The History of Sushi
Big Money for Big Tuna
Sushi is known around the world as a delicious, luxurious but also a relatively expensive cuisine due to the freshness and quality of fish required. This is evident in how much people are willing to pay for the very best tuna in Japan. On January 2019, “Tuna King” Kiyoshi Kimura spent a record $3.1m for a 612 lb bluefin tuna –more than doubling the previous record of $1.4m in 2013. The pursuit of perfection in making sushi embodies the essence of not only Japanese cuisine, but the culture itself.
However, many may not be aware of the fact that the origins of sushi neither began in Japan nor as a craft to be perfected.
The earliest recorded history of sushi dates back between 500-300 B.C near the rice paddies along the Mekong River in southern ancient China. The shallow waters of the Mekong created a fertile environment for aquatic life to flourish, which allowed many farmers to obtain bountiful catches. The challenge occurred with the preservation of fish as it would spoil in the humid heat before consumption.
Fortunately, with the help of glutinous rice grown in the nearby paddies, farmers were able to create a preservation technique by patting gutted fish with copious amounts of salt and then allowing the fish to dry for a few weeks before removing the salt and packing the bellies with glutinous rice. The fish were then left in big wooden barrels weighed down with a heavy stone. Allowing the fish to ferment from several months to a year activates lacto-fermentation, which converts the sugars in the rice into lactic acid to fight bad bacteria and preserves not only the flavor and texture of the fish, but also the nutritional value. Unfortunately, even though the flavor was intact, the smell was quite repulsive.
Over time, this fundamental form of sushi (nare-sushi) began to gain popularity in not only the southern countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, but also the northern provinces of China such as Yunnan, Guanxi and Guizhou. Furthermore, after the Han Chinese conquered the Yeland, Dian and Nanyue tribes in 200 B.C, nare-sushi eventually made its way into central China. Nare-sushi was primarily eaten by lower-class citizens but was eventually favored by the upper-class as well.
As a result of trade between China and Japan, nare-sushi made its way into Japanese cuisine. The exact period of when this occurred is unclear, but the earliest reference to nare-sushi is in the Yōrō Code, a legal code compiled in 718 by Fujiwara no Fuhito. The Japanese came to the same conclusion as the Chinese regarding nare-sushi: tastes great but smells horrible. Japanese chefs in the early Muromachi period (1338-1573) began experimenting to make sushi more palatable.
Eventually, the foul stench was resolved by only fermenting the fish for a few weeks to reduce the amount of acid produced. As a further benefit, the intense, inedible sour flavor of the rice was reduced to a pleasant tartness that could be paired with the fish (han-nare) and not discarded. After the invention of rice vinegar in the 1200’s, acidic flavors and foods such as sunomono (pickled cucumbers), became widely popular and han-nare was no exception.
If the first step was cutting down fermentation, the next step was determining whether it was even necessary. Fermentation was an essential technique in areas abundant with freshwater fish such as the Mekong, but because Japan was surrounded by the ocean and thus had easy access to saltwater fish, the application was not as useful.
In the mid-17th century, the Japanese invented the third iteration of sushi known as haya-sushi (fast sushi). Haya-sushi removes fermentation completely and simply seasons the rice with rice vinegar to achieve the same tart flavor. The rice was then packed in a box and topped with cooked or cured fish before being pressed down with a heavy weight. This allowed sushi to be easily transported and enjoyed anywhere. Naturally, different prefectures developed their own styles of haya-sushi to reflect the local ingredients and tastes.
Eventually, Japanese chefs determined that pressing the rice was also unnecessary as the whole point of pressing rice was to prevent air from slowing down the process of anaerobic fermentation. Continuing to press the rice over several days only slowed down preparation and prevented chefs from delivering the quick and delicious food that their patrons wanted.
As a result, this led to the development of Edo-mae (Tokyo front) style sushi in the early 1800’s. Edo-mae sushi is the prototype of what we know as modern nigiri-sushi because even though this form consisted of cooked/cured fish laid over seasoned rice, the size was two to three times larger than the bite-sized version we know today. The fish was also marinated in vinegar, soy sauce or coated in a thick layer of salt to preserve taste and freshness. The popularity of sushi at this point was astounding, as every hectare in Tokyo was believed to have at least one sushi restaurant. Edo-mae sushi eventually spread to the rest of Japan after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 forced several sushi chefs to relocate to other cities.
Finally, the latest iteration of sushi that we are all familiar with today, became possible with technology. Through refrigeration, chefs could now use raw fish and could even use a more varied selection of fish due to advancements in cooking/curing methods. When refrigeration was first being adopted by the Japanese, they were viewed as ‘luxury’ and thus, sushi became to be known as a cuisine for special occasions.
Naturally, something so spectacular such as sushi could not be contained in one country forever. After World War 2, U.S occupation and increased global travel allowed sushi to spread all over the globe. One of the most impactful destinations was California, where sushi rolls with “rice outside” was invented.
To have progressed from a poor, smelly means of survival to a sophisticated, special treat is nothing short of extraordinary. If we agree with Mr. Kimura that it is important to honor sushi by using the very best ingredients, then it should be equally important to remember the humble origins of this now luxurious cuisine.