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Supermarket California rolls
In-store sushi bars are relatively new, at least on the East Coast, as major supermarket chains cash in on the sushi boom. Many stores offer sushi made off premises and this is where the quality can suffer. Refrigeration alters the texture of the rice and makes it hard. So in-store operations offer a better sushi-eating experience.
Supermarket sushi bars are independently owned and operated by several different companies. Southern Tsunami, a California-based company, is one that offers franchises. Franchisees are trained in California; all ingredients are purchased from the company and are subject to their quality control.
We tasted California rolls from four companies in five supermarkets. Because California rolls do not contain raw fish, they're sometimes considered starter sushi. These rolls have the rice on the outside, and a single layer of seaweed that encloses avocado, cucumber, and imitation crab (a mixture of pollock and other things). It is rolled and then sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Quality varied among sushi pieces, even from the same company. For instance, Southern Tsunami is a franchise in both Shaw's and Hannaford markets (but owned by different franchisees) , and the sushi from these markets was not the same. We had no unanimous winner. Votes were split between Hannaford and Roche Bros. (the supplier is Hissho Sushi). Shaw's sushi was voted least favorite. So the same supplier was given top marks by some and dismissed as inferior by others.
The word sushi refers to short - grain sticky rice seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. What you put on top of the rice, or inside or around it, makes it a certain type of sushi. So good rice is an important element and it was the part that most tasters had strong opinions about. Many found the rice mushy, under-cooked, or tasteless.
Sushi preferences are personal. Some tasters liked the fact that there was a big piece of cucumber to chew and crunch, others preferred the multiple matchstick-slice approach. What one thought was pleasingly creamy avocado, another called "disgusting mushy." There was a similar divide when they tasted the condiments -- sliced pickled ginger and wasabi, the hot green horseradish paste.
Nine people participated in the tasting. Of those, two were native-born Japanese, three had studied and lived in Japan, and four were sushi devotees. I offered hot green tea as a palate cleanser. We also judged presentation, which is important in Japanese cuisine. -- DEBRA SAMUELS