Sushi is famous today as one of the cornerstones of Japanese cuisine. However, its roots stretch back much further than that, across the Sea of Japan to mainland China. It has been around in one form or another for almost 2000 years, being first mentioned in Chinese documents dating back to the second century AD. Over the years, it has developed from a primitive way of preserving fish to the culinary art form that we recognise today.
While we think of sushi as a delicious pairing of rice and fish, in its original form, the rice was merely a means to an end. Fish was placed into cooked rice, which was allowed to ferment around the fish. This produced lactic acid bacilli that, in turn, slowed down the growth of bacteria in the fish, essentially becoming a pickling process. This allowed it to be shipped across the continent and remain edible for some time. Once the fish was sufficiently preserved, the fermented rice was discarded.
Japanese cuisine is closely connected to its folklore and oral tradition, and sushi is no different. One story tells of an old woman who was scared that thieves would steal her pots of rice from her. To keep them safe, she started hiding the pots in osprey nests. When she returned to collect them, she discovered that not only had the rice fermented, but that scraps of fish from the ospreys had fallen into the pots. She tasted this rice and fish mixture and found it so delicious that she began preserving fish in the same manner from then on.
As pleasant a story as that is, the truth is rather more prosaic, with the fermented fish product being imported to Japan from Chinese traders in the 7th century. It would be another two hundred years before the food really gained a foothold among the Japanese people. This coincided with the spread of Buddhism across the country. The Buddhist diet prohibited the eating of meat, but allowed its followers to consume fish and vegetables. As an island nation, fish was plentiful and soon became a staple part of Japanese cooking. Since preserved fish and rice was both delicious and convenient, it proved popular throughout the country. This was the first dish that might be recognised as modern sushi.
The first kind of sushi that we know of from this period was called funa-sushi, and it comes from the Lake Biwa region in what is today the Shinga prefecture of Japan. This is the country’s largest freshwater lake, known for its golden carp, which locals called funa. These fish were packed into salted rice, weighed down and compacted to speed up the fermentation process. Even with these shortcuts, the process took as long as six months to complete, meaning the finished dish was only affordable by the upper classes.
The Sengoku period describes a period of time from the Ōnin War of 1467 to siege of Osaka in 1615, in which Japan was in a state of near-constant civil war and political upheaval. During this period – though presumably unrelated – cooks realised that the fermentation time of funa-sushi could be reduced to a single month by compressing the fish and rice mixture under greater weight. This allowed them to produce sushi more readily and in greater quantities, with the preserved fish dish being an important way to support troops during the various wars. It was also around this time that the cooks realised that the fish they utilised in their sushi did not need to be fully decomposed to taste good. As a result they began using fresher fish, creating a dish known as mama-nare zushi.
The biggest change in the presentation of sushi in Japan is down to one man – Hanaya Yohei. In 1824, Yohei began selling his new type of convenient sushi from a stall in Edo (what is now Tokyo). Instead of wrapping fish in rice, he conceived the idea of placing a piece of fresh fish, marinated in soy sauce or vinegar, atop an oblong of seasoned rice. Today, this method of presentation is one of the cornerstones of modern sushi, known as nigiri, or finger sushi.
Following World War II, outdoor sushi stalls were deemed unsanitary and were consequently shut down or moved to an indoor setting. Whilst the first of these new indoor sushi restaurants were little more than the old sushi stalls with a roof overhead, they soon developed into a more formal dining experience. It was at this time that the food itself evolved, with nigiri sushi becoming just one of several core dishes. Japanese travellers and emigrants took this incredible national treasure around the world, where it exploded in popularity, particularly in North America.
Over the last sixty years or so, sushi has continued to evolve, carefully fusing Western influences with Japan's own culinary heritage. Modern sushi owes as much to cross-cultural pollination as it does to the rich and varied cooking traditions of its home country.
But that’s a story for another time…