The origins of sushi
By Jeff Garrish
Japanese food has won over fans all over the world. The ingredients, preparation, and taste have made Washoku (Japanese Food) one of the most popular culinary choices for a night out. The pinnacle of high Japanese culinary art is sushi. We are all familiar with the hand molded nigiri sushi, but what did the “original” sushi look like?
Sushi 寿司 actually refers to the vinegar rice found below that slice of raw fish. The origins of sushi can be found in the techniques used to preserve fish in the days before refrigeration. Salted fish was packed with fermented rice in alternating layers preserving fish for up to a year. This type of pressed sushi was reserved for the wealthy due to the time and labor involved in preparation.
Over the centuries there were advancements in the sushi making process. In the 1600’s rice vinegar would shorten the preservation techniques and allow the rice to be eaten, rather than be discarded.
In the early 1800’s, sushi in its present form began to take shape. When Japan’s capitol transferred from Kyoto to Edo (present day Tokyo), the city grew to become one of the largest and most cosmopolitan in the world. More affluent lifestyles allowed the culture and the culinary arts to evolve and prosper. Food stalls serving tempura, soba and sushi began to spring up
A successful purveyor of the nigiri sushi stall was Yohei Hanaya. Yohei’s sushi would be virtually indistinguishable from it’s modern incarnation. Hand molded vinegar rice, a dab on wasabi, and a slice of fresh fish served on top. Sushi was the ultimate street food for people on the go. In this environment Toro Maguro (the fatty belly meat of tuna), now one of the most expensive sushi slices, was considered undesirable due to it’s fast rate of spoilage.
The popularity of sushi allowed Yohei to establish a restaurant in modern day Tokyo. The Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 leveled Tokyo, but gave sushi the opportunity to spread throughout the country and find permanent establishments as displaced sushi chefs dispersed to find new opportunities in other cities. Sushi was no longer a street food.
Today sushi can be found and enjoyed all around the world. The experimentation and evolution of this delicious dish continues with the experimentation of chefs, sushi masters, and home sushi making parties. Try something new, Yohei would be proud.