Learning its history will make you like sushi even more

April 5, 2019
The origin of sushi is considered to be a preservative fish food of South-Eastern Asia. It was apparently imported into Japan with rice cultivation and was already known by 1,300 years ago. How is it that such a dish has become sushi, a representative of Japanese cuisine?

The birth and culture of sushi

When we are talking about “sushi,” we mean what is known today as “nigiri zushi” (hand-pressed sushi). The roots of this sushi can be traced to “nare zushi” (matured sushi), where natural fermentation was used as food preservation. Because the fermentation process took a considerably long time and left the rice mushy, resulting in people throwing it away and only eating the fish, people desired something that allowed them to eat the fish together with the rice. And so vinegar started being used instead of fermentation to preserve the fish. Pressing various ingredients on top of the rice gave birth to “oshi zushi” (pressed sushi), while the Edo Period people’s desire for sushi that was even faster to eat and with soy sauce – best expressed in the phrase “vinegar on the rice, soy sauce on the fish” – resulted in nigiri zushi as we know it today!

Two big schools! What are the differences between Edomae sushi and Osaka sushi?

Edomae sushi was the nigiri sushi developed in Edo (old Tokyo): the word “Edomae” was the way people at the time called fish from Tokyo Bay. Osaka sushi is a relative of oshi zushi, where ingredients are pressed in a box (which in Japanese is “hako” – hence its other name “hako zushi”). In hako zushi, the ingredients are aligned in a specific way so that the sushi block can be cut into portions when taken out of the box, resulting in differences in both looks and taste. In Edomae sushi, because the topping is big and with a strong taste, the rice can harden pretty quickly. Osaka sushi on the other hand, because it doesn’t use soy sauce, can be used in bento (boxed lunch) and the rice is sweeter and stays soft for a longer time.

Edo sushi was the size of onigiri!

In the Edo Period, eating from food stalls was the most obvious kind of “fast-food.” The sushi sold in these food stalls was 3-4 times the size of today’s sushi. In other words, it was the size of a present-day onigiri rice ball! The rice’s color was also different. Red vinegar was used and because that vinegar contained sake lees, the rice had a light brown color while, because transportation methods and freezing methods were unavailable, the variety of fish used was rather restricted. Today’s very popular maguro (tuna), for example, was considered really bad for sushi and it was only after the method called “tsuke,” involving the slices of fish being pickled in soy sauce, was invented that people managed to start eating it! The technique of preserving the fish from going bad through this tsuke method is considered traditional and has been passed down to our present age.

When do Japanese eat sushi?

Nowadays, sushi has become part of everyday life but things were different in earlier times. People used to eat it only during festivals or for special occasions, and as sushi chefs use each season’s fish, when eating sushi you can also in a way taste the season itself! To make sushi last longer, many places add a somewhat larger quantity of sugar. The best examples of this are “inari zushi” as well as Kansai’s “hako zushi.” People also enjoy sushi at home. When they do, the preferable way is “temaki zushi,” taking their favorite toppings and hand-rolling them into sheets of nori seaweed. On March 3, together with the Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Festival or Dolls’ Festival), people eat “chirashi zushi” and in recent years, on February 3, aka “Setsubun” aka “Holiday Marking the End of Winter,” eating “eho-maki” has been gaining popularity.

In various regions there are local sushi variations!

Regional sushi variations are part of a particular area’s typical cuisine. To make a broad distinction, in Eastern Japan, there is “nare zushi” (matured sushi) while in Western Japan there is “oshi zushi” (pressed sushi). To prevent the growth of bacteria, several methods are available – from wrapping it into salted leaves to pickling that changes the form of the fish, among others. Since sushi was originally a method of preserving food, there are several types that will keep for quite long. Sometimes sushi has been eaten in bento (boxed lunch), or, in various regions’ airports and train stations, bought as a very popular souvenir.

Modern sushi: kaiten zushi

Kaiten (or conveyor belt) zushi was born in Osaka. Having taken its inspiration from the conveyor belt used in beer factories, “Mawaru Genroku Zushi” opened in 1958 and its stall in the 1970 Osaka Expo made it known all over Japan. In 1976 the patent for the rotating system expired, so big companies jumped in and soon the fierce competition standardized the price at 100 yen per piece, a very popular option down to the present day. Nowadays, kaiten zushi restaurants generally follow the two-lane system where there is the standard conveyor belt from which you can take already prepared pieces, or order your own from a touch screen and have it delivered to you on a fast lane. In this way, customers can choose the way they prefer to have their sushi served.