If you think about Japanese food, probably the first dish that comes to mind is sushi. But would it surprise you to know that sushi today is vastly different from just a few hundred years ago? Today, let’s talk about how a fermented fish dish from China evolved into the national food of Japan!
- Cuisine (n) – a style of cooking
- I love to eat Italian cuisine.
- Raw (adj) – (of food) not cooked.
- Basashi is a popular dish in parts of Japan, made of raw horse meat.
- Refrigerate (v) – to make or keep something, especially food or drink, cold so that it stays fresh, usually in a fridge.
- Fresh orange juice should be refrigerated after opening and drunk within three days.
- Preserve (v) – to treat food in a particular way so that it can be kept for a long time without going bad.
- Adding salt is a great way to preserve food.
- Ferment (v) – If food or drink ferments or if you ferment it, it goes through a chemical change because of the action of yeast or bacteria, which may cause it to produce bubbles or heat, or turn sugars in it into alcohol.
- Sauerkraut and kimchi are both essentially fermented cabbage.
- Predecessor (n) – something that comes before another thing in time or in a series.
- The latest Ferrari is not only faster than its predecessors but also more comfortable.
- Parasite (n) – an animal or plant that lives on or in another animal or plant of a different type and feeds from it.
- Parasites have been causing harm to the local fish population.
- Authentic (adj) – If something is authentic, it is real, true, or what people say it is.
- I’ve never eaten authentic Italian food.
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you will know that I have a close connection with Japan. I’ve worked in Japan, I’ve studied in Japan, I’ve completed a master’s degree from the University of London specialising in Japanese politics, and hopefully very soon I’ll be back living in the country.
Before I moved to Japan in 2016, I had never eaten Japanese food. Not at all. But since living in the country, I have immersed myself in the wonderful world of Japanese cuisine.
The smoky skewers of chicken called Yakitori, grilled over special coals and often smothered in sauce; delicious savoury pancakes full of cabbage, seafood and meat called Okonomiyaki; juicy chicken marinated in soy sauce then fried; sweet Japanese curries often accompanied with crispy chicken cutlets.
Thick udon noodles served with fresh vegetable tempura; cold soba noodles accompanied by grilled duck; and delicious bowls of ramen filled full of fatty pork and deep and rich broth (ramen is definitely my favourite food).
There is so much food in Japan that I can’t even begin to discuss it all. Tender beef tongue from the northern city of Sendai; katsuo tataki (seared fish left raw in the middle) from Kochi prefecture; rice balls stuffed with sour plums; delicate freshwater eel; far too expensive wagyu steak from Kobe; fried pork cutlets drenched in sauce from Fukushima; glorious egg sandwiches; and more.
But if there is one food associated with Japan, known all around the world, it is sushi.
Before moving to Japan, sushi was the only Japanese food I really knew about. And I still get asked by my friends and family in the UK how I deal with eat raw fish all the time – the truth is I only eat sushi about once a month and usually only cheap sushi from supermarkets or conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
But sushi is intimately connected with Japanese culture, and the world associates Japanese food with sushi. So, what exactly is sushi?
There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the dish. For example, the idea that sushi simply means raw fish. This is not the case (in fact one of the most popular types of sushi in Japan is cooked sweet egg omelette). The name comes from the words “su” and “meshi” which translate as vinegar rice.
And there is no one form of sushi. In Japan, nigiri (rice with the sushi topping drooped over the top) and maki (tight rolls of seaweed, rice, and fillings) are the most common. But there is also chirashizushi with the toppings served on top of a bowl of rice, funazushi (which I’ll talk about soon), and more.
Then there is sushi is other parts of the world which may be incredibly popular but vastly different from that found in Japan. Take the California roll (sushi rolled with the rice on the outside) which I’ve never seen in Japan but is popular in other countries.
Sushi also comes at all price points, from a few dollars in the supermarket, to cheap conveyor belt sushi chains, to the highest luxury restaurants in the world.
Sushi is synonymous with Japanese food. But would it surprise you to know that the modern sushi we enjoy today is nothing like it used to be? The raw fish, edible rice, types of fish, and way of eating are relatively recent in the history of the dish!
Today I want to talk about the history of sushi from the rice fields of ancient China to the modern-day Michelin starred restaurants!
Do you want to Think in English?
I’m so excited that you found my blog and podcast!! If you don’t want to miss an article or an episode, you can subscribe to my page!
Narezushi and the History of Sushi
When we think about the history of food, we need to understand that the idea of “traditional” food is often invented. We care a lot about our national and cultural foods, but often forget how much was borrowed and learned from other places.
A great example is pasta arrabbiata, one of my favourite Italian dishes, which wouldn’t be possible without tomatoes and chilies originally from the Americas and pasta influenced by Asian dishes centuries ago. The ingredients were borrowed, changed, and eventually combined to make a delicious dish that is now very Italian.
There are other myths too. That way we eat today is very different to the past. We have more money today, better access to food, better refrigeration, and different morals.
Japan is a great example of this. Many of the dishes I mentioned earlier, grilled and fried chicken, pork filled ramen, and incredibly expensive wagyu beef, are meat based. But Japan was basically entirely vegetarian (other than fish) for over 1000 years until the late 19th century – these dishes are relatively new.
And think about sushi. Raw fish on vinegared rice. Today, the fish used in most sushi is caught in deep oceans, instantly frozen, and kept refrigerated until it is used for safety. This would not have been possible before refrigeration.
So, what is the origins of Japan’s national dish?
The origin of sushi
The origin of sushi probably lies in the rice fields of China. The original form of sushi is known as narezushi and was a method of preserving fish in salt. It was a way to keep and ferment freshwater fish for a longer period of time.
Narezushi was likely introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century. Narezushi was not the only imported from China during that period – Buddhism, the kimono, Confucianism, and foods ranging from rice and wheat to soy products like tofu and soy sauce, to tea were all originally from China.
You can still find styles of narezushi in Japan. Until modern sushi was “invented” in the 18th century, narezushi was widely consumed. Narezushi was generally made with freshwater fish, with funazushi (made using a type of carp) considered to be the true predecessor to modern sushi.
Narezushi was fermented. The fish was first cleaned, and then packed full of salt. The salted fish would be left to cure for months, sometimes years. After this step, the fish would be washed, dried, and then fermented in rice for a long time. In the top narezushi restaurants in Japan today, this whole process takes more than 3 years. It is completely different to the fresh slices of tuna you may be used to.
I’ve never tried the predecessor to sushi, although it is still available in some parts of Japan. According to some online reviews I read, it tasted almost like cheese due to its fermented, salty, and strong taste.
One of the most interesting facts about narezushi is that you didn’t eat the rice. The fish would be fermented in rice to help the processes, but that rice would be discarded, and the fish alone eaten. When rice ferments, it produces a form of lactic acid that can preserve and almost pickle the fish.
So how did this thousand-year-old fermented fish dish develop into modern sushi?
Hayazushi or “Fast Sushi”
The first modern sushi, or sushi perhaps we would recognise today, was created in the city of Edo in the 18th century. You may know Edo better by its modern name Tokyo.
In the year 1606, the capital city of Japan was moved from Kyoto to Edo and the city transformed quickly. It became a hotspot of economic activity, growing in size, and with more people looking for good and readily available food.
As I mentioned, narezushi took months, even years, to make. But in Edo they developed a new process to speed everything up – it was known as hayazushi (literally fast sushi) and was a fast-food version of the ancient narezushi.
In the 18th century two new products allowed people to recreate and speed up the process of making the dish using seafood caught in the Tokyo Bay: bottles of soy sauce and rice vinegar.
Rice vinegar could be added to rice. It would speed up the fermentation process, rather than taking months it would just take a few days. It would also make the rice easier to eat and give it a sour taste similar to narezushi. Today, rice vinegar is simply used to season cooked rice.
Soy sauce became incredibly popular in the 18th century. Shops in Edo would marinate the fish in soy sauce, helping it to last longer and give it the deep flavour and saltiness of narezushi. It also helped improve the flavour of bad fish.
These two products allowed sushi to be made quickly and using the fresh fish from the sea by Tokyo.
As fish has improved in quality over the years, for example advances in technology allowing fishing from deep in the oceans and better-quality refrigeration, rice vinegar and soy sauce were no longer essential to make the fish edible, but instead became the tasty seasonings we love today.
Yohei Hanaya: The Father of Sushi
By the 19th century, sushi was incredibly popular. There were thousands of restaurants in the large cities, serving the dish to customers. But it still didn’t look like modern sushi. The famous shape of sushi today, nigiri, is often credited to Yohei Hanaya who owned Yohei’s Sushi in the early 19th century.
He started the craze for modern sushi. He helped popularise tuna as a fish for sushi, which wasn’t overly important or popular in Japan at the time.
He created hand pressed sushi, shaping the rice and then placing a slice of fish over the top, which is now the most popular shape of the dish. He also used vinegared rice that you could actually eat and sometimes added wasabi, two things still popular now.
During the mid-19th century, some forms of sushi were actually banned during famines in the city of Edo, but eventually the dish would return to its popularity and become immensely popular across the whole country.
In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo, but gave sushi a chance to spread around Japan. Some sushi chefs left the capital, moving to other cities and opening new stores, while other sushi chefs were able to move into better locations in the rebuilt Tokyo.
From the 19th century onwards, sushi developed into the national dish of Japan. From the high-end luxury restaurants, using the best ingredients and masters handcrafting the dishes, to the supermarket sushi available across the country, it is immensely popular.
However, there is one more thing that may surprise you. If I think about sushi in the UK, two types of fish seem most popular – tuna and salmon. And if you have ever eaten sushi, I’m sure you have tried salmon sushi.
But salmon was never a traditional sushi fish. It was never eaten raw – only fully cured or cooked. It was considered a low quality and cheap fish. Pacific salmon, the salmon available in Japan, is not suitable for sushi. It tended to be full of parasites making it really risky to eat without being cooked first – and therefore it was never considered a sushi fish.
In the 1970s, a member of Norway’s fisheries committee realised that in Japan tuna was incredibly expensive and highly prized, but salmon was cheap and poor quality. Norway, however, had incredibly high-quality farmed salmon from the Atlantic Ocean that had no risk of parasites.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Japan began to import fish in larger quantities as the country’s fishing industry could no longer match the demand. Norway began exporting salmon in 1980 in Japan but wasn’t until 1985 that a large delegation of Norwegians (including seafood experts, politicians, and marketing officials) visited Japan again with the goal of convincing the country to start using salmon for sushi.
Project Japan was launched by Norway in 1986, and after 10 years and spending nearly 4 million dollars marketing salmon in Japan, salmon eventually became widely accepted and liked in Japan.
Norway would serve raw salmon to all Japanese guests at its embassy, they launched massive advertising campaigns, they sent the royal family of Norway to visit Japan, and they tried to convince celebrity chefs to use salmon in their dishes.
Today, salmon is considered an essential component of sushi, all thanks to the efforts of Norway.
Sushi Around the World
Sushi is now popular around the world, but it is often very different from the sushi you find in Japan. As the dish has spread, it has been changed and adapted for the tastes and ingredients of other cultures.
Japanese immigrants to the US, for example, struggled to convince Americans to eat raw fish and seaweed. They also struggled to find the same quality and type of ingredients. These factors gave rise to one of the most popular sushi dishes in the US: the California roll.
The California roll is an inside-out sushi roll, with the rice on the outside and the nori seaweed on the inside, and usually contains crab (or imitation crab), cucumber, and avocado. This dish perfectly demonstrates the way sushi was changed for overseas audiences.
First, it was difficult to find ingredients. To replace tuna, the inventor of the California roll used avocado (something I’ve never seen in Japanese sushi). Second, the ingredient of nori seaweed sometimes confused customers (who weren’t sure if they were supposed to eat it) so they placed it inside the roll. Third, the use of cooked crab or imitation crab meant there was no concern about raw fish!
As the world has become more international, more people travel, and people more willing to try new flavours, more authentic sushi has spread around the world. There is a bigger appetite for high quality and luxury fish.
Sushi has developed from a fermented fish and rice dish to a Tokyo fast food, to a world-wide culinary phenomenon!
Never miss an episode
Today, I’ve talked about the history of sushi. It is one of the most famous dishes around the world, and a dish synonymous with Japanese cuisine.
Hopefully after listening to this episode, you will have a better understanding of this food. And perhaps you can appreciate how even “traditional” dishes have changed significant over the years. It is only recently that sushi has used fresh raw fish, edible rice, and even more recent that salmon has been used!
What do you think? Do you enjoy sushi? What is your country’s national dish? What food should I talk about next?