When we think of Sushi, we naturally think of Japan. However, the history of sushi reaches further than just Japan. In recent years, sushi has become an obsession around the world. Japan has been at the center of this growing sushi trend for some time. Let’s dive into the current sushi culture in Japan and then do a deeper dive into the history of sushi itself.
Sushi Culture in Japan
Japanese people are meticulous in their trades. They work at a single job and perfect the art. Sushi chefs, or itamae, are no different. They start as an apprentice on cleaning duty and work their way up to actually being able to slice fish. This process can traditionally take up to 10 years. However, recently people have become an itamae in closer to 2 years.
Itamae translates in English as “in front of the board.” A sushi chef doesn’t just slice fish and serve it up to hungry customers. They are intensely passionate about their craft, are artists, entertainers, ruler of the kitchen and charming hosts for their guests. A great sushi experience begins and ends with the itamae and the passion and devotion they have for their craft.
History of Sushi
When we think of sushi, we think of Japan. Japanese people love sushi. It’s what we’ve come to accept as fact. Ddi you know that sushi didn’t originate in Japan? Sushi as we know it today was invented in Japan in the mid 1800s. However, sushi originated along the Mekong river in Southeast Asia. This was during the Yayoi period which stretched from 300 BC to 300 AD.
This form of sushi was called Narezushi. Narezushi is fish that is wrapped in salt and rice and allowed to ferment. Narezushi appeared in a Chinese dictionary in the 2nd century CE. It was described as pickled fish with rice and salt.
From here it made its way to Japan and the rest was history.
History of Sushi in Japan
Japan already had a love affair with fish and rice. With narezushi, they gradually shortened the fermentation process. Eventually they skipped it altogether. Narezushi can get funky monkey really quick. The smell is often described as a cross between blue cheese, fish, rice and vinegar. I’m thinking of really good sushi with the essence of gym sock.
The first reference to sushi in Japan appeared in 718. A record of taxes paid by items showed that taxes were actually paid with sushi. For the next 800 years, sushi didn’t really change. It was the fermented fish and rice. When rice vinegar came on the scene, they were able to properly shorten the fermentation time required for the fish.
My favorite sushi of all time, oshizushi, was perfected in Osaka, Japan in the early 18th century. It made it’s way to Edo and sold like hotcakes (I’m going to be referencing Edo a lot. Edo is what they used to call Tokyo). When oshizushi first came on the scene it still required some fermentation and stores would hang signs out front when they had a batch ready to go. It was then quickly devoured by customers.
Sushi Spreads Through Edo
During the early 19th century, there were three major sushi restaurants in Edo. In a very brief 20 year period, thousands of sushi restaurants popped up. Nigirizushi made it big during this period. It was very different from nigiri that we see in sushi places today. The fish might be cooked, heavily salted, or marinated in soy sauce before being served. The lack of refrigeration was still a problem in serving the fish raw. Some form of cooking or salting had to happen first.
Some fermented styles of sushi are still eaten today. Eighteen generations of the Kitamura family still produce funazushi today! They have been making this sushi since the early 1600s. Now that’s a family business!
This sushi is made by taking a funa fish, gutting it through the gills and salting it to age for a year. It is then repacked in rice annually for up to four years. Funa are a type of wild goldfish that is found in Japan. It is similar to carp, but different. However, today funa sushi might be prepared using carp if supplies of funa aren’t available.
Sheets of nori seaweed became available in the mid 1700s. This led to the creation of makizushi, which is the rolled sushi we think of today.
Different Types of Sushi
All sushi falls within one of six different types:
- Oshizushi – pressed sushi. Toppings are layered in rice and pressed firmly in a box before being cut into rectangles.
- Nigirizushi – hand-pressed rice that is topped with fish or other veggies.
- Narezushi – the fermented sushi. Fish is packed in salt or rice and allowed to ferment. The rice is discarded before eating.
- Makizushi – rolled sushi. Ingredients are rolled in a sheet of nori seaweed and then cut into smaller pieces.
- Inarizushi – It is a pouch of deep fried tofu. It is often sweet and doesn’t contain fish.
- Chirashizushi – A bowl of rice topped with various fish and veggie toppings.
Sushi’s Global Spread
The first sushi restaurant in the United States opened in 1906. Like many other international cuisines, sushi made its way to the states with immigration. Because of anti-Japanese sentiment, Japanese cuisine struggled to really take hold. In the 1960s, Japanese cuisine became popular once again. Sushi restaurants began popping up around Los Angeles and celebrities embraced them. This furthered the popularity of sushi in America. Today there are nearly 4,000 sushi restaurants across the country and it has become a $2 billion industry.
In Canada, sushi became very popular in Toronto and Vancouver. Vancouver has a larger number of sushi restaurants per capita than Toronto. In 1976, Vancouver had 3 sushi restaurants. By 2014 they had over 600. Vancouver has ruined sushi for me permanently. It is so amazing there!
The history of sushi is going to continue to push boundaries. It is the ultimate expression of passion and dedication. Post in the comments below about your best sushi experience!
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