Making nigiri: an appreciation

Previously, on –


It’s been a crazy August, what with moving into new quarters (packing, moving, unpacking) and also looking for new employment at the same time.

So during the course of my food adventures, I’ve learned how to make sushi vinegar, how much of it to use with rice that keeps my family happy and now I needed to learn how to actually make nigiri.  In wondering how to assemble freshly cut fish to rice, I came across two videos.  The first is Matsuhisa-sama demonstrating how he assembles his nigiri here:

There is a similar video echoing that technique (a little slower and clearer) here:

It’s pretty much the same except that Matsuhisa-sama applies the two finger on-top technique to the rice while it is still facing upwards BEFORE flipping the nigiri over with the fish side facing up.  Matsuhisa-sama indicated that the most difficult steps would be the step where you apply 2 finger pressure to the nigiri when the rice side is facing up,  and when you apply the same technique to the nigiri when the fish side is facing up – you don’t want to squash/mash the nigiri!

Matsuhisa-sama also handles his sushi knife like a swordsman:

which is how the legendary swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi advocates holding a sword in one hand – “…Grip the long sword with a rather floating feeling in your thumb and forefinger, with the  middle finger neither tight nor slack, and with the last two fingers tight….”).

The other thing to be aware of is Matsuhisa-sama’s comment about the amount of fresh wasabi to use:

(“how much rice, how much wasabi” – implying that each kind of fish requires a different amount of wasabi.).   Presumably the amount of wasabi required increases with the richness/fattiness of the fish that was sliced.  As far as I know, I haven’t seen any quantified amount; so I would expect that would depend on the experience of the itamae (板前).

In preparing to make nigiri, I made up a batch of wasabi, setup a bowl of water with ice and then made up two rice bowls of shari.  After making up some shari, I set up 6 tablespoon scoops of shari to get a physical sense of the amount of rice for the nigiri.  I then tried to follow the visual assembly instructions as provided from Matsuhisa-sama’s Nobu: The Sushi Cookbook (p. 56, 57).   I then sliced up six 3″ long x 1″ wide x 1/4″ thick pieces of kanpachi and started to assemble.

Sliced kanpachi ready for assembly

  • First step was to put the slice of kanpachi in my left hand in my left hand aligned with the line where my fingers met the palm.
  • The second step was to use my right index finger to wipe some wasabi (consistency of thick wet quikrete) onto the fish.

Adding wasabi to kanpachi

  • Once that was done, I grabbed one of my pre-scooped rice oblongs, gently ‘gripped’ it and placed it onto the fish.

Getting a scoop of rice

Adding the shari

  • Now the shaping of the nigiri would start.  ‘Cradle-gripping’ the fish/rice combination, my right thumb and right index finger would ‘box’ the front and back of the rice while my left thumb would lightly depress the oblong of rice.

Spreading the shari onto the kanpachi and wasabi

  • That would be followed up with covering the nigiri with my side-by-side right index AND right middle finger where the tips of those fingers touched the palm base of my left index finger.  The right edge of my right middle finger would follow contour of my left index finger along the tops of my left middle finger,  left third finger, and left pinky.  I would then gently squeeze the rice onto the fish

gently squeezing shari to fish

  • Taking my right hand off, I tried to flip the assembly, fish-side-up with my left thumb in my left hand.  The interesting thing in the video is that Matsuhisa-sama simply ‘flips’ his with a twist/flick of his wrist!
  •  ‘Cradle-gripping’ the nigiri, I formed my right thumb and index fingers into a “U”, I slid those two fingers down along the sides of the nigiri I was making.

downward finger wrap/squeeze of fish to shari

  • I then covered the nigiri (fish-side-up) with my side-by-side right index AND right middle finger where the tips of those fingers touched the palm base of my left index finger.  The right edge of my right middle finger would follow contour of my left index finger along the tops of my life middle finger,  left third finger, and left pinky.  I would then gently squeeze the fish onto the rice

Gently squeezing the fish to shari

  • I would rotate the nigiri around 180 degrees and repeat the prior two steps and then I was done.

a set of nigiri

Apparently Matsuhisa-sama shapes his nigiri at 6 seconds a piece.  I probably took at least 10 to 12 seconds.  I bet if I practiced making nigiri using Matsuhisa-sama’s methodology consistently, I’m sure I could, one day, get it down to 6 seconds.  When my wife tasted my nigiri, a couple of observations were made – the length of the fish was a shade too big for one bite, though the amount of wasabi in the nigiri seemed to be well balanced.

In retrospect, I started this adventure with sushi rice nearly five years ago and studying bit by bit over time.  Learning to cut fish properly took much longer.  As a home cook, I can see why the process of learning to make sushi takes as long as it does.  It took me quite a while to discover the balance between the amount of sushi vinegar and rice that my family liked: that was done through the chirashi projects.   Learning to cut fish properly was exercised by all the meals where I was doing some form of sashimi.  I can’t begin to tell you how often/long I went through the hand motions of forming nigiri from Matsuhisa-sama’s video and pictures from his book – as if I was practicing some kind of choreography with my hands.  I’m deeply appreciative, Matsuhisa-sama for sharing your knowledge, experience and recipes.  I’m starting to have a deeper appreciation about that art that is your profession.  For me, it’s more practice, practice, practice.

Quick note:

Regarding the wasabi I used for this project – the maker was Sushi Sonic – their 51% real freeze dried wasabi which I reconstituted 2 tablespoons wasabi powder to 1 tablespoon water and let it sit for about 10 minutes to let the flavor develop.  I do have the Sushi Sonic 100% freeze dried wasabi here at home, but am keeping it in reserve for a special occasion


Sushi/Sashimi grade kanpachi – Wegman’s, Chestnut Hill, MA
Sushi Sonic wasabi – Whole Foods, Newtonville, MA

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