The History of Sushi

The history of any ethnic food is in many ways a journey through the lives and ways of its people. Like most foods the origin of sushi too is surrounded by many interesting folk tales and stories. If, when you think of sushi, you think of raw fish then you will be surprised to know that originally the term ‘sushi’ was used to refer to fermented fish or meat. The earliest mention of this form of food is found in a Chinese dictionary that is dated close to 200 AD. Sushi was developed as a way to preserve the fish or meat, and to make it last for the difficult and lean months of winter. Interestingly, the contemporary sushi kitchen is known as the tsuke-ba or the ‘pickling place’.

Sushi as Food Preservation

The fish or meat was preserved by packing it in salted rice. The salted rice produced lactic acid, which pickled and fermented the meat or fish and preserved it. After many months, when it was time to eat it, the rice was thrown away and only the fish or meat was eaten. As the decades passed this method of fermentation and preserving was virtually lost.

Sushi in Japan

Sushi was introduced in Japan in the 7th century A.D. Here however, it was prepared in a slightly different manner. In Japan, the Lake Biwa region, the largest freshwater lake in the country, is credited for the development in sushi. Here the locals used a technique known as narezushi which translates as ‘aged sushi’. They used a golden carp known as the funa. It first finds mention in the Taiho-Ritsuryo, which is an 8th century legal document. Narezushi involved layering raw carp with rice and salt in a wooden bucket, which was then weighed down with a heavy stone. After a few months the stone was replaced by a wooden cover and the fish was allowed to ferment for months, and sometimes even for years. As this form of sushi was time consuming it also became something of a delicacy. From the 9th to the 14th centuries it was made available to only the noble and upper class of the Japanese society

This form of sushi preparation is still practiced in some parts of Japan. It is also referred to as hon nare or ‘the true ripe’. It usually uses freshwater carp, and because it has a rather distinct and strong flavor, many consider it to be an acquired taste. The lengthy process of sushi preparation continued for many centuries, and it was only in the 15th century or the Muromachi period that a shorter process known as nama nare was developed. It is important to understand that during this period Japan underwent a civil war and sushi chefs were looking for ways to reduce the preparation time. They realized two important. Firstly the fish and rice fermented much faster when placed under a great weight and secondly, the fish tasted great even though it was not as fermented as folks were used to earlier.

The name nama nare literally means the ‘raw ripe’. This only required the fish to be fermented for a few weeks. The process of nama nare still retained the basic essence of narezushi, and the layers of fish, rice and salt were weighed down with a stone. The semi fermented fish and the side dish of the rice were eaten only a few weeks after. There were two types of nama nare. While ayu-zushi used small, sweet fresh water fish known as ayu, suzume-zushi required the use of carp and cooked rice.

Region and History Play a Key Role

Over time, different parts of Japan saw the rise of distinct styles of sushi preparation. The island of Honshu has the Kanto and Kansai plains, which saw the rise of two unique styles of sushi. The Edo style, which is rather popular in the West, gets its name from the ancient Japanese capital of Edo, now known as Tokyo. If you look at the map of Japan you’ll find that Tokyo is located on a rather large bay, and has a rich and vibrant source of seafood. Thus, Endomae-Zushi, which translates as ‘in front of Tokyo’ sushi, predominantly uses seafood. By the 17th century, the sushi was prepared with rice wine vinegar, which was added to the rice. While the technique of preparation remained the same, the use of vinegar helped reduce the time required to ferment the fish and also augmented the flavor. It also helped lessen the pungent smell of the fish.

In the 19th century, Edo was a city that was bustling with activity. An enterprising street vendor by the name of Yohei Hanaya realized that people needed food that was convenient to eat and carry, as they moved along the streets, busy at their work. And so, he came up with bite sized servings of fermented rice which was topped with raw fish. He served balls of rice, which was fermented with rice vinegar and salt for a short period of time, and then topped with raw fish, freshly caught from the Bay. As the fish was served fresh there was no need to ferment it. And so, for the first time instead of requiring years or months, sushi could be prepared in minutes. This was the start of the nigiri sushi, and the start of sushi as what people considered a ‘fast food’!

Soon this style of sushi was the rage and became a popular snack for the residents of Edo. Sushi vendors could be seen outside sumo tournaments, public baths and geisha houses. It became synonymous with having a good time and enjoying the fine life. Aristocratic scenes of Kabuki performers and their noble audiences enjoying sushi can be seen in Japanese art of that period.

It is not surprising that Yohei Hanaya is referred to as the Father of Modern Sushi. The spot where he began his business in Ryogoku saw many generations of the family sell sushi, until 1932 when the family closed its business after 108 years.

In 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake caused great disruption in the city of Edo and many sushi street vendors returned to their native villages where they offered patrons a type of sushi they had never had, but would begin to enjoy and love. Street vendors who chose to stay in the city took advantage of the low land prices. They opted to give up street side selling and setup restaurants, or sushi-ya, where they could serve their patrons.

In contrast to the Endomae-zushi, the kansai style developed around the commercial city of Osaka. Here the sushi was prepared in square wooden boxes. They were filled with cooked rice and raw fish. A tight wooden lid held the preparation in place. And, when it was time to serve, the sushi was cut into bite sized rectangles. To date this form of sushi preparation is typical of the city of Osaka, and it was well known as the Osaka-zushi.

America’s culinary love affair with sushi began with the return of American soldiers after the end of the Second World War. Soon the love for sushi spread through the trendiest cities of the USA. And by the 1990s it was available in most parts of the country.

The spread of sushi to the West was also aided by the fact that by the 1970s ships could transport fresh fish for long distances without compromising on the flavor. As sushi bars and restaurants began to appear across the USA, suppliers and distributors of key ingredients also grew.

History of Sushi and Its Impact on Today’s Cuisine

The technique of preparing sushi may have undergone some subtle and some drastic changes. Nonetheless, what remains eternal is the use of fresh ingredients in a manner that enhances and captures their natural flavors and textures. It indicates respect and reverence for the ingredients that nature has provided, and towards life. The beauty of sushi lies in its simplicity and its elegance. They make the dish flavorful and true to the ingredients that it uses.

Sushi is strongly affected by the sense of aesthetics that is characteristic of the Japanese culture. The five styles of serving sushi include:

  • Hiramori or flat
  • Sugimori or slanted
  • Ayamori or overlapping
  • Yamamori or mounded
  • Yosemori or gathered

The manner in which it is presented before the patron also deserves special mention. The nigri sushi is of course synonymous with the rice ball topped by raw fish, while the chirashi-zushi serves the sushi rice in a bowl over which the raw fish is placed. The inari-zushi is a tofu pouch that is fried and served with sushi rice. In case of maki-zushi, the rice and raw fish are rolled on a sheet of seaweed known as nori.

Food is an important aspect of culture and like the latter it also constantly develops and changes. The world is closer today, culturally, than ever before. And while the traditional nigri sushi is rather popular and still prepared and served in the authentic manner, sushi chefs are also improvising and adding their special touch to their preparations. In other words, the history of sushi is still in the making.