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Sushi: A Brief History of Japan’s Most Iconic Food

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Asia Life

Sushi: A Brief History of Japan’s Most Iconic Food

The journey of sushi began far from its home in Japan. It has traveled equally far in the modern world.

Sometime in the distant past – estimates are around 2,500 years ago – long before the creation of conveyor belt sushi restaurants or Tokyo’s colossal Tsukiji fish market, unknown chefs a few thousand miles to the south were catching fish and developing a unique form of preparation that would later be honed to a high culinary art in Japan.

More precisely, the waterway now known as the Mekong River is believed to be the birthplace of nare-zushi (“matured sushi”), the predecessor of what we think of as “sushi” today.

This primordial form of fermented sushi was made by skinning, gutting and stuffing fish with salt; then stored in a wooden barrel that was smothered with yet more salt; weighed down with a tsukemonoishi (“pickling stone”) and left to dry for six months. At that point, the product would remain edible for six months or more.

The labor intensive food slowly spread north, via southern China, until it eventually reached Japan, which has become ground zero for all variations of preparing, presenting and, most importantly, eating raw fish.

Today, the most famous form of nare-zushi is funa-zushi, made from a type of carp found in Lake Biwa, northeast of Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto. But this variant is somewhat of a rarity today. The list of Japan’s spins on sushi, which literally means “sour-tasting”, is massive. Sour is one of Japan’s umami (five basic tastes).

While Japan’s first sushi makers discarded the rice – in which the fish was fermented – during the Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD) they added vinegar to the mix. This addition improved flavor and extended preservation. This vinegared rice (sushi-meishi), an art form in itself, is the ingredient that ties all forms of sushi together. (Raw fish, and other raw meat, sans sour rice is sashimi – another kettle of fish.)

In time, fermentation fell by the wayside. Oshi-zushi was born in Osaka, where it was pressed with bamboo molds. This new variant reached Edo in the 18th century. It was there, in modern day Tokyo, that street stall owner Yohei Hanaya shaped the first blocks of vinegared rice and topped them with raw fish. Hanaya made the move to please impatient customers, tired of waiting for the traditional box-pressing method from Osaka. It was at this point that sushi entered the modern age.

Sushi has since taken on myriad forms. To name but a few: chirashi-zushi (sushi rice in a bowl topped with raw fish), maki-zushi (vinegared rice and raw fish or other ingredients rolled together with a sheet of nori, or seaweed), nigiri-sushi (aka “rice ball”), inari-zushi (a fried tofu pouch filled with sushi rice by itself), and even aburi-sushi (nigiri-sushi topped with fish that has been partially grilled and partially raw).

Some of these ingredients don’t run cheap. This January Tokyo sushi chain Kiyomura K.K. shelled out $1.76 million on the most expensive bluefin tuna on record. The behemoth, seen here, weighed 489 pounds.

Vegetables, egg, roe, tofu and various meats are also used liberally in sushi today. And in the West, hybrid forms have been concocted by chefs who have incorporated ingredients and combinations that would not likely have surfaced in Japan. Some notable examples include the California roll (avocado, imitation crab, cucumber and flying fish roe), Philadelphia roll (raw or smoked salmon, cream cheese of the Philadelphia brand variety, cucumber or avocado and sometimes onion), and even the mango roll (avocado, crab, tempura shrimp, and slices of mango as well as mango paste).

While sushi may have started as a kind of fast food from the sea served from Hanaya’s stree-side cart, today it is one of Japan’s three national dishes (alongside ramen noodles and Japanese curry).

Low in fat, high in protein, rich in omega-3 fatty acids – sushi is a healthy option on the worldwide menu today. For full effect, add green tea, soy sauce (unless you’re a strict traditionalist), and a sharp dash of wasabi – and enjoy.