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
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.
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
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.
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
Customers shared communal a bowls of pickled ginger
and soy sauce and wiped their hands on curtain hung
A sure sign of a good sushi stand was a filthy curtain
as this showed that more hungry diners had eaten there.
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.