A Brief History of Sushi, Part I

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1984

by Joel Stark and Matthew Kim

Early Origins
Sushi has traveled a long way and over a thousand years to arrive in your neighborhood restaurant and grocery deli. Remarkably, some styles have changed very little in that time.
But a few updates to the recipe have made it a delicious meal around the world. As our chefs know, a variety of fillings and sauces for every taste now keep the cuisine exciting for contemporary guests of every age and culture.

Although hesitant to try it would never guess, did you know sushi does not mean “raw fish”? The term actually refers to the slightly sweet vinegared rice. As you’ll learn here, rice has always been essential to the culinary process, though today it’s a more essential flavor component than a thousand years ago.

How can we save this fish for later?
Most historians believe sushi originated in Southeast Asia around the Mekong River from where it would eventually spread to Japan around the 8th century. Here are a few chapters in the life of Snowfox’s favorite food:

– Narezushi (fermented sushi) was the first type of sushi. Created in areas farther from the ocean where fish needed to be preserved in order to avoid spoilage, fish filets would be gutted, heavily salted and packed with rice. As you may have guessed, the lactic acid bacteria created by rice’s fermentation actually preserved the fish. In this preparation, people only ate the fish, and the rice, having done its part in the preservation process was thrown away.

– Namanare sushi (semi-fermented sushi), was created during Japan’s Muromachi period (1337 to 1573). Semi-raw fish was packed with rice, fermented for a short period of time and eaten fresh before it changed flavor. This marked a change in preparation since the rice, previously used only for preservation, was now sometimes eaten and the fish was enjoyed semi-fresh rather than preserved.

-Haya-zushi, created during the Edo period from 1603 to 1867, further emphasized eating both the fish and rice together. Rice was vinegared and had fish, vegetables, and other dried foods added to it. This marked the first time when sushi was made without the use of fermented rice.

-In the early 19th century, Edo (what is now modern day Tokyo) a rise in the popularity of food carts set the stage for a man named Hanaya Yohei to introduce one of the styles we typically associate with the cuisine today: nigiri-zushi, a slice of marinated fish placed atop a vinegared rice ball. To be continued in our 8th edition!

A composition, by a different, unknown artist, of the drawings of Kawabata Gyokusho (c. 1877)

 


 

A little condiment background

Wasabi

Also known as Japanese horseradish, wasabi was traditionally meant to be spread sparingly between rice and fish in order to enhance (but not overpower) the flavor of the fish. The product that’s typically labeled as wasabi, a green paste made from horseradish, mustard, starch, and food coloring, is different from real wasabi, which comes from the root of its namesake plant which grows along stream beds in Japan’s mountain river valleys.

Ginger

Known as gari in Japan, the ginger that accompanies our sushi is made from thinly sliced, young ginger roots and pickled in a solution of sugar and vinegar. It is only meant to be eaten between different kinds of sushi, as a palette cleanser unless the chef has specifically incorporated it into a dish.