups made of classic nori seaweed, crisp and delicate, in addition to more avant-garde carrot and daikon papers, are here to save the dinner. Swaddle your rice in flavorful wrappings without the need to roll. More elegant than the usual mess of fillings dumped into a bowl, these savory cupcakes are just as charming as they are delicious. Feed yourself or a number of last-minute guests with ease, even if some visitors aren’t fond of the “fishiness” that traditional maki rolls possess. Pale orange carrot cups have a subtle, natural sweetness that makes them an ideal offering for more picky eaters or younger palates, white the daikon option has a slightly bitter edge, perfect for cutting the richness of creamy avocado or a generous drizzle of miso mayo. In both cases, the only additional ingredient in the mix is agar, holding these thin edible vessels together.

It’s with equal parts excitement and frustration that I share this fantastic innovation, though, if you might have guessed from the previous product links. I first encountered these savory sushi cupcake papers at the Winter Fancy Foods Show, and regrettably, have yet to hear a word from or even about the company since. Why on earth hasn’t this concept caught on to spread like wildfire? There might be more competitors on the horizon, which is a relief, since my small stockpile has long since been exhausted. It’s an idea that’s just too good to keep to myself, regular availability not withstanding.

In lieu of perfectly formed nori, carrot, and daikon cupcake papers, what’s your quick fix solution when sushi cravings strike? Temari sushi or larger onigiri are probably the most direct conversions, offering single-serving bites of rice and vegetables without the need to roll, while temaki would be ideal finger foods to pass at a party.

Though this feels like another tale of “the one that got away,” I’m holding out hope that these sushi saviors will make a big splash on the market in the days to come. Either that, or someone will devise a press to turn nori into cupcakes at home. A hungry but lazy cook can dream, right?

Go Fish

More than half my life has been spent as a vegan, cleaving my personal story into two distinct pieces. Childhood, before any sort of food awareness or appreciation, and all the rest, a more conscious consumer and supporter of all things cruelty-free. The split was quick, concise, but not entirely as clean as it sounds on paper. Though it began with an exploratory affair with vegetarianism at first, there was one big issue that held me back from diving into the deep end: Fish.

Yes, I was a strange one indeed. No meats nor cheeses gave me particular pause, but fish, and only raw fish at that, beckoned me back to the dark side. Sushi topped my list of favorite foods, from simple buttery slices of ahi tuna sashimi to the slippery tangles of octopus salad, topped with slivers of bonito dancing in the breeze, no crudo could turn me off. Landing squarely at the top of that list was salmon nigiri, a mildly briny sensation that has yet to be matched in the plant-based sphere of alternatives.

That’s why I must admit that after 15 years, I’ve begun to indulge once again.

That briny, savory flavor, toothsome yet slippery, silky texture that simply can’t be imitated is a truly luxurious sensation. Those fatty coral-colored slabs that top tender mounds of rice instantly brought me right back to my pre-vegan days of indulgence. One bite and I was won back to the dark side.

You see, I went vegan because I opposed animal cruelty, not because I hated the taste of animal products. Why should I have to suffer too? Besides, it’s said that fish in particular lack a properly developed neocortex, which makes them incapable of feeling pain. Though it’s true, there’s no way to definitively confirm this since I don’t speak the language However, I can rest assured that my own oceanic feast didn’t suffer one iota…

Because it’s all made of melon!

April Fools to anyone who was tricked by these convincing slabs of sashimi, but there’s no fooling around with the truly impressive results from this recipe. Building upon my incredibly popular tuna poke, I sought out the powers of marinated melon once more, opting for unripe cantaloupe for subtle sweetness and a beautiful orange hue. Small tweaks to better suit the flavor nuances seal the deal for salmon lovers abstaining from eating seafood.

While retail solutions for ethical oceanic edibles still lag behind mainstream demand, this homemade formula will quickly and easily quell any residual cravings. As a reformed fish-fancier, take my word for it!

Sushi, sashimi, poke, and salads; all are enhanced by this new approach to fishless satisfaction. Add a touch of liquid smoke to fix up an effortless dupe for lox, or try enhancing the brine with dill and lemon for that essential gravlax experience.

There are plenty of other fish in the sea, so let’s keep it that way. There’s no need to cast a line out in hopes of a bite again!

Fish-Free Salmon Sashimi

1 Small, Unripe Cantaloupe
1 Cup Mushroom Broth
4 Tablespoons Braggs Liquid Aminos
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Sauerkraut Brine
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1/2 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
2 Sheets Toasted Nori, Roughly Torn

*To make lox or smoked “salmon,” add 1/2 – 1 teaspoon liquid smoke, to taste.
*To make gravlax, add 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh dill and the zest of half a lemon.

Cut the cantaloupe in half, scoop and out discard the seeds. Slice those halves into four wedges each, carefully “filleting” the fruit to remove the peel. Place all 8 cleaned wedges into a large, shallow container.

Place the remaining ingredients into your blender and thoroughly puree, until completely smooth. Pour this marinade all over the melon, making sure that all pieces are fully submerged. You may need to move things around so that you have complete coverage.

Seal the container and place on a flat surface in your freezer. Allow the whole thing to fully freeze; at least 12 hours, but ideally 24 or longer. If you want to save the “salmon” for a later date, just leave it at this stage until you’re ready to serve it.

To continue preparing your fish-free feast, allow the tuna to fully thaw either in the fridge or at room temperature. Drain away the excess marinade. You can save this and reuse it if you like, since there’s no potential bacterial contamination like you would get if using raw meat. Thinly slice the edges as desired for sashimi, or cube for “salmon” poke!

Printable Recipe

The Ultimate Sushi Burrito Roll-Out

Wide-eyed, mouth agape, and stomach rumbling, I remember the very first time I heard of the concept. Sushi always had a special place in my heart and on my table, from a weekly after school maki roll habit to special birthday dinner requests, often cited as my last meal selection when asked. Despite my youth, I thought that such relentless passion had already exposed me to all the category had to offer. New vegetable, legume, or fruit combinations could shake things up from time to time, but there was nothing earth-shattering to be found in this time-honored edible art form.

That was until I came across sushi burritos. Hulking bundles rivaling the size of a newborn, these babies were instead swaddled in oversized sheets of slick, glistening nori, overstuffed with a rainbow of fresh and widely varied ingredients. Just one order would satisfy the average eater, if not push them right over the edge into a contented food coma. Back in the early days, there was only one: The Sushirrito, the granddaddy of them all. Scrolling through blogs that featured mouth-watering photos of the beast, I vowed that one day, I would venture out west, if only to taste this legendary creation for myself.

Almost a decade later, it’s safe to say that this is no longer a passing trend, but a hot ticket item that’s here to stay. Sushirrito has expanded its empire all the way out east to New York, with plans to unveil its 8th and 9th outposts soon. More tellingly, however, is the number of rivals now on the scene that offer up their own perspective on the giant sushi wrap. What might surprise you is the fact that all of these fish-centric establishments offer wholly vegan options, and the greatest variety is actually found across the bay, in Berkeley and Oakland. So who makes the one veggie sushi burrito to rule them all? It took me over a year of eating and countless packets of soy sauce, but what follows is my official* ruling on the very best of the bay area.

*Completely unofficial.

Pulling off the greatest upset in sushi burrito history, the young upstart Sushinista gets the gold star in this competition. Less than a year on the scene and still flying well below the radar, their offerings are some of the least traditional, but accordingly most inventive and exciting. Portobello mushrooms slathered in a mild green curry sauce are the shining stars of this menu, complimented by a range of seasonal vegetables and crunchy toppings that have previously included such unsung delights as persimmon and Asian pear.

Giving credit where credit is due, Sushirrito still carries the torch in San Francisco proper. Quite frankly, it’s hard to beat the obscenely rich mushroom fries found in the “Buddha Belly,” ringing with umami and wholly satisfying on their own. I’m tempted to call it a tie with my top pick, but points ultimately had to be deducted for sloppy construction. Kudos for providing a roasted garlic tofu aioli, but that added sauce frequently created soggy nori, leading to catastrophic blowouts while eating. You’ll eventually need to attack it with a fork in the end.

Big bonus point and serious kudos go to Sumo Roll for being the ONLY establishment offering not one, but two veganizable options. Although both the veggie-forward “Kabuki” and curried tofu “Midori” automatically come with egg-based aioli and one with slaw, just let your sushi burrito artist know about your dietary needs and they’re more than happy to customize. Ask for the tangy miso-ginger sauce instead, and you’ll be in business. Hat tip to Sumo Roll for providing what is quite possibly the best value around, serving up truly sumo-sized servings that don’t hold back on the flavorful fillings.

Placing Torpedo Sushi so far down the list feels downright heretical, considering the consistently luscious slabs of avocado and chunks of baked tofu wrapped up in every bundle. They simply got edged out for offering smaller portions, and occasionally bulking up their rolls with more rice than fillings. Burritos can be somewhat hit-or-miss based on these proportions, so I’d be more inclined to order the “Veganator” in rice bowl format instead.

Traveling back to downtown Berkeley, Sushi Secrets certainly doesn’t skimp on the goodies wrapped up in their “Denemon,” throwing unexpected ingredients like purple potatoes and corn into the mix. Unfortunately, their wraps also suffer from issues with structural integrity, and the sweet and sour dressing dominates the entire composition, drowning out any nuances that the unique vegetables might provide. Once unwrapped, the whole thing is liable to explode into your lap, and sadly, it’s not even worth the effort of picking up all the shrapnel.

Ordering sushi from a truck might seem sketchy, even when opting for a fish-free meal, but We Sushi has proven itself as a reliable source for sushi satisfaction. The “Vegan” burrito is solid, a fine fix if you’re craving vinegared rice and veggies, featuring sweet potato tempura most prominently, but nothing to rave about. It’s the beige cardigan of sushi burritos; reliable, comfortable, but nothing you’d want to show off in public. Go ahead and order up if you spot the truck parked in your neighborhood, but don’t go out of your way to hunt it down.

Pulling up the tail end of this edible parade, the “Tofu Teriyaki” burrito at Sushi Taka seems more like an afterthought than a feature. Ordered without spicy mayo, the wrap tastes only of seaweed salad. Soft tofu squares dissolve without any notable texture, and the promise of teriyaki flavor goes unfulfilled. In a word: Pass.

Honorable mention goes to Nombe, for taking the fusion concept to the next level and actually wrapping their sushi burritos in flour tortillas. These are a rotating item on the menu, but I don’t think you’re missing much if you don’t see them during your visit; the combination of carb-on-carb is just a total starch-fest, especially considering the fact that rice takes up more than half the bundle to begin with.

It’s safe to say that sushi burritos are officially having their moment out west, but time will tell if that enthusiasm of oversized maki rolls will continue their spread across the country. There are highlights and low lights to be found, with wide variations all over the board, but overall, there’s a lot to love about the concept.

Have you had sushi burritos? Have you made sushi burritos? Tell me about it, and let’s craft a better burrito, together!

Taste the Rainbow

On paper, one year appears laughably brief. 365 days out of a lifetime is but a flash in the pan, a blip on the radar. Taken into the context of history, millennia in the making, it’s not even worth mentioning. Time continues slipping through our fingers unimpeded even as we speak, turning the most recent set of months into a shockingly short memory. It feels like no time has elapsed at all since I officially set down roots here on the west coast, and yet my calendar tells me that I’ve reached this first milestone, seemingly out of the blue.

Though many more months and a string of variably sketchy apartments in the bay area preceded this count, it’s been one full year that I’ve been parked in the same place, calling the address my own. You know it’s official when you finally set up shop and invest in a stand mixer, after all. Home is where the heavy kitchen equipment is.

While I felt it was essential to commemorate this first anniversary, it couldn’t be with any recipe that took itself too seriously. That just wouldn’t do for the occasion, or for the place. No, I wanted to create something that spoke of San Francisco’s modern whimsy and free spirit; the place that I know, not the place it used to be.

California rolls are something I’ve wanted to make for a while, and with the name of the state built right in, the easy pun was irresistible. Though it’s likely that this American maki originated a bit further down south, with this contemporary reinterpretation, I do hereby propose that we of the bay area reclaim it as our own. To create something truly San Franciscan, nothing short of a rainbow would do.

“Traditional” crab filling is replaced by fishless shredded jackfruit, spiked with vegan fish sauce and a touch of sriracha, if you so desire. This unique, oceanic addition would normally be the big selling point for any sushi roll, but it’s clearly the colors surrounding it that steal the show. 100% natural hues are derived from plant-based sources that are probably sitting around in your pantry or fridge right now, to tint plain sushi rice and transform it into something truly special.

Cheers, San Francisco! Here’s to many more vibrant, colorful years together!

San Francisco, California Sushi Rolls

Crabby Filling:

16 Ounces Young Jackfruit
2 Scallions, White Parts Only, Finely Minced
2 Tablespoons Finely Minced Roasted Red Bell Pepper
1 Tablespoon Vegan Fish Sauce or Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
2 Teaspoons Nutritional Yeast
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Celery Seeds, Ground
3 Tablespoons Vegan Mayonnaise
1/2 – 1 Tablespoon Sriracha (Optional, for Spicy Rolls)

To Assemble:

2 Ripe Avocados
2 Persian Cucumbers, Thinly Sliced Lengthwise
8 Sheets Roasted NoriAdditional Sriracha, if Desired

Rainbow Sushi Rice:

2 Cups Sushi Rice
2 1/4 Cups Water
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Mirin
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Red: 1 Tablespoon Beet Juice
Orange: 1 Tablespoon Beet Juice, 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
Yellow: 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
Green: 1/2 Teaspoon Spirulina Powder
Blue + Purple: 1/3 Cup Diced Red Cabbage, 1/2 Cup Water, 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda (Divided)

It may look like a lot of ingredients, but it’s really quite simple to create your very own sushi rainbows. Prepare the filling first so that it has time to sit and marinate. Shred and/or chop the jackfruit coarsely to break it up and approximate the texture of shredded crab. Add in all of the remaining ingredients and stir well. Cover, place in the fridge, and let sit for at least 1 – 3 hours for the flavors to fully meld. This can also be prepared well in advance; up to a week if stored in an air-tight container.

The real fun comes with the rice. Rinse and thoroughly drain the rice, washing away the excess starch, before bringing the water to a boil. Add the rice, stir once to break up any clumps, and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and let cook for 14 – 18 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed. Mix together the vinegar, mirin, and salt in a separate container before pouring it into the hot rice, mixing thoroughly to incorporate. Keep the rice covered and let steam until fully cooked and tender.

Allow the cooked rice to cool until you can comfortably handle it; about 30 minutes. Divide it equally into 7 bowls (yes, you’ll end up with a lot of dishes to wash, but it will be worth it!). Mix in the designated coloring agent for each individual hue, stirring until the grains are more or less evenly dyed. The only colors that aren’t entirely self explanatory are the blue and purple, which take a little bit more effort to extract. Combine the cabbage and water in a small saucepan and simmer, covered, for 10 – 15 minutes, until the water is a pleasing shade of purple. Strain out the actual cabbage pieces and use 2 – 3 teaspoons of the liquid to create your violet rice. To the remaining water, whisk in the baking soda, and watch the dye magically turn blue. Just as before, mix in 2 – 3 teaspoons to make the blue rice.

Finally, to assemble, lay out thin strips of each colored rice on a sheet of nori in rainbow order, leaving about a 1 1/2-inch span of nori clean. Press down lightly to adhere and even out the lines. Top with the marinated crabby filling, thinly sliced cucumber, and plenty of avocado. If you really like it hot, go ahead and add an extra squirt of sriracha in, too. Carefully roll the whole bundle up as tightly as possible, pressing everything together gently but firmly as you go. Lightly moisten the clean strip of nori to seal the end.

Slice into 6 – 8 pieces and repeat with the remaining ingredients. Serve with soy sauce for dipping and go ahead, taste the rainbow!

Makes 8 Servings

Printable Recipe

¡Ay Dios Mío, es Cinco de Mayo!

For a day commemorating a Mexican military victory back in the 1860’s, you’d think that Cinco de Mayo would be a bigger deal in Mexico than the states. An excuse to drink beer, make merry, and eat greasy tacos, the truth is that the holiday is as American as apple pie. It’s hardly our only holiday that’s lost a bit in translation, or invented by greeting card companies, so such a revelation is hardly shocking. A cultural mishmash of customs both authentic and artificial, it may not have the deep meaning that so many partiers wish to believe, but still offers plenty of joy to those who wish to participate.

Since we’ve already asserted that it’s not quite Mexican and not recognizably American, why not go all out and throw another culture into the mix? Fusion usually brings up bad memories of overwrought, underdeveloped “concept” dishes, but it needn’t be that way! Enjoy it for what it is, not what it “should” be- What could be more fitting idea for this non-holiday after all?

Guaca-maki, a maki roll stuffed with brightly spiced and zesty guacamole, smoky roasted red peppers, crisp romaine lettuce, and some meaty strips of grilled veggie burgers for protein. Admittedly, adding burger bits to sushi was a bit wilder than I wanted to swing on this already crazy concoction, but for a quick meal, it was the only option on hand. Next time, I might recommend black or pinto beans to round this roll out. Finally, this inside-out roll is coated in a crunchy exterior of crushed tortilla chips, and served not with soy sauce, but hot salsa.

It’s certainly not for everyone, and not something I would ever serve to serve to “serious” company, but it doesn’t hurt to play with your food every once in a while. Leave your preconceived notions of sushi and Cinco de Mayo at the door- You just might like it if you try it!