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The Japanese Table

The History of Sushi

by Naomichi Ishige

With this final installment in our series on Japanese regional food cultures, we take a look at the history of sushi, arguably Japan's most challenging and delicious global ambassador!

Not Just Nigiri

Most of the sushi served in sushi bars both in Japan and in other countries comes in two types. The first is nigiri-zushi, a slice of raw fish or other ingredient dabbed with wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and placed atop a bite-sized wedge of sushi rice shaped by hand; the other is maki-zushi, comprised of sushi rice spread with raw fish and fresh or cooked vegetables, then rolled up in paper-thin dried nori seaweed. While maki-zushi is simple to make and is frequently prepared at home, nigiri-zushi is usually made only by professional sushi chefs: its deceptively simple method of preparation actually requires years of experience to attain the proper technique.

Another type of sushi commonly prepared at home is inari-zushi, made by simmering abura-age (deep-fried tofu) in soy sauce and other seasonings, opening the tofu to form pockets, and stuffing these with sushi rice mixed with cooked mushrooms, carrots and other ingredients. Another home-based recipe is chirashi-zushi (also called bara-zushi), which consists of sushi rice spread on a plate and artfully decorated with raw or vinegar-marinated fish, cooked chopped vegetables, crepe-thin fried egg cut into narrow strips, and other colorful and tasty ingredients. The ingredients used for chirashi-zushi and its methods of preparation vary widely from region to region.

Hundreds of different types of sushi are found all over Japan. Yet the common bond among these dishes so diverse in form, ingredients and cooking methods is the use of "soured" rice. In fact, sushi is included in the category of vinegar-tasting or "sour" foods. Today, this characteristic acidic flavor is attained by adding a mixture of vinegar seasoned with sugar and salt to the rice, but in the past this was accomplished by a process of fermentation. The classic written form of the Japanese word sushi, meaning "sour-tasting," is considered to be the most likely origin of the current popular term.

Sour-Tasting Fish Dishes

A food identified by the words pla som in Thai, som pa in Laotian and ngachin in Burmese—all meaning "sour-tasting fish"—is made by pickling salted freshwater fish in rice and leaving it for ten days to a month. Microorganisms act on the rice and cause it to undergo lactic fermentation, which imparts a sour taste to both the rice and the fish. Not only does the food acquire a certain distinctive flavor and aroma, but the increased acidity prevents the growth of decay microorganisms and allows it to be preserved over long periods of time.

Research by this author indicates that such methods of freshwater fish preservation were first invented in the Mekong River region of Indochina and the nearby ancient rice-farming areas of southwest China; they later spread throughout Southeast Asia, China and the Korean peninsula along with the dissemination of wet-rice agriculture.

To this day, the funa-zushi of the Lake Biwa area in Japan's Shiga Prefecture is preserved using this ancient sushi-making method. Roe-bearing crucian carp are first salted and then packed with rice into a wooden tub and left for three to five months. When serving, the rice—which by this time has broken down into a kind of paste—is discarded and the fish is sliced thin and eaten, without dipping in soy sauce. With its strong smell, funa-zushi has little following among outsiders, but people of Kyoto and the area surrounding Lake Biwa consider it to be the perfect accompaniment to sake, and today it is quite an expensive delicacy.

Unique Japanese Development

The unique evolution of sushi began in Japan from around the fifteenth century onward. Impatience is often counted a Japanese trait, and apparently our forebears, too, found it hard to wait the several months it took for the sushi to mature. They began to eat it after the rice pickled with the fish had become only slightly acidic—sometimes after only a few days. At this stage, the grains of rice were still intact and could be eaten together with the fish, creating a kind of snack food comprising staple and side dish in one.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), the practice of acidifying the rice, not through lactic fermentation but by mixing it with vinegar, became common. Sushi gradually became a dish to be prepared immediately before eating, rather than as a preserved food, thus opening the way for variations featuring not only fish, but an assortment of non-meat ingredients such as vegetables, tofu and seaweed. Nigiri-zushi became especially popular in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) in the 1820s and spread throughout the rest of the country in the twentieth century.

While nigiri-zushi became a kind of general standard, western Japan—specifically the Osaka area—had embraced oshi-zushi. This was a lightly pressed piece of sushi topped with raw fish and other cooked ingredients. Its distinctive shape was created by filling a square-shaped wooden box with sushi rice; the rice was then topped with raw fish, a light sprinkle of salt, and boiled shrimp with other ingredients. Pressing down slightly on the cover of the wooden box compressed the sushi, which was then removed and cut into tiny bite-size squares.

Since the 1980s, no matter its shape or ingredients, the worldwide popularity of sushi has become undeniable. It is a food that continues to evolve, both in Japan and in its adoptive countries, and its classic concept of "fish atop rice" has been redefined and adapted in countless ways—all of them delicious.

Author's Profile

Naomichi Ishige, born in 1937 in Chiba Prefecture, is an anthropologist and authority on the history of food. Formerly associate professor and professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, he served as its director-general from 1997-2003 and is now professor emeritus. Among his many works are Shokuji no bunmeiron ("Of Meals and Civilization"), and Bunka-menruigaku kotohajime ("First Steps in the Study of Noodle Culture").