On her website ToriAvey.com, Tori Avey explores the story behind the food why we eat what we eat, how the recipes of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterdays recipes can inspire us in the kitchen today. Learn more about Tori and The History Kitchen.
As with many ancient foods, the history of sushi is surrounded by legends and folklore. In an ancient Japanese wives tale, an elderly woman began hiding her pots of rice in osprey nests, fearing that thieves would steal them. Over time, she collected her pots and found the rice had begun to ferment. She also discovered that fish scraps from the ospreys meal had mixed into the rice. Not only was the mixture tasty, the rice served as a way of preserving the fish, thus starting a new way of extending the shelf life of seafood.
While its a cute story, the true origins of sushi are somewhat more mysterious. A fourth century Chinese dictionary mentions salted fish being placed in cooked rice, causing it to undergo a fermentation process. This may be the first time the concept of sushi appeared in print. The process of using fermented rice as a fish preservative originated in Southeast Asia several centuries ago. When rice begins to ferment, lactic acid bacilli are produced. The acid, along with salt, causes a reaction that slows the bacterial growth in fish. This process is sometimes referred to as pickling, and is the reason why the sushi kitchen is
called a tsuke-ba or pickling place.
The concept of sushi was likely introduced to Japan in the ninth century, and became popular there as Buddhism spread. The Buddhist dietary practice of abstaining from meat meant that many Japanese people turned to fish as a dietary staple. The Japanese are credited with first preparing sushi as a complete dish, eating the fermented rice together with the preserved fish. This combination of rice and fish is known as nare-zushi, or aged sushi.
Funa-zushi, the earliest known form of nare-zushi, originated more than 1,000 years ago near Lake Biwa, Japans largest freshwater lake. Golden carp known as funa was caught from the lake, packed in salted rice, and compacted under weights to speed up the fermentation. This process took at least half a year to complete, and was only available to the wealthy upper class in Japan from the ninth to 14th centuries.
At the turn of the 15th century, Japan found itself in the midst of a civil war. During this time, cooks found that adding more weight to the rice and fish reduced the fermentation time to about one month. They also discovered that the pickled fish didnt need to reach full decomposition in order to taste great. This new sushi preparation was called mama-nare zushi, or raw nare-zushi.
In 1606, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a Japanese military dictator, moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo. Edo seemed to undergo an overnight transformation. With the help of the rising merchant class, the city quickly turned into a hub of Japanese nightlife. By the 19th century, Edo had become one of the worlds largest cities, both in terms of land size and population. In Edo, sushi makers used a fermentation process developed in the mid-1700s, placing a layer of cooked rice seasoned with rice vinegar alongside a layer of fish. The layers were compressed in a small wooden box for two hours, then sliced into serving pieces. This new method greatly reduced the preparation time for sushi and thanks to a Japanese entrepreneur, the whole process was about to get even faster.
In the 1820s, a man named Hanaya Yohei found himself in Edo. Yohei is often considered the creator of modern nigiri sushi, or at the very least its first great marketer. In 1824, Yohei opened the first sushi stall in the Ryogoku district of Edo. Ryogoku translates to the place between two countries because of its location along the banks of the Sumida River. Yohei chose his location wisely, setting up his stall near one of the few bridges that crossed the Sumida. He took advantage of a more modern speed fermentation process, adding rice vinegar and salt to freshly cooked rice and letting it sit for a few minutes. He then served the sushi in a hand-pressed fashion, topping a small ball of rice with a thin slice of raw fish, fresh from the bay. Because the fish was so fresh, there was no need to ferment or preserve it. Sushi could be made in a matter of minutes, rather than in hours or days. Yoheis fast food sushi proved quite popular; the constant crowd of people coming and going across the Sumida River offered him a steady stream of customers. Nigiri became the new standard in sushi preparation.
By September of 1923, hundreds of sushi carts or yatai could be found around Edo, now known as Tokyo. When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo, land prices decreased significantly. This tragedy offered an opportunity for sushi vendors to buy rooms and move their carts indoors. Soon, restaurants catering to the sushi trade, called sushi-ya, popped up throughout Japans capital city. By the 1950s, sushi was almost exclusively served indoors.
In the 1970s, thanks to advances in refrigeration, the ability to ship fresh fish over long distances, and a thriving post-war economy, the demand for premium sushi in Japan exploded. Sushi bars opened throughout the country, and a growing network of suppliers and distributors allowed sushi to expand worldwide.
Los Angeles was the first city in America to successfully embrace sushi. In 1966, a man named Noritoshi Kanai and his Jewish business partner, Harry Wolff, opened Kawafuku Restaurant in Little Tokyo. Kawafuku was the first to offer traditional nigiri sushi to American patrons. The sushi bar was successful with Japanese businessmen, who then introduced it to their American colleagues. In 1970, the first sushi bar outside of Little Tokyo, Osho, opened in Hollywood and catered to celebrities. This gave sushi the final push it needed to reach American success. Soon after, several sushi bars opened in both New York and Chicago, helping the dish spread throughout the U.S.
Sushi is constantly evolving. Modern sushi chefs have introduced new ingredients, preparation and serving methods. Traditional nigiri sushi is still served throughout the U.S., but cut rolls wrapped in seaweed or soy paper have gained popularity in recent years. Creative additions like cream cheese, spicy mayonnaise and deep-fried rolls reflect a distinct Western influence that sushi connoisseurs alternately love and disdain. Even vegetarians can enjoy modern vegetable-style sushi rolls.
Have you ever tried making sushi at home? Here are five sushi recipes from some of my favorite sites and food blogging friends. Even if you cant stomach the thought of raw fish, modern sushi chefs and home cooks have come up with all kinds of fun variations on the sushi concept. From traditional to modern to crazy, there is something here for everyone! Sushi Cupcakes, anybody?
PBS Food: How to Make Sushi with Step-by-Step Breakdown
La Fuji Mama: Norikos Chirashi Sushi
Weelicious: Sushi Cut & Handrolls
Two Peas and Their Pod Sushi Salad
Brit: Sushi Cupcakes
Corson, Trevor (2008). The Story of Sushi An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY.
Issenberg, Sasha (2007). The Sushi Economy Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy. Gotham Books, New York, NY.
Mouritsen, Ole G. (2009) Sushi: Food for the Eye, Body and Soul. Springer Science + Business Media B.V., New York, NY.
You can uncover more fascinating food history on Tori’s website: The History Kitchen.
Meet the Author
Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of ToriAvey.com. She explores the story behind the food why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterdays food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Toris food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabars, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.
While Japan is certainly the sushi capital of the world – and responsible for introducing the dish to travelers – sushi traces its origins back to a Chinese dish called narezushi. This dish consisted of fermented rice and salted fish. And, despite what you may think, it wasn't fermented and salted for flavor.Was sushi originally a street food? ›
The origins of sushi are in fact more Yo! than Nobu or Sawada. It was a street food, a working-class dish - as so often, haute cuisine borrowed and tarted up a staple of the poor. Modern sushi - in the sense of raw fish served on vinegared rice - began at a street-food stall in the city of Edo, now Tokyo, in 1824.What was the actual historical concept of sushi? ›
Sushi was originally invented as a means of preservation, when fermented rice was used to store fish for anything up to a year. This was known as narezushi, and in fact the rice was thrown away and only the fish consumed.When was the first sushi restaurant? ›
In 1824, Yohei opened the first sushi stall in the Ryogoku district of Edo. Ryogoku translates to “the place between two countries” because of its location along the banks of the Sumida River. Yohei chose his location wisely, setting up his stall near one of the few bridges that crossed the Sumida.Who first invented sushi? ›
The inventor of modern sushi is believed to be Hanaya Yohei, who invented nigiri-zushi, a type of sushi most known today, in which seafood is placed on hand-pressed vinegared rice, around 1824 in the Edo period. It was the fast food of the chōnin class in the Edo period.Why is it called sushi? ›
The term sushi literally means "sour-tasting," as the overall dish has a sour and umami or savory taste. The term comes from an antiquated し shi terminal-form conjugation, no longer used in other contexts, of the adjectival verb sui (酸い, "to be sour"), resulting in the term sushi (酸し).Is sushi a cultural food? ›
Today's sushi is most often associated with Japanese culture, though the many variations of sushi can actually be traced to numerous countries and cultures including Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.When did sushi become a trend? ›
Sushi first achieved widespread popularity in the United States in the mid-1960s. Many accounts of sushi's US establishment foreground the role of a small number of key actors, yet underplay the role of a complex web of large-scale factors that provided the context in which sushi was able to flourish.What is the oldest form of sushi? ›
Narezushi, the most primitive, earliest form of sushi, is a world away from your California rolls and sliced sashimi. Dating back to the 10th century in Japan, this fermented fish was preserved with salt and raw rice, eventually giving way to the nigiri (sliced seafood atop rice) we know and love today.What was the first sushi restaurant in America? ›
So it's hard to believe that sushi bars were unheard of in America until just over 50 years ago, when Kawafuku, the first “real” sushi restaurant the country had ever seen, opened in Los Angeles. Now, that's not to say the country had never seen sushi before 1966 when Kawafuku first started slinging nigiri.
In Japan, sushi is typically made with raw fish and vegetables that are served on top of a bed of rice. There are a few reasons for this difference. First, sushi originated in Japan and was only introduced to America relatively recently.What popular sushi dish was invented in the USA? ›
The earliest mention in print of a 'California roll' was in the Los Angeles Times and an Ocala, Florida newspaper on November 25, 1979. Less than a month later an Associated Press story credited a Los Angeles chef named Ken Seusa at the Kin Jo sushi restaurant near Hollywood as its inventor.Was sushi a food for poor people? ›
Sushi once used to be the food of poor Japanese fishermen. It was originally a method used to preserve fish by covering it in fermented rice. Post WW-II, its prices skyrocketed mainly because sushi chefs started using exotic fish.How important is sushi to Japanese culture? ›
Sushi is a culinary salute to Japanese ingenuity and precision. Through its long history in Japan as this fascinating delicacy was perfected, sushi became one of the world's most loved and sought-after dishes.What does sushi mean in Japanese? ›
In Japanese, the word sushi means “sour rice” (the rice is traditionally moistened with rice vinegar). The word sashimi comes from the Japanese sashi, meaning “pierce” or “stabbing,” and mi, “flesh” or “body.” Many people associate sushi with a raw fish or seafood element, and it often includes these, but not always.What are the 3 main ingredients in sushi? ›
Sushi at its core is made with three simple ingredients: raw fish, a nori sheet, and sushi rice.Why is salmon not sushi? ›
From Norwegian waters to wasabi
The Japanese simply did not consider their Pacific salmon clean enough to eat raw. However, the ocean-farmed Atlantic salmon was fit for purpose, with its clean and safe Norwegian origin. The only problem was that the Japanese did not think of it as sushi.
Translated, sushi means “it is sour” which typically has to do with the vinegar rice. When you see both sashimi and sushi being served in front of you, it can be easy to tell the difference between the two, mostly because of sushi being served with rice and sashimi being served without it.Why do people eat sushi? ›
Sushi is full of health benefits—it's full of protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and omega 3 fatty acids. Good for your heart, good for your taste buds, and good for life.When did Japanese start eating raw fish? ›
The practice of eating raw fish was introduced to Japan from China, perhaps as early as the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). An early cookbook in Japanese, written in 1489, directs that the raw flesh should be sliced and mixed with vinegar and seasonings such as salt and herbs.
Today's sushi is most often associated with Japanese culture, though the many variations of sushi can actually be traced to numerous countries and cultures including Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.Are sushi rolls Japanese or Chinese? ›
Even though Japan is the sushi capital, where most tourists love this dish, sushi originated in China, along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. It began as Narezushi, a dish whose main ingredients were fermented rice and salted fish.Is sushi originally from Thailand? ›
Yes, sushi's story begins in Thailand along the Mekong River. However, because the river also cuts across Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and China, it's safer to say that southeast Asia is the birthplace of sushi.Is sushi originally from Norway? ›
Before modern refrigeration and aquaculture techniques were available, it'd be pretty risky to consume salmon raw. It was the Norwegians that came up with the concept of salmon sushi, and spent the better part of a decade marketing and selling it in Japan. In fact, you could say salmon sushi is a Norwegian invention.What is sushi called in Japan? ›
Sushi (寿司 or 鮨) is the most famous Japanese dish outside of Japan, and one of the most popular dishes among the Japanese.Is sushi actually the rice? ›
While many people assume that sushi is also raw fish, it is actually vinegar rice that is mixed with a number of other ingredients, which can include either cooked or raw fish. Wile raw fish may be a traditional staple in most types of sushi, it is not a prerequisite for this dish.What does sushi mean? ›
In Japanese, the word sushi means “sour rice” (the rice is traditionally moistened with rice vinegar). The word sashimi comes from the Japanese sashi, meaning “pierce” or “stabbing,” and mi, “flesh” or “body.” Many people associate sushi with a raw fish or seafood element, and it often includes these, but not always.Why is American sushi so different? ›
When it comes to sushi, there is a big difference between the sushi found in America and the sushi found in Japan. In America, sushi is often made with cooked ingredients that are rolled up in rice and seaweed. In Japan, sushi is typically made with raw fish and vegetables that are served on top of a bed of rice.How did sushi come to America? ›
Sushi (which actually refers to the seasoned rice on which raw fish is served, not the fish itself) was originally sold as street food in Japan starting around the 8th century. It is said to have arrived in the U.S. in the late 1960s, with the opening of Kawafuku Restaurant in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.Who ate raw fish first? ›
Records show Chinese were eating sliced raw fish over 2,000 years ago. Sashimi may now be considered a classic Japanese dish, but China has its own ancient tradition of consuming raw fish.
Japanese records from the second century suggest salted fish fermented in rice was the origin of sushi, while Korea traces the wrapping of rice in seaweed back to the Joseon era.