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The simple definition of sushi is "Vinegared rice with a filling or topping of raw, cooked, or marinated fish, shellfish, vegetables, or egg." It is eaten as a snack, as an appetizer, or as a main course and comes in many different forms, from bowls of rice scattered with fish and vegetables to rolled, pressed, and hand-formed sushi. A part from its appeal as a delicious health food, sushi is exquisitely and often artistically presented.
In Japan, sushi is an everyday food. It began as a way of preserving fish and grew to popularity to becoming the nation's iconic cuisine, not only in sushi bars, but also at home where it is prepared and eaten by the whole family.
 

Sushi's arrival in Japan
No one knows exactly when sushi was invented, but fish was being pickled with rice in Southeast Asia as early as the 5th century BC. Some say that sushi came to Japan with the introduction of rice cultivation in the 4th century BC, while others believe that the practice was brought back by Buddhist priests returning from China after their training in the 7th century AD. The two Chinese characters for sushi, meaning "preserved fish" and " fish fermented in rice and salt," first appeared in Japan at the beginning of the 8th century AD.
Fish preserved in rice was sent to the land-bound capital of Kyoto as a form of tax payment. This early form of sushi, nare zushi, made from carp and rice packed into layers and fermented for up to a year, can still be found today. Something of an acquired taste, it is best described as a mixture of very mature Camembert cheese and Thai fish sauce.

 
Changes in culinary culture
By the middle of the 15th century, rice was being boiled rather than steamed and lunch had been introduced. The Japanese were now eating three meals a day.
Then at the beginning of 17th century, the new government moved from the ancient imperial capital city of Kyoto to Edo [now Tokyo]. With the establishment of powerful political and social structure came an increasing food production and more rice was grown.
The increased rice production led to the wider use of other rice products such as rice vinegar. Instead of letting rice ferment naturally and produce lactic acid, rice vinegar was added to it took to prepare sushi from several days to just a few hours.
However sushi was still pressed in a box and fish was marinated and boiled or grilled, not eaten raw.
 

Nigiri zushi - the first fast food
Yohei Hanaya, who set up a sushi stand in Edo in early 1800s, is widely credited with being the inventor of the nigiri zushi, or hand-form sushi, that we know today. He was the first chef to squeeze vinegared rice in to a ball and top it with a slice of raw fish. Although the addition of rice vinegar had reduced preparation time, sushi chefs still made traditional pressed sushi, which took some time to make. The resident of Edo were notoriously impatient, so Yohei's newly invented Nigiri zushi, which took only a minutes to prepare, soon caught on.
World War Two further boosted the popularity of nigiri zushi. Food rationing prevented sushi shop from operating nomally. When Allied occupation authorities issued directions allowing the exchange of one cup of rice for 10 pieces of nigiri zushi, they did not include any other type of sushi.
To keep his shop open, the sushi chef was forced to make hand-made sushi.

 

The disappearance of sushistands
It was about this time that sushi stands began to disappear completely. Stores served mainly to-go customers during the day while stands were familiar features on Tokyo street corners in the evening. They were hauled into their allotted place and often strategically positioned to catch hungry men on their way back from public bathhouses.
Customers shared communal a bowls of pickled ginger and soy sauce and wiped their hands on curtain hung behind them.
A sure sign of a good sushi stand was a filthy curtain as this showed that more hungry diners had eaten there.

 
Sushi today
Sushi has come a long way since its origin as a mean of preserving fish. Today it has won recognition as the world healthiest fast food.