Sushi Session

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Sushi History February 5, 2009


What is sushi?

The term sushi does not refer to raw fish, but to vinegared rice served with different fillings and toppings, which may include raw fish. With this in mind, sushi of some sort has existed for over two thousand years, although the sushi of those days does not look much alike to that available today.

The origins

It was originally invented as a means of preservation, when fermented rice was used to store fish for anything up to a year. This was known as narezushi, and in fact the rice was thrown away and only the fish consumed. A later variant called namanarezushi, invented in the 16th century, introduced the idea of using vinegared rice, which was eaten instead of being thrown away, and this is still enjoyed today, particularly in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto.

The birth of modern sushi

It was not until the 16th century that sushi began to be enjoyed for the taste of the rice as well as the fish, when hayazushi was invented. This gave rise to oshizushi, where vinegared rice and fish, generally cooked, are pressed into a mould. One can still find this type of sushi today, it is a speciality of Japan’s second city, Osaka. Hayazushi also led to the development, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of nigirizushi, which was the first to use raw fish, and is the main type of sushi we eat today. It is also sometimes referred to as edomaezush, because it was developed in the city of Edo, which is the old name for Tokyo.



Sushi stall back in the days


From nigirizushi to street stalls: the birth of modern sushi

Sushi seller
Sushi seller in the Edo period.
(based on an illustration in
‘Fuzoku-Gahon’: with thanks
to Mizkan Group Co., Ltd.)

Nigirisushi experienced a boom from the beginning of the 19th century, but at the same time, many regions of the country were going through a famine. Nigirisushi was of course made with rice, and it was popular as a luxury food, but also in more frugal times because the rice was eaten, not discarded. Other forms of sushi such as Narezushi and hakozushi, were still being enjoyed. At that time, sushi was bought from street sellers who carried their sushi in boxes. However, over the years, street stalls began to appear where people gathered to buy and eat their sushi on the spot. One particular street stall in Edo became famous for its sushi: for this was where Hanaya Yohei gained his reputation, by selling his nigirisushi in little sushi boxes.

In 1870, the Edo period of the Tokugawa Shogunate gave way to the imperial period of Meiji and the country opened up to foreign culture. By the end of the Edo period, sushi restaurants had mushroomed, but with Meiji came the advent of the railways, and sushi appeared in railway station bento boxes. During this time, narezushi evolved to become a rural dish and regional recipes using local ingredients developed throughout the country. Whilst nigirisushi was gaining popularity throughout Kanto, In Kansai, other forms of sushi such as makizushi (rolled sushi) and hakozushi (also known as oshizushi), were being sold. However, nigirisushi, predominantly a dish prepared and eaten on the spot, gradually spread to the rest of the country. Makizushi is also found in places such as the Korean peninsula, a legacy from the period of Japanese territorial occupation.

Varieties of sushi from late Edo / early Meiji period
(based on printings by Gyokusho Kawabata: with thanks to Mizkan Group Co., Ltd.) 


It is important to remember that the reason for the rising popularity of nigirisushi in Japan lies without doubt in the quality of raw ingredients the country offers. It is about selecting ingredients at their seasonal best, about bringing out and appreciating their natural taste rather than adding flavourings. Eating sashimi is to enjoy raw fish at its natural best; to make sushi is to lay a piece of sashimi on a bed of vinegared rice. Naturally, since sushi also involved raw fish, it needed to be kept absolutely fresh and its preparation required special skills and knowledge. It was not something anyone could do. However, with the 1960s came the invention of the refrigerator and raw fish became easier to preserve. As a result, using slices of raw fish on nigirisushi became more and more widespread.

In many other countries, sushi is often thought of as simply a piece of raw fish on a bed of rice and other original and easy to prepare forms of sushi have developed. Whilst this worldwide appreciation of sushi is very pleasing, it can also sometimes lead to danger. This is because harmful bacteria reside in all fish, and the fish itself has undergone excessive preparation, and travelled from kitchen to plate and to the consumer’s palate in its raw state.



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