The History of Sushi

“Sushi is not simply a meal to be eaten, but a dish to be savoured. As the celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa has recently pointed out, it is ‘an art’ in itself.”

I love sushi and sashimi and their accompaniments. I have eaten it here in Vancouver (wonderful), in Nairobi (potentially disastrous), in dozens of places around the world, in posh places (often mediocre) and street carts (usually delicious). I seek it out. I was primed therefore to be enticed by an article in History Today entitled A Short History of Sushi.  And it was well worth the read.

Image: History Today

Sushi has a long and involved geographic history,

“Though the evidence for its early history is rather sketchy, it seems to have begun life at some point between the fifth and the third centuries BC in the paddy fields alongside the Mekong river, which runs through modern Laos, Thailand and Vietnam … From the Mekong it made its way south towards Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and north, along the Yangtze and into the Yunnan, Guanxi and Guizhou provinces of modern China … Eventually, nare-sushi reached Japan. It is not known exactly when it arrived, but the earliest reference to it appears in the Yōrō Code, a legal code compiled in 718.”

The manufacture of the food moved unusually from highly complex to simple.

“First, the fish were gutted, rubbed with salt and placed in a barrel to dry for a few weeks. Then the salt was scraped off and the bellies of the fish packed with rice before being placed into wooden barrels, weighed down with a heavy stone, and left to rest. After several months – sometimes up to a year – anaerobic fermentation would begin, converting the sugars in the rice into acids and thus preventing the microorganisms responsible for putrefaction from spoiling the flesh. Whenever there was a need, the barrel could then be opened, the rice scraped off and the remaining fish eaten …

“By the middle of the 17th century … haya-zushi (fast sushi) … did away with fermentation altogether, while preserving the dish’s familiar tart flavour. Instead of waiting for the sugars in the rice to be turned naturally into acids, vinegar was simply added instead. It was then packed into a box, under slices of cooked or cured fish, and pressed with a heavy weight for no more than a couple of days.”

In the 19th century, even the pressing was eliminated, and something similar to the nigiri sushi we know today was introduced in Edo and eventually spread to the rest of Japan, and beyond:

“In the 1960s, Californians even pioneered their own form of sushi – the inside-out roll. Since then, ever more inventive variations have been introduced the world over.”

Our own master Tojo-san might quibble with the invention of the inside-out roll. But this is a fascinating brief history of a wonderful food. Recommended.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: