The term sushi was originally used for a type of fermented fish or meat, prepared for the purpose of preservation. Today, the word sushi refers to a dish containing rice marinated with vinegar and garnished with raw fish and vegetables. Here is a brief history that reveals the origin and evolution of sushi.
It is generally believed that the earliest form of sushi was developed in South-East Asia from where immigrants took it to China before it was introduced to Japan in the 8th Century A.D. At that time, refrigeration had not been invented so locals salted their fish, wrapped it in fermented rice and left it for several months until the protein in the meat was broken down into amino acids. Thereafter, they discarded the rice and consumed the fish which usually remained safe to eat for several months. Sushi, the fermented fish, was a vital protein source for the Japanese for many centuries.
Japanese liked to eat their fermented fish with steamed rice called namanari or namanare. During the Muromachi period (from 1336 to 1573), namanare grew in popularity. It was during this period that people began to eat raw fish wrapped in rice and eaten fresh before it lost its flavour. The emphasis shifted from preservation to a new method of combining fish with rice.
In the midst of the Edo period (in the 18th century), the Japanese embraced another kind of sushi called haya-zushi. They consumed their fish and rice at the same time and it was a unique dish in Japanese culture. For the first time, rice was no longer used as a fermentation agent. Instead, rice was marinated in vinegar and then fish, vegetables, spices and other sauces were added. This was the beginning of the modern concept of sushi that is widely accepted around the world today. Each region in Japan used a variety of local flavours to create the type of sushi that has been passed to other generations.
In the early 1800’s when Tokyo was called Edo, mobile food stalls and street vendors multiplied in the city. At this time a new form of fast food called nigiri sushi became popular among the fast moving city dwellers. Nigiri sushi originally had a small mound of rice with a slice of raw fish placed on it. Neither the rice nor the fish was fermented. It could be eaten quickly with the fingers or with chopsticks. It was during this period that the Japanese sashimi was combined with rice to give birth to what is known as Edo-style sushi.
After the devastating earthquake that destroyed part of the city in 1923, many of the popular nigiri sushi chefs had to leave Edo and spread to other parts of the country. Many of these sushi chefs stopped using mobile food stalls and went on to rent or build brick and mortar sushi restaurants or bars. Some of the most famous among them were Kenukizushi, Yoheizushi and Matsunozushi.
In the 1960’s, the Japanese economy had recovered from the adverse effects of the Second World War and their businesses were moving into the United States. Sushi restaurants also became more popular as they served the needs of Japanese businessmen who were resident in the U.S. or in transit. Apart from serving the Japanese, some sushi chefs attempted to introduce sushi to native Americans but it was somewhat difficult to convince people to eat raw fish.
However, as many sushi restaurants sprang up in the city of Los Angeles, some Japenese chefs decided to substitute some ingredients of the traditional edomae-style sushi to make it easier for Americans to embrace it. Thus, the famous California roll was created. The slice of blue fin tuna (o-toro) was replaced with a slice of avocado in a traditional maki sushi roll. It was the perfect introduction to sushi for Americans who had never eaten raw fish. From that time, more Westerners started to try out raw fish and continuous adaptations have been made to Edo-style sushi including ingredient substitutions and adaptations to suit western culture and cuisine.
Sushi has become very popular in the United States, Australia, and the U.K. because sushi chefs were receptive to the suggestions of Western consumers. Today, many chefs outside Japan offer both traditional style sushi and other Westernised varieties.