The History of Sushi

The history of sushi in Japan began around the 8th century. The original type of sushi was first developed in Southeast Asia as a means of preserving fish in fermented rice. In the Muromachi period, people began to eat the rice as well as the fish. During the Edo period, vinegar rather than lacto-fermentation was used to sour the rice. In modern times, it is an early form of fast food strongly associated with Japanese culture.

The Beginning

The original type of sushi, known today as narezushi (fermented sushi), was first developed in Southeast Asia and spread to south China before introduced to Japan sometime around the 8th century. Fish was salted and wrapped in fermented rice, a traditional lacto-fermented rice dish. Narezushi was made of this gutted fish which was stored in fermented rice for months at a time for preservation. The fermentation of the rice prevented the fish from spoiling. The fermented rice was discarded and fish was the only part consumed. This early type of sushi became an important source of protein for the Japanese.

The Japanese preferred to eat fish with rice, known as namanare or namanari (semi-fermented). During the Muromachi period namanare was the most popular type of sushi. Namanare was partly raw fish wrapped in rice, consumed fresh, before it changed flavor. This new way of consuming fish was no longer a form of preservation but rather a new dish in Japanese cuisine.

During the Edo period, a third type of sushi was introduced, haya-zushi (fast sushi). Haya-zushi was assembled so that both rice and fish could be consumed at the same time, and the dish became unique to Japanese culture. It was the first time that rice was not being used for fermentation. Rice was now mixed with vinegar, with fish, vegetables and dried food stuff added. This type of sushi is still very popular today. Each region utilizes local flavors to produce a variety of sushi that has been passed down for many generations.

When Tokyo was still known as Edo in the early 19th century, mobile food stalls run by street vendors became popular. During this period nigiri sushi was introduced, consisting of an oblong mound of rice with a slice of fish draped over it. After the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, nigiri sushi chefs were displaced from Edo throughout Japan, popularizing the dish throughout the country.

Today the sushi dish internationally known as “sushi” (nigiri zushi; Kantō variety) is a fast food invented by Hanaya Yohei (1799–1858) in today’s Tokyo (Edo). People in Tokyo were living in haste even a hundred years ago. The nigiri zushi invented by Hanaya was not fermented and could be eaten using the fingers or chopsticks. It was an early form of fast food that could be eaten in public or in the theater.

The Japanese Influence

The earliest reference to sushi in Japan appeared in 718 in the Yōrō Code. As an example of tax paid by actual items, it is written down as “about 64 liters of zakonosushi or zatsunosushi”. However, there is no way to know what this “sushi” was or even how it was pronounced. This “sushi” was similar to today’s Narezushi.

For almost the next 800 years, until the early 19th century, sushi slowly changed and the Japanese cuisine changed as well. The Japanese started eating three meals a day, rice was boiled instead of steamed, and of large importance, was the development of rice vinegar.[4] While sushi continued to be produced by fermentation of fish with rice, the addition of rice vinegar greatly reduced the time of fermentation[5] and the rice used began to be eaten along with the fish. In the Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573), the process of producing Oshizushi was gradually developed where in the fermentation process was abandoned and vinegar was used. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1603), namanare was invented. A 1603 Japanese-Portuguese dictionary has an entry for namanrina sushi, literally half-made sushi. The namanare was fermented for a shorter period than the narezushi and possibly marinated with rice vinegar. It still had the distinctive smell of narezushi.

The smell of narezushi was likely one of the reasons for shortening and eventually skipping the fermentation process. It is commonly described as “a cross between blue cheese, fish, and rice vinegar”. A story from Konjaku Monogatarishū written in early 12th century makes it clear that it was not an attractive smell, even if it tasted good: In the early 18th century, oshizushi was perfected in Osaka and it came to Edo by the middle of 18th century. These sushi were sold to customers, but because they still required a little fermentation time, stores hung a notice and posters to customers on when to come for a sushi. Sushi was also sold near a park during a hanami period and a theater as a type of Bento. Inarizushi was sold along oshizushi. Makizushi and Chirashizushi also became popular in Edo period.

There were three famous sushi restaurants in Edo, Matsunozushi, Yoheizushi, and Kenukizushi but there were thousands more sushi restaurants. They were established in a span of barely twenty years at the start of the 19th century. Nigirizushi was an instant hit and it spread through Edo like wildfire. In the book Morisadamanko published in 1852, the author writes that for a cho (100 meters by 100 meters or 10,000 square meters) section of Edo there were one or two sushi restaurants, but that only one soba restaurant could be found in 1 or 2 cho. This means that there were nearly 2 sushi restaurants for every soba restaurant.

These early nigirizushi were not identical to today’s varieties. Fish meat was marinated in soy sauce or vinegar or heavily salted so there was no need to dip into soy sauce. Some fish was cooked before it was put onto a sushi. This was partly out of necessity as there were no refrigerators. Each piece was also larger, almost the size of two pieces of today’s sushi.

The advent of modern refrigeration allowed sushi made of raw fish to reach more consumers than ever before. The late 20th century saw sushi gaining in popularity all over the world.

RuSans Kennesaw Sushi

In terms of the history of sushi in the United States, it was first served in the early 1900s following an influx of Japanese immigration after the Meiji Restoration. A wave of Japanophilia in American high society resulted in the serving of sushi at social functions. The earliest published mention of sushi eaten by non-Japanese Americans was a August 18, 1904 article in the Los Angeles Herald about a luncheon served in Santa Monica by the socialite Fern Dell Higgins. The popularity of the dish was at a peak in 1905 when it was served at Japanese-themed social gatherings across the United States, including in mid-western cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, St. Louis, Missouri and Bismarck, North Dakota. Anti-Japanese nativism sentiments and restrictions on Japanese immigration, starting with the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, caused a subsequent decline in the acceptance of Japanese cuisine.

The first American sushi restaurants appeared in the early 1960s, most notably in major metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and New York City. The Kawafuku restaurant in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles, founded in 1966 by Noritoshi Kanai and Harry Wolff, is credited as the first American restaurant “to commercially transport large amounts of fish from Japan, for the purpose of making sushi, on a regular basis.”

The California roll was invented in Los Angeles by substituting a slice of avocado for the seasonal toro (fatty tuna) in a traditional maki roll.

RuSans Kennesaw opened in 2003 specializing in Sushi and seafood.