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Sushi is a food of Japanese origin made from vinegared rice and various toppings, which are most commonly seafood but can also include meat, vegetables, or eggs. Sushi toppings may be raw, cooked, or marinated. The original term Japanese: 寿司 "sushi" in modern times refers to the rice, not the fish!
Sushi originates from the practice of preserving fish by fermenting it in rice for months, a tradition which can be traced back over 5000 years. Agricultural rice farming probably began in northern Thailand along the Mekong river and in the surrounding flat lands. In season the fields would always flood, allowing the people to farm fish as well. But the difficult challenge of preserving the bounty for the coming season when the waters receded took centuries of trial and error to solve.
The initial procedure was to take the fishes and pack them intact in salt. The enzymes in the digestive system of the fish would proceed to break down the tissue of the fish and produce a slimy smelly substance that is the direct ancestor of fish sauces used throughout so many Asian cuisines. To eat as a side dish required simply scraping away the slimy outer coating.
A fundamental improvement came about when people found a technique using cleaned filets of fish packed in cooked rice. The rice would ferment, and would later be thrown away when the fish was eaten. The result is a very sour fish which still retains the firm consistency of the meat. It rapidly gained in popularity and soon spread through China (where it did not catch on) in the 6th century and into Japan. In Japan it not only became popular, but narezushi can still be found around Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake near Kyoto.
A huge improvement came about in the 16th century in Japan with the production of rice vinegar. This allowed people to shorten the lengthy fermentation process and led to other changes. People began to eat the fish with the vinagered rice, without thoroughly fermenting and with new types of ocean fishes. Modern sushi was born! The rice vinegar allowed a lifecycle of days or weeks.
The following centuries saw the development of oshi-zushi in Osaka, where seafood and rice were pressed into wooden moulds, and this dish arrived in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the middle of 18th century. A man named Matsumoto Yoshiichi of Edo is credited with popularizing the new type of sushi seasoned with vinegar, by preparing the sushi in just days and pressing with heavy stones. Gradually the fermentation process was abandoned; sushi was prepared quickly to be eaten immediately as a convenient snack.
It was in Edo that this this evolved into what is known as Edo-mae zushi in the early 19th century, using fish freshly caught in "Edo-mae" (Edo Bay). It was a man named Hanaya Yohei that really began the fast-food approach that became Edo-mae zushi. At the time, it was considered a cheap meal for the common people. It is this Edo-mae zushi (today's nigirizushi) which is popular today throughout Japan and the world.