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The History of Sushi

Well sushi originated from Southeast Asia and its earliest known reference appeared on a Chinese dictionary.

The sushi we know now is called the Edo-style, and is a product of a long and colourful history.

Earliest Record of “Sushi”

It was in the 3rd century BC when “sushi” appeared in a Chinese dictionary. It literally meant fermented fish, although some references included minced meat in salt. That Chinese word, however, was not associated with rice.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 2nd Century AD when the word “sushi” was associated with rice. The sushi word in the Han Dynasty literally translated to “food where fish is pickled by rice and salt, which is eaten when it is ready.” This is very similar to what is known in Japan as Narezushi, or fermented sushi.

After about one hundred years, the word “sushi” disappeared from dictionaries. Chinese forgot the word and also stopped fermenting fishes using rice. Later on, they stopped using pickled fish in their cuisine altogether.

The Earliest Sushi in Japan

After 600 years, in 8th Century AD, the idea of preserving fish in fermented rice reached Japan. It was only in the 10th Century when they started to have their own “sushi” method.

At that time, Japanese would gut a fish and clean it with sake (the Japanese rice wine), before stuffing it with uncooked rice. The whole thing fermented and preserved for a period of two to three months.

Once done, the rice was discarded and the fish consumed. At the time, rice was only used as a catalyst for fermentation, but was then disposed. The end product was called Narezushi and was a very important source of protein for Japanese people.

Rice is Finally Added

In the 15th Century, 500 years after they developed Narezushi, Japanese started to eat the rice used with the fish.

During the Muromachi Period, there were two types of sushi: the old Narezushi method called “hon nare” or “true ripe” and the new method referred to as the “nama nare” or “pre-ripe.”

Nama nare is the first of its kind to combine fish with rice. Rather than waiting for months to eat the fish, some Japanese people started to eat the fish earlier, before it was fully fermented.

Inedible after months of fermentation, the rice in a “nama nare” had instead a pleasing, sour taste. Japanese favoured this new sushi version because they could finally eat a staple and a side dish at once. The food wastage was reduced and cooking time with fast. Quickly the “nama nare” sushi type became mainstream.

Now Come Vinegar

While Japanese enjoyed the “nama nare” for a hundred of years, the dish had a rather unpleasing smell. To improve the appeal and taste of the dish, Japanese started to add vinegar to the rice. The vinegar helped accelerate the fermentation process, while re-creating the original “nama nare” taste. One of the main advantages was the vinegar pleasing smell, which made the dish particularly attractive to consumers.

The addition of vinegar eventually erased the need for fermentation. Rice was cooked with vinegar along with vegetables and preserved fish. Different regions in Japan started their own local versions like “nuku sushi”, “chirashi sushi”, “oshi sushi”, and Osaka-style sushi to name a few.

And the Raw Fish

Slices of raw fish called “sashimi” had always been consumed in Japan. But it was only in early 18th century when it was used for sushi. This version was known as “Edo style” (Edo, was Tokyo’s old name). This is the kind of sushi that the world knows today.

At that time, people wanted something inexpensive and fast. This type of sushi was sold in the busy Edo (Tokyo) streets, targeting theatre-goers, picnickers, and people who want something to eat on the go. The slab of raw fish didn’t spoil too quickly when added to the rice with vinegar, making this an ideal food for such market.

Popularizing Sushi in Japan

In the 19th century, the sushi evolved to become an oblong-shaped piece of rice with a slice of sashimi over it. The name also changed to Nigiri sushi. This type of sushi became instant hit and sushi stalls and restaurants outnumbered noodle houses. The city was flocked with Nigiri sushi chefs, too.

In 1923, however, Edo was struck by the Great Kanto earthquake, forcing the sushi chefs in the city to be displaced throughout Japan, along with it popularizing sushi in the country.

Sushi Invading the World, and Australia

It is safe to say that sushi became known to the world from Japanese migrants who came to the US, UK, Australia, and other places of the world. In Europe, sushi’s earliest mention was in a Japanese-English dictionary dated 1873, and it was first documented in an 1879 article about Japanese cuisine.

Official visitors such as Prince Akihito, also contributed to the spread in popularity. Prince Akihito served sushi when he visited Queen Elizabeth II for her coronation in Britain. The Prince is also known for serving sushi at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. In US, sushi is believed to have been introduced in the 1960s by a restaurant known as Kawafuku in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Sushi is believed to have reached Australia in the 1980s.

Sushi Adapt and Evolve

In numerous cultures, eating raw fish is not highly popular resulting in an aversion for sushi. To make the dish more appealing to local taste buds, chefs and restaurants started to make explore variations. In the US, for example, California Roll was created substituting the fatty tuna with a slice of avocado, while Irari Zushi uses deep-fried tofu instead of meat.

More and more new versions of sushi is being conceptualized and created nowadays. From using raw fish and soured rice, sushi are now cooked using other ingredients like tofu, avocado, shrimp, egg, vegetables, and seaweeds, to name a few.