History of sushi
The history of sushi in Japan began around the 8th century. The original type of sushi was first developed in Southeast Asia as a means of preserving fish in fermented rice. In the Muromachi period, people began to eat the rice as well as the fish. During the Edo period, vinegar rather than lacto-fermentation was used to sour the rice. In modern times, it is an early form of fast food strongly associated with Japanese culture.
The original type of sushi, known today as narezushi (馴れ寿司, 熟, fermented sushi), was first developed in Southeast Asia and spread to south China before introduced to Japan sometime around the 8th century. Fish was salted and wrapped in fermented rice, a traditional lacto-fermented rice dish. Narezushi was made of this gutted fish stored in fermented rice for months at a time for preservation. The fermentation of the rice prevented the fish from spoiling. The fermented rice was discarded and fish was the only part consumed. This early type of sushi became an important source of protein for the Japanese.
The Japanese preferred to eat fish with rice, known as namanare or namanari (生成, なまなれ, なまなり, semi-fermented). During the Muromachi period namanare was the most popular type of sushi. Namanare was partly raw fish wrapped in rice, consumed fresh, before it changed flavor. This new way of consuming fish was no longer a form of preservation but rather a new dish in Japanese cuisine.
During the Edo period, a third type of sushi was introduced, haya-zushi (早寿司, 早ずし, fast sushi). Haya-zushi was assembled so that both rice and fish could be consumed at the same time, and the dish became unique to Japanese culture. It was the first time that rice was not being used for fermentation. Rice was now mixed with vinegar, with fish, vegetables and dried food stuff added. This type of sushi is still very popular today. Each region utilizes local flavors to produce a variety of sushi that has been passed down for many generations.
When Tokyo was still known as Edo in the early 19th century, mobile food stalls run by street vendors became popular. During this period nigiri sushi (握り寿司) was introduced, consisting of an oblong mound of rice with a slice of fish draped over it. After the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, nigiri sushi chefs were displaced from Edo throughout Japan, popularizing the dish throughout the country.
Today the sushi dish internationally known as "sushi" (nigiri zushi; Kantō variety) is a fast food invented by Hanaya Yohei (華屋与兵衛; 1799–1858) in today's Tokyo (Edo). People in Tokyo were living in haste even a hundred years ago. The nigiri zushi invented by Hanaya was not fermented and could be eaten using the fingers or chopsticks. It was an early form of fast food that could be eaten in public or in the theater.
Fresh funa are scaled and gutted through their gills keeping the body (and often the roe) of the fish intact. The fish are then packed with salt and aged for a year before being repacked annually in rice for up to four years. The resulting fermented dish may be served sliced thin or used as an ingredient in other dishes.
The authentic funazushi is made from one particular species called nigorobuna (Carassius auratus grandoculis) unique to the lake. It is thus quite misleading to say "crucian carp" is used, as if any old funa type carp in the genus may be randomly used (or the European species may be used). It is true that due to reduced catch in recent years, certain native species are starting to be substituted.
Appearances in the West
The Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest written mention of sushi in an 1893 book, Japanese Interiors, where it mentions that "Domestics served us with tea and sushi or rice sandwiches". However, there is also mention of sushi in a Japanese-English dictionary from 1873, and an 1879 article on Japanese cookery in the journal Notes and Queries.
A report of sushi being consumed in Britain occurred when the then Prince Akihito (born 1933) visited Queen Elizabeth II during her Coronation in May 1953. In America in September 1953, Prince Akihito is noted with serving sushi at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, hosted by Ambassador Eikichi Araki (1891–1959).
Sushi was first introduced to the United States in the mid-1960s, possibly at the Kawafuku restaurant in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. The California roll was invented in Los Angeles, by substituting a slice of avocado for the seasonal toro (fatty tuna) in a traditional maki roll.
Sushi in Japan
The earliest reference to sushi in Japan appeared in 718 in the Yōrō Code (養老律令 Yōrō-ritsuryō). As an example of tax paid by actual items, it is written down as "雑鮨五斗 (about 64 liters of zakonosushi or zatsunosushi?)". However, there is no way to know what this "sushi" was or even how it was pronounced. By the 9th and 10th century "鮨" and "鮓" are read as "sushi". This "sushi" was similar to today's Narezushi.
For almost the next 800 years, until the early 19th century, sushi slowly changed and the Japanese cuisine changed as well. The Japanese started eating three meals a day, rice was boiled instead of steamed, and most important of all, rice vinegar was invented. While sushi continued to be produced by fermentation of fish with rice, the time of fermentation was gradually decreased and the rice used began to be eaten along with the fish. In the Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573), the process of producing Oshizushi was gradually developed where in the fermentation process was abandoned and vinegar was used. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1603), namanare was invented. A 1603 Japanese-Portuguese dictionary has an entry for namanrina sushi, literally half-made sushi. The namanare was fermented for a shorter period than the narezushi and possibly marinated with rice vinegar. It still had the distinctive smell of narezushi.
The smell of narezushi was likely one of the reasons for shortening and eventually skipping the fermentation process. It is commonly described as "a cross between blue cheese, fish, and rice vinegar". A story from Konjaku Monogatarishū written in early 12th century makes it clear that it was not an attractive smell, even if it tasted good: In the early 18th century, oshizushi was perfected in Osaka and it came to Edo by the middle of 18th century. These sushi were sold to customers, but because they still required a little fermentation time, stores hung a notice and posters to customers on when to come for a sushi. Sushi was also sold near a park during a hanami period and a theater as a type of Bento. Inarizushi was sold along oshizushi. Makizushi and Chirashizushi also became popular in Edo period.
There were three famous sushi restaurants in Edo, Matsunozushi (松之鮨), Yoheizushi (興兵衛鮓), and Kenukizushi (けぬき寿し) but there were thousands more sushi restaurants. They were established in a span of barely twenty years at the start of the 19th century. Nigirizushi was an instant hit and it spread through Edo like wildfire. In the book Morisadamanko (守貞謾稿) published in 1852, the author writes that for a cho (100 meters by 100 meters or 10,000 square meters) section of Edo there were one or two sushi restaurants, but that only one soba restaurant could be found in 1 or 2 cho. This means that there were nearly 2 sushi restaurants for every soba restaurant.
These early nigirizushi were not identical to today's varieties. Fish meat was marinated in soy sauce or vinegar or heavily salted so there was no need to dip into soy sauce. Some fish was cooked before it was put onto a sushi. This was partly out of necessity as there were no refrigerators. Each piece was also larger, almost the size of two pieces of today's sushi.
The advent of modern refrigeration allowed sushi made of raw fish to reach more consumers than ever before. The late 20th century saw sushi gaining in popularity all over the world.
One of these might have been a salt pickled fish. The first use of "鮨" appeared in the face and hand, the oldest Chinese dictionary believed to be written around the 3rd century BC. It is explained as literally "Those made with fish (are called) 鮨, those made with meat (are called) 醢". "醢" is a fermented meat made from salt and minced pork and "鮨" is a fermented fish made from salt and minced fish. The Chinese character "鮨" is believed to have a much earlier origin, but this is the earliest recorded instance of that character being associated with food. "鮨" was not associated with rice.
In 2nd century AD, another character used to write "sushi", "鮓", appeared in another Chinese dictionary of Han dynasty: "鮓滓也 以塩米醸之加葅 熟而食之也", which translates as "鮓滓 is a food where fish is pickled by rice and salt, which is eaten when it is ready". This food is believed to be similar to Narezushi, i.e. that the fish was fermented for long times in conjunction with rice and was then eaten after removing the rice.
A century later, the meaning of the two characters had become confused and by the time these two characters arrived in Japan, the Chinese themselves did not distinguish between them. The Chinese had stopped using rice as a part of the fermentation process, and then stopped eating pickled fish altogether. By the Ming dynasty, "鮨" and "鮓" had disappeared from Chinese cuisine.
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- W.H. Patterson, "Japanese Cookery", Notes and queries, Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1879. (p.263)
- 30th May 1953 "Japanese women eating sushi whilst they wait to catch a glimpse of Prince Akihito, in England as a coronation guest of the Queen", photographer John Chillingworth, Picture Post at Getty Images
- "Prince Akihito Eats and Runs at Own Soiree", Chicago Daily Tribune, May 4, 1953, page 22
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- History of Sushi
- Sushi Dictionary (寿司用語辞典; in Japanese)
- Sushi Q & A (すしのQ&A; in Japanese)
- Global Sushi: Soft Power and Hard Realities Video of a talk given at Boston University about sushi's rise to global popularity, April 3, 2009