Vegetable Maki Sushi Rolls, with or without Tempura Shrimp

By Charleen - April 09, 2021

If you love the taste and texture of sushi rice, sticky, vinegary and slightly salty-sweet, you will love these easy vegan maki rolls. While you are frying the sweet potato tempura, it is easy to add in stretched tempura shrimp for a pescatarian delight. Like the famed California roll, these Japanese-American adaptations have no raw fish at all, and are fun to make, serve and eat!

Shrimp tempura or portobello mushroom maki rolls with wasabi and homemade sriracha mayo.
Vegan futomaki rolls with sweet potato tempura, carrots, portabello mushrooms and sesame spinach

One of our favorite snacks are those thin, crispy seasoned rectangles of dried seaweed. The trick here is NOT to buy those tiny plastic boxes with a fraction of an ounce (5-7 g), but to search in your local Asian grocery for full size sheets. (Although even these larger packages disappear rapidly in my household.)
Packaging for palm-size (left) versus letter-size sheets (right) of seasoned seaweed snacks.

Once I accidentally bought unseasoned seaweed sheets, which were not so good for snacking. So my daughter, who loves Japanese food sought to introduce us to veggie sushi. My husband and I are pretty much on the "no raw meat" side of things, although we will take our steaks at medium and we did try a small bite of the steak tartare at Brasserie Balzar, a fun, friendly restaurant in Paris. I remembered having veggie sushi rolls at our high school potlucks, along with lumpia and fried rice. So we sought online advice for making maki rolls -- a type of sushi wrapped using thin red algae (Pyropia) seaweed sheets called nori. 
Roasted, but unseasoned, seaweed sheets for making maki roll sushi

The first step is to make the sushi rice. For this you need to get short or medium grain rice, which is starchy and cooks up with a sticky texture. This is not the same as the sticky or glutinous rice used in sweet and savory Chinese steamed dishes, such as this mushroom celebration rice entree. Just look for a label indicating that the rice is good for making sushi. While this can be cooked on the stovetop, overcooking of the rice at the bottom of the simmering pot is a potential hazard. This can be solved completely by making the sushi rice in a pressure cooker such as the Instant Pot. 

Next was optimizing the ratio of vinegar, salt and sugar. We consulted several recipes and ended up tweaking up the rice vinegar to suit our tastes. The rice should be mild, but tasty on its own without fillings.

The fillings can include raw ingredients such as spinach, and cucumbers, avocado, carrots or mushrooms cut up into narrow julienned strips. Fresh shiitake or portabello mushroom strips can be sautéed and seasoned with a bit of soy sauce and/or smoky chipotle salt. Squares of Trader Joe baked teriyaki tofu can also be cut into strips to add protein.
Teriyaki tofu, soy sauce mushrooms, radish, carrots, cucumbers, avocado strips

Or, you can make vegetable or shrimp tempura for added textural contrast. I found a great video explaining how to make long, straight stretched shrimp that will wrap nicely inside the cylindrical seaweed roll. In addition to making small cuts along the curled in side of the shrimp, you have to break the connections along both sides of the shrimp by bending them from side to side as you pull gently to stretch the shrimp. 
Stretched shrimp fry up nice and straight, making it easy to wrap into shrimp rolls

This worked out beautifully the first time we tried it. Two shrimp arranged head to head filled out the length of the roll. The next time, I decided to leave the tail fins on as a decorative element sticking out from the end of the maki roll, but I forgot to break the side connections and the shrimp curled a little bit.
Frying stretched shrimp tempura in about a cup of oil with a handy rack that allows oil to drip back into the wok!  Two large shrimp wrap beautifully in a half sheet of nori with the tails sticking out.

When rolling, you do not need special equipment aside from a cutting board. Early on, we followed the online advice to use Saran wrap as we did not have bamboo rolling mats, but soon discovered, we did not need it (See tips). You do have to keep your fingers wet or the rice will stick. The first time, we ended up making a huge rolls, before we figured out to cut the 8 x 7.5 inch seaweed sheets in half to form two 4 x 7.5 inch half sheets. Depending on the filling, if the half sheets seemed too small to seal well, simply go back making the thicker full sheet maki rolls.
Making vegan maki rolls. You can make them with either half-sheets (chumaki) or full sheets (futomaki). Fillings were cooked sesame spinach, cooked soy sauce portabellos, carrot sticks, sweet potato tempura.

After cutting the rolls with a sharp knife (I have not yet decided if a bread knife makes it easier or not), enjoy the rolls with tiny dots of wasabi, slices of pickled ginger, and perhaps a bit more rice vinegar with or without a splash of soy sauce.

Instant Pot Sushi rice recipe

1.5 cups sushi rice, rinsed and drained
1.5 cups water
4 Tbs rice vinegar (unseasoned)
1 Tbs sugar
1/2 tsp salt.

Cook on high pressure for 5 min, then allow to sit undisturbed for 10 minutes before releasing pressure.
Mix in rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Taste and adjust if necessary.

For 2 cups of rice, use 2 cups of water, 1/4 cup of rice vinegar, 1 Tbs and 1 tsp of sugar, and 1/2-3/4 tsp of salt to taste. 

Pickled ginger

2 oz (w) fresh ginger root
4 Tbs rice vinegar
1 Tbs plus 1 tsp sugar
1/2 Tbs salt

Clean and slice ginger into slices. Place in small glass jar.
Bring vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil to dissolve. Pour over ginger in jar.  Allow to cool. Stores well in refrigerator.

(Recipe provided by Grace Young, but scaled down to a smaller size)

Mushroom filling

1 cup of sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms or two large portabello mushrooms
1 Tbs neutral oil like canola
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1 Tbs soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil

Remove shiitake stems and slice caps into strips. Or, remove portabello stems, cut off any dirty parts on the base, and slice into julienned planks. Slice caps, cutting them in half longitudinally if necessary to create thin strips.

Heat canola oil in a wok or stainless saucepan until lightly smoking. Add mushrooms, toss quickly, spread out and allow to cook undisturbed for 2 min. Toss and keep cooking until water is no longer being released. Add garlic powder, smoked paprika, toss to combine, and then add soy sauce. Toss until dry. Remove from heat and sprinkle with sesame oil.
Soy sauce mushrooms for maki sushi rolls

Sweet potato (or carrot or red pepper) tempura

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
3/4 cup ice cube and water mix
12 oz (w) sweet potato
1-1 1/2 cups neutral oil for frying

In a medium bowl (like the size for ramen or pho - larger than a regular cereal bowl), combine the dry ingredients using a whisk or fork. Add 3-4 ice cubes to a measuring cup and then add water to the 3/4 cup mark.  Wash the sweet potato, peel if you like, and cut into 1/4-1/3 inch x 2-3 inch sticks.

Heat oil in a wok or small saucepan. 

Add ice water mix to batter and combine.  It is ok to have some lumps and small pieces of ice. 
Drop a handful of sweet potatoes into the batter to coat.

When oil reaches 350-375°F, use chopsticks or a fork to transfer the sweet potatoes to the oil. Stir to separate. Fry for 3-4 min until crispy and then move to a rack or plate lined with paper towels. Lower heat a bit if necessary to prevent burning.

Bring heat back up, and repeat with more sweet potatoes until they are all fried. 

(Modified from Tasty: Veggie Sushi 4 Ways). 
Frying sweet potato tempura

Shrimp tempura

8-12 extra large shrimp
Tempura batter from above
1 cup neutral oil for frying

Remove shells and legs from shrimp, including the last bit wrapping around the tail, but try to leave the fin pieces attached. 

With a paring knife, make shallow cuts no more than 1/3 of the way through the shrimp along the inside curve of the body. Grasp shrimp near head end with thumbs and first two fingers facing each other.  Wiggle shrimp from side to side while gently pulling to elongate until you feel the side ligaments break. Continue working your way down until the entire shrimp is stretched straight. Wrap shrimp in a dry dish towel to remove excess moisture.  You can watch a video here to see several ways to stretch shrimp.

Heat oil in a wok or small saucepan.  When it reaches 350-375°F, grasp shrimp by tail and swirl through batter. Allow excess batter to drip off.  Gently drag shrimp one at a time in the oil to encourage it to set as a straight rod before releasing into the oil.  Don't crowd the pot.  Fry for 2-3 minute until outside is crispy. Adjust heat to keep the color light.

Drain on a rack or paper towel-lined plate
Shrimp tempura and shrimp uramaki rolls

Assembly and serving

Veggie chumaki rolls with avocado, carrot and tempura yam

A package of nori sheets
Sushi rice from above
Sticks of carrot, cucumber (preferably English or Persian with thin skins and unobtrusive seeds), tempura sweet potatoes, mushrooms, tempura shrimp, red pepper, avocado, wilted spinach, leftover salmon or whatever fillings you like

1. Prepare a small bowl of water for each wrapper. 

2. Place a sheet of nori with the longer side facing you. Press a thin layer of rice across the nori, leaving a 1/2 inch border at the top for sealing.

3. Arrange two to three types of filling about 1/4 of the way up from the bottom of the nori sheet so that some of each filling extends all the way across the nori.

4. Roll tightly to seal. Cut the roll in half, and then each half into quarters or thirds depending on the size of the roll. 

5. Stand up on cut surfaces and serve with wasabi (a tiny dot goes a long way!), pickled ginger, or soy sauce.
Once you have the sushi rice and nori, the colors and flavors of your maki rolls is limited only by your imagination. It's a great way to re-invigorate leftover grilled salmon or rehydrated kombu from making dashi stock, for example, wrapped here with avocado, orange pepper, water chestnuts. 

We found we did not need to use plastic wrap to get tight rolls when the nori is wrapped to the outside of the rice and fillings. However, the plastic wrap comes in handy for making inside-out rolls with the rice on the outside (see shrimp-stuffed rolls below). 
Plastic wrap is helpful when making uramaki with the rice hiding the nori, but otherwise unnecessary

🐾  If you are able to use chopsticks, they allow for the cleanest transfer of sweet potatoes from the batter to the oil, and from oil to rack. If not, try using a fork rather than tongs. Tongs tend too carry too much batter forward, splashing little bits into the oil that are hard to remove and will burn. If this happens, a fine mesh strainer works well for removing them.

🍃 A cooling rack positioned over the wok or pot allows oil to drip back to be reused, reducing the amount of oil you may have to add to keep frying. A cooling rack set over a quarter or half sheet pan allows the food to stay crisp and drain without going through paper towels.
Veggie maki rolls with seaweed on the outside. Tempura shrimp making rolls with rice on the outside.


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