Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The origins of sushi - how does sushi come about


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I have not met anyone who isn't in love with this single dish that is almost synonymous with Japan. Unsurprisingly, it has been ranked 4th by CNN in a recent compilation of the 50 best food in the world. Some might get a bit squirmy about popping in raw fish but there are always cooked varieties such as shrimp Nigirizushi (boiled shrimped sushi) and unagi (eel) sushi. For the vegetarians among us, tamogoyaki (egg omelette) sushi and inarizushi (rice stuffed in aburaage bags) are always welcomed. A quick dip into shoyu (fermented soy bean sauce) with a dab of wasabi and it is good to go. A perfect finger food if you are looking for a fuss free meal. Some events have even taken to sushi catering as a result.

However, like most delicacies, sushi has a humble origin. Contrary to the popular belief, sushi did not originate from Japan. Different sources have named with China or Southeast Asia where the making of sushi was first documented. As a means of preserving fish, gutted and cleaned fish was wrapped and fermented in rice for several months before being consumed. The fish itself served as a important protein source while the rice, having done its job, was simply discarded.


This way of preserving fish found its way to Japan only at around 8th century AD. It still exists in its oldest form as narezushi in Japan till this day. However, a more popular form of sushi (hayazushi) took hold in Japan in the Edo period (1603 - 1868). Instead of having the fish alone, it is often consumed with rice seasoned with vinegar, vegetables and dried preserved foods. Even then, each region began to develop their own style of preparing hayazushi, depending on the local produce and their seasonal availability.

In the 1800s, mobile food stalls took over the sushi scene in Edo (the present day Tokyo). The quickened pace of life then demanded food that can be consumed easily. By then sushi had evolved to simply draping a slice of fermented fish over a oblong mound of rice. Ironically, it was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that helped spread this form of sushi (nigiri-zushi) throughout Japan when former nigiri-zushi chefs having lost their jobs migrated to other parts of the country.

Hanaya Yohei (1799 - 1858) was generally credited for being the father of modern sushi. The fish used in sushi during his time was hauled in from Tokyo bay. As refrigeration hasn't been invented, spoilage of fish was a concern. Instead of fermenting the fish, a process that could take months, Yohei either cooked his fish slightly or marinated them in vinegar before serving them on vinegared rice balls. In this form, they could be eaten on the go with either chopsticks or simply fingers. In fact, as these were served on makeshift stalls on the streets and due to their relatively short preparation time, they were probably the first fast foods the world has seen.

While the concept is similar, Yohei's sushi was still departure from what we are accustomed to. While the popular sushi variety still consist of draping a fish slice over cooked short grain rice, the fish is no longer fermented or even preserved with vinegar for that matter. Freshness is the key here. Fish, once caught, is flash frozen only to be thawed just before being serve so as to preserve its freshness. After the Japanese government outlawed street sushi stall over hygiene concerns, sushi can only be found in restaurants and its preparation has since become an art with sushi training schools set up and some of its chefs achieving almost celebrity status.

Since then, dish that started as a simple slice of fish fermented in rice has gone on to the conveyor belt in the equivalent of sushi fast food restaurants and even delivered to the comforts of one's home (check out sushi delivery in London). Sushi is hardly just some fish and rice. It's a dish that has its fair share of evolution over hundreds of years. Think about it when you next bite into one.

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