It would seem that the theme for 2020 – apart from utter catastrophe – is a chance to do more and be more. During lockdown, we’ve seen a sudden surge in purchasing gym equipment, eating healthy, baking bread, and adopting plants.
Even food has been trying to be a little more, with instant coffee posing as the fancier dalgona, simple pan de sal dressed in ube and cheese, and sushi aspiring to be a casserole, and it’s precisely the latter that we’ll be talking about today.
Sushi bake. From its name, one would assume that it has origins in Japanese cuisine, and that may well be the case, depending on how you look at it. Its initial components comprise rice, kani, and laver, which do point to some very East Asian culinary traditions as if a makizushi became too large to roll so it just kind of settled carelessly in a pan – deconstructed, others might describe. But one could also see it in a different way: as the age-old rice casserole preened with some Japanese ingredients, which would make its history a little more difficult to uncover.
“Baked rice has been in the market for a long time,” agrees chef Patrick Go. “Japanese curry baked rice, Italian rice casseroles, et cetera. I’ve been a fan of the Japanese curry rice casserole for a long time.”
Recipes for dishes similar to sushi bake date as far back as 2015. In the Philippines, several media outlets have already traced sushi bake’s origins to celebrity nail artist Mimi Qui Reyes. Reyes took inspiration from the famous California roll—which, incidentally was conceptualized in North America – and started serving it to her friends in April. By May, the concept, well, steamrolled.
While most trends begin with top chefs and trickle down to amateur kitchens, sushi bake, interestingly, started at home, with commercial kitchens picking it up quickly after. By June, several Instagram “restaurants” would begin offering it and by August, it would be adapted by many actual restaurants.
It is easy to understand why sushi bake is such a big hit. There is nothing one cannot love about a rice casserole after all – and sushi bake, with its cheese and carbs, seems to reinforce its appeal. It may hail from Japan or North America or wherever else, but there is something very Filipino about it: It is ready-made but there’s a DIY element to the way it has to be assembled on a sheet of nori. It’s fresh but filling and there is rice. Lots of rice. Lots of cheese, too. And, in the grand scheme of quarantine pivots, it’s easy to cook and to cook in bulk.
“When sushi bake came to the scene I was genuinely confused as to how sushi could be baked,” says Chef Noel Mauricio, who was admittedly curious by the sudden social media darling. “Once I tried one bite, I instantly knew what the fuss was all about. Bold hearty flavors yet still very relatable.”
As with all “trends,” sushi bake revitalized the market for baked rice casseroles and it spawned many delicious iterations. It is, after all, a platform that’s pretty receptive to all sorts of twists and innovations.
Go, who is famous for his Korean dishes in Gochu-Gang and This Kimchi, designed his own kimchi bake. He wanted a jumping off point for his bestselling kimchi rice and took inspiration from buddae jjiggae, a spicy Korean-American stew with Spam and sausages. He places particular emphasis on the rice, which has to be flavorful, perfectly cooked, but at the same time, complementary to the toppings. The result is a fiery mouthful of umami meats and spicy kimchi-tinged rice. Apart from the Army Style Bake, he also peddles a tamer Beef Bulgogi Bake.
Mauricio, on the other hand, has been cooking rice casseroles since he began running the hot kitchen of Le Petit Souffle. “I actually started with baked rice all the way back to my first restaurant, but in different forms like the Curry Beef Souffle and Squid Ink Rice at Le Petit Souffle and those continue to be the brand’s bestsellers.”
But for this revitalized and revised wave of baked rice, Mauricio designed a stunning Laksa Sushi Bake for his other brand, Babu. It’s an overload of sautéed prawns, squid, and fish cake baked on top of perfect sticky sushi rice.
For chefs jumping on the sushi bake bandwagon, it’s more about economics than actually joining in. The Grid, Rockwell’s premier food hall, has already encouraged many of its purveyors to come up with their own takes of the rice casserole. Apart from Babu and Gochu-Gang, health-conscious concessionaire Granivore has also come up with a version featuring superfood adlai instead of rice.
“With no guarantees on what would sell or not, we did what we had to do or attempt what we could to generate sales,” says Francis Lim of Tipple Café. Trying to get the most from his efforts, Lim took his best crowd-pleasers, converted them into a bake, and blessed us with instant hits like Baked Shawarma Rice, Baked KFC Rice (complete with mashed potatoes), and Baked Steak Rice.
As far as the sushi bake trend is concerned, it’s all been pretty delicious. “The addition of the nori as a food delivery system was innovative and I believe was a strong driver of the sushi bake trend,” adds Mauricio. “But baked rice as a whole has the makings of any classic dish out there. As a predominantly rice-eating country, I don't doubt the lack of innovation when it comes to baked rice.”
It’s been seven months and it seems like sushi bake has proven to have lasted longer than the other trends that have picked up during the quarantine, but there we have to ask the question: is it really a fad or a great revival of an already pretty fail-safe classic?
“I honestly think that baked rice isn’t a trend. It’s just a great innovation of a classic dish. So for me, these types of dishes can last for a long time,” says Go.
We couldn’t agree more. Sushi bake has been here longer than we realize and it will stay far longer after we’ve taking our Instagram fill of it. – Rappler.com
Sasha Lim Uy is a writer, editor, and data analyst for hire. Her work has been published in the country's top broadsheets and magazines, back when they were still a thing. For most of her professional life, she's been eating in the country's best restaurants and writing about them.