Supermarket California Rolls

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Sushi migrates to the grocery cart

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.

Roche Bros.
34 Cambridge St., Burlington, 781-273-3261
Supplier: Hissho Sushi
$5.25 for 7-ounces

This tied with Hannaford as the best. “Beautiful fresh appearance, uniformly sized, tightly rolled bites. Shredded cucumber is beautiful. Avocado is perfect. Sea legs taste like they are out of the sea and are refreshingly non-uniform,” said one admirer. “Attractive packaging, nice balanced taste, right size,” said another. The rice got a lot of attention, not all good: “Looks completely squished even before putting in my mouth.” “The cucumber is bad and that is the only thing that is usually good about store-bought sushi.” “Rice is a little overcooked, but ingredients were fresh.” Others said this sushi lacked distinction. “Nicely packaged but utterly without flavor.” “I couldn’t taste the individual vegetables and seafood.” “OK, not special.” Which brings us to ginger: “Excellent. Not too much food dye and delicate taste.” “White ginger, I didn’t like the taste.”

Hannaford
55 Russell St., Waltham, 781-893-6776
Supplier: Southern Tsunami
$5.09 for 10.5 ounces

Hannaford garnered three best votes. “Pretty decent; not bad, not great. The volume of the rice to the ingredients is also quite good.” “Rice is perfectly cooked.” Then, “the rice has zero taste of sushi rice, but given how sushi rice is so badly seasoned, this may be a good thing.” Many liked the bite-size pieces, another found them “a little small” and one person noticed gaps in the filling. As for the avocado: “Looks too gross to eat, well past just ripe.” Another: “Avocado was too old.” The cucumber, “Crunchy (that’s good).” The imitation crab was deemed “sweeter” and “tastier” than the others, the ginger “wilted,” and having an “aftertaste.” A little dab of wasabi seemed like it was extruded from a pastry bag, and, said one, “looked ridiculous.”

Shaw’s
1070 Lexington St., Waltham, 781-891-0615
Supplier: Southern Tsunami
$5.09 for 10.5-ounces

The same company that supplies Shaw’s also supplies Hannaford. But where Hannaford drew good comments, this one didn’t fare as well. Tasters liked the “nice plastic tray; Japanese design.” “Attractive look from the top, but too tightly packaged.” Then: “Nondescript and OK with soy sauce.” “The avocado tasted terrible.” “The avocado did not look nice and green.” The rice was pronounced “uneven, some dry, some sticky.” “Rice tastes like it has filler in it – cornstarch?” (It doesn’t.) “Thin skin of rice. Imbalanced – too little rice. Gets caught between the teeth.” “No seasoning.” Several noted that the pieces were uneven. And: “They’re falling apart.”

Stop & Shop
36 Bedford St., Lexington, 781-861-0456
Supplier: Sushi by Jay
$3.99 for 6-ounces

Two tasters tipped their hat with best votes: “Robust looking and substantive taste. This is real sushi – with sesame seeds that one can actually taste.” “Nicely rolled, perfectly seasoned, rice perfectly cooked. Big piece of fake crabmeat and avocado.” Others found the rice and rolling woeful: “The rice is terrible, not seasoned at all and badly cooked.” “If you are on a diet, avoid this XXL sushi!” “Not rolled well; rice was inside with the ingredients.” Finally the ginger, too, got called down. “Looks terrible.” “The ginger looks like lip gloss.”

Whole Foods Market
400 Cambridge Road, Woburn, 781-376-9600
Supplier: Genji Express
$5.99 for 7-ounces

“Good (but not excellent) for supermarket sushi.” “The rice is not terribly squished, which may be an achievement for store-bought sushi.” “Too anodyne – plain vanilla sushi.” “Well seasoned with sushi vinegar. The rice is moist but slightly on the under-cooked side.” “Nice balanced taste, would put more sesame seeds on the outside.” “Very fresh, well presented, rice moist but slightly undercooked.” Kudos for “crispy good-looking vegetables,” and at last some praise for the avocado: “Perfect, fresh, buttery, ripe, but not overly so.” But then the cucumber: “Lacks the crunch that should contrast with smooth avocado.” Not good news on the fish front. “The ingredients themselves are rather bland, especially the crab.” “The imitation crab has almost zero taste.” The ginger: “I did not enjoy the aftertaste of the ginger.” “Ginger on the plate looked too yellow compared to the pink-rosy colored ginger served in restaurants.” (This should have been a good thing. It means no food coloring.)

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