A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls without a sushi mat

Shuffling through the hundreds of photos I’ve taken of past bentos and such, I dug up this sushi roll bento that I did last summer.


It’s a very simple bento really, which is probably why I never got around to posting it here. (I only post a fraction of the bentos I actually make and eat…I should probably post more!) It has a plain tamagoyaki made with 2 eggs, some leftover stewed beans, and fruit. The star of the bento is half of a fat sushi roll made with brown rice that is filled with some decidedly non-traditional things: lettuce, cucumber, raw carrot, ham and cheese, and the end bits of the tamagoyaki. (The rolls are a bit misshapen because I pushed the cherry tomatoes in around them.)

The salt, sugar and vinegar that are used to flavor sushi rice is perfect for summertime bentos. These ingredients help to keep rice fresher for a longer time, and the flavors are a great foil for all kinds of fillings. As a matter of fact, I avoid using brown rice in bentos on the very hottest days, unless I turn it into sushi rice or put an umeboshi pickled plum in to help keep it longer. Fat sushi rolls are just as convenient to eat as onigiri rice balls, and faster to make too, since one roll will produce 4 to 6 portions.

Many people who don’t know any better claim that ‘real’ sushi has to have raw fish. If you’ve been reading Just Bento and Just Hungry for a while, you know that that’s BS. Sushi refers to the rice, not whatever goes in or on top of it; as I explained previously, some areas of Japan don’t even have a tradition of raw-fish sushi. In any case, most fat sushi rolls or futomaki traditionally do not contain raw fish, so filling them with cooked food and vegetables is perfectly legit. And in any case, you should never use raw fish in a bento that is made several hours before it’s consumed.

Of course ham and cheese are not traditional sushi fillings, but they have been used for decades in Japanese homes, way before the invention of American sushi roll combos like the New York roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese and onion). Sashimi or sushi-grade raw fish is expensive in Japan as it is elsewhere, so homely ingredients make more sense for everyday meals. By the way, I find that milder cheeses go best with sushi rice, such as young Gouda or Emmenthaler (Swiss), or a fresh Mozzarella. A well aged Cheddar or Stilton clashes a bit.

I have some more ideas for non-traditional sushi roll fillings in my ehou-maki (lucky sushi roll) article over on Just Hungry, where I also describe how to roll a fat sushi roll the traditional way using a bamboo sushi rolling mat. But let’s say you don’t have a sushi mat for whatever reason. You can still make sushi rolls! Here’s how.

Method: Making fat sushi rolls without a sushi mat

(The hands in the photos are my mother’s by the way - I was the photographer.)

What you need:

  • A sheet of nori seaweed
  • Properly cooked and prepared sushi rice. It should still be slightly warm, not stone cold, for maximum stick-together-ness.
  • Fillings of your choice
  • A clean, non-fuzzy kitchen towel
  • A sharp kitchen knife
  • A bowl filled with water with a little vinegar in it
  • Impeccably clean hands

Moisten the kitchen towel and then wring it out tightly. It should just be moist, not dripping.

Lay down the kitchen towel flat. Put the nori sheet shiny side down on the towel; the long edge should be on the edge of the towel. (You put the nori sheet shiny side down because that side has a slightly less tendency to split, and also for aesthetic reasons.)


Moisten your fingers with the vinegar-water. Place a fairly thin, even layer of sushi rice on the nori seaweed, up to about an inch (2 cm) away from the far edge of the nori.


Place the fillings in the middle of the rice, starting with any flat ingredients like lettuce or shiso leaves, then following up with the other things like julienned vegetables.


This roll has lettuce, cucumber, carrots, ham and cheese.


Now you’re ready to roll! Re-moisten your fingers with the vinegar water. Grab the edge of the towel with the nori and roll it over the filling, holding in the filling with your fingertips. Be brave here - quick and decisive movement will have better results than hesitation.


Roll the nori and rice over the filling, as you pull on the edge of the kitchen towel on the other side. If you compare it to the sushi mat method, you’ll notice that the method is basically the same.


Keep rolling and pulling on the towel, evenly over the length of the roll.


Once the roll is completely rolled, apply gentle but firm, even pressure over the whole thing.


Here’s how the roll looks when it’s completed, before the towel is removed.


Now you’re ready to cut. If there’s any rice sticking to your fingers, rinse them off. Moisten the knife and your fingers with the vinegar water.


Cut the roll into even pieces. If the knife gets sticky, just re-moisten it with the vinegar water.


And that’s it! It’s not as hard as you might have thought, is it?

Here’s the end of the roll that I actually used in the bento above. You can tuck in the raggedy end bits good side up in a bento, or just pop them in your mouth as you make them!


I hope this will inspire you to come up with your own fat sushi roll combinations. Not only are they great for individual bentos, they’re a nice change-of-pace carb for a barbeque a picnic too.

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Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

This bento looks great, and the fillings in those sushi rolls are very similar to what you find in delicious Korean kimbap, one of the few Korean foods that I find edible.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Thanks for the tip! I was wondering if you can use something else in place of the nori?? I hate to admit it but I really do not care for the taste. I did make "fushi" (fake sushi!) using bits of meat wrapped in long cucumber peel, but would like to try it with rice and do not see how that would stay together well with the cucumber, plus it is tedious as you have to wrap each separately. Thanks for any advice you may have.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

The nori acts to hold the rice together, as you have probably surmised already, and while I've seen other wrappers used such as those 'mamenori' (pressed soy sheets) sheets, lettuce, thinly sliced cucumber and so on, none of them have the stick-to-rice and flexibile nature of nori so that the rolls hold their shape properly. So if you don't like nori, you may be happier with smaller sushi forms such as temari zushi, which will hold their shape better.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

I really like this one! I'm going to try it out next week. I recently bought my first bento box and discovered your site, which is a great place to learn about the art of bento. Thanks to you, I finally learned the right way to make rice triangles, which I had failed miserably at before. :-) Keep up the good work!

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

I've tried packing sushi for lunch, but it always gets soggy from the moisture of the vegetables around it. The nori becomes very soft and hard to eat. How do you avoid that? I see your sushi in this bento is touching lettuce and cherry tomatoes.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Just make sure that the vegetables are totally dry before they are packed. Cherry tomatoes are great since they retain their moisture well until you bite or cut into them. The mache (the green leaves) in the bento are also totally dry, since I washed them and pat them dry with paper towels before packing them.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

I've not made sushi except California rolls. This looks fun and would use what I have in my fridge!

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Your mother's hands are beautiful.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Thank you so much for posting this. <3 I saw this earlier today, and since I already had a grocery store trip planned, I grabbed the supplies on a whim and just decided to give it a go.

...And I did it. I made sushi with my own hands.

Let me tell you; plain rice, seaweed, and bagged salad mix has never tasted so good. <3 <3 <3 <3 After I finished, I just stood there and laughed, because I could not believe it. I'm really excited to keep going and get better at it, and make proper sushi. Thank you so much for creating such an amazing website and being such an amazing person.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

I'm so glad I was able to inspire you to try something new...and that it worked out well too! ^_^

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

I just realized that a New York roll is also the Philly and Seattle roll, which I find hilarious. It must be a regional thing as I've only seen rolls involving smoked salmon and cream cheese referred to as a Seattle roll on the West Coast. I'm not surprised it's called something else in other places (especially in Philadelphia with the cream cheese and all).

And thanks for the towel tip!

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

so glad you are getting better. We have been thinking about you and hoping all would go well.

thank you for sharing this tip and some background on sushi ingredients. Your tutorials are so easy to follow, as well as being inspiring!


Hi maki! I LOVE your recipes and plan on making some of them when I feel more prepared since I'm a beginner >.< but I have a question. Why not do videos also? Sometimes reading is not enough and it would really great if we could be able to actually SEE you making these recipes. I hope you consider the idea because I would looooove to see you cook! =)

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Dear Maki

Last night I saw this recipe and it looked so tempting that beside cooking my dinner I started to cook rice in parallel and "japanified" some leftovers from the fridge to use as fillings.
The result was a huge sushi roll with steamed kohlrabi with katsuobushi, shitake mushrooms and spring onions simmered quickly in soy sauce and mirin.
Maybe not very authentic, but it was certainly a very yummy cheat!!!!!!!!!

Once again, THANK YOU for your inputs,

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Oh wow! This is a genius idea! I habe been thinking of buying a sushi mat, but can't really afford it at the moment (darn student living!) but this I could totally do! Thanks!

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

This really looks awesome - i've been playing with my own ideas and making sushi rolls and some onigiri (i LOVE umeboshi)...

I think i'm gonna try this with cream cheese instead of cheese...thanks!

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Looks really yummy! I want to try making it -- but I am wondering what you do with the rest of the roll that you don't put in the bento. If it makes 4-6 portions, what do you do with the leftover portions?

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

wow im like enlightened thank you so much lol

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Where can I buy one of those little plastic containers that can hold soy sauce? (I believe the one in the picture is a pig, if I'm not mistaken!) Because I would really like to get one, however, I have no idea what they are called or where to obtain one!

In other news... I am very excited and anxious to make a bento, as I have never made something of the sort before, and these little sushi rolls are so delicious and cute looking, so I'm planning on making these with some yummy fruits, veggies, and maybe some sausage or hot dog links. ^^

Thank you so much for having these wonderful sites that are so helpful for people (like me) to find out about different cultures and foods!

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

The little bottles are usually called soy sauce bottles or containers. You can buy soy sauce containers from any of the recommended bento supply stores on the site. Most Japanese grocery stores carry them too, as do many general Asian (Korean or Chinese) grocery stores.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Hi! How do you turn brown rice into sushi rice? Brown rice is always so hard and dry while sushi rice is so sticky. |:

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Brown rice is any kind of rice that has not been hulled, so you need to get the right kind of rice in its brown (unhulled) form. You have probably seen brown long grain rice. For making sushi you need medium grain brown rice, which is sold as ‘genmai’ in Japanese grocery stores. See the Looking At Rice article, which also has a link to cooking brown rice for use in Japanese dishes.

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Hi there!
I was wondering how long these sushi rolls lasted? They don't have fish in them, so it seems to me that they would be good for leftovers. Would they be safe to use the next day? Or does the rice dry out?

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

I have that same soy sauce piggy!

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Hey there! I was just wondering, where on earth did you get brown sushi rice?

I live in the UK and finding standard sushi rice was hard enough. Any tips?


Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Hello Maki, I am a new reader of your site... Well, not really but this is the first time I left a comment... I just fond a place where I can get nori and sushi mat ( its far though, i need to take a train, walk to the city centre and take a bus to the mall where its sold) . Can I ask if all sushi vinegar contain alcohol? Or is there a non-alcoholic version available? thank you

Sushi rolls without the mat!

That's a really great idea, especially since I just started making the sticky rice for onigiri (In fact, that was a big hit and it was the first time I tried it; I just sent my husband to the store for more "sushi" rice!)!

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

can i make it without seaweed cause i dont like seaweed but id like to try some kind of sushi

Re: A sushi roll bento, plus how to make sushi rolls ...

Would it be a bad idea to use actual fish? What if I made a California roll, would it still be fresh five hours after I make it?

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