Sushi is derived from the Japanese words ‘Su’ (meaning vinegar) and ‘Meshi’ (meaning rice).
Picture this: You’re in ancient Kyoto, drinking sake with beautiful geishas, while a renowned sushi master prepares the freshest sushi imaginable. Unfortunately the year is 2014 and you’re on your 20-minute lunch break browsing sushi… at your local drugstore.
To understand how that happened we have to go way back, before the 3rd century BC, when Southeast Asians living on the Mekong River discovered that fish both compressed and packed in cooked rice –without any air– could be kept edible for up to a year. This pre-historical sushi was called Nare-zushi – fermented sushi or aged sushi– and began as a method of preservation rather that an actual dish. It is believed to have arrived in Japan between the 7th and 8th century. Back then, Europeans used salt, flour or vinegar to preserve fish –which eventually turned into Bacalhau, Kalkukko and Rollmops.
It’s only because the Japanese really enjoyed the taste of Nare-zushi, that they began to eat the rice, as well as the fish. That savoury taste distinctively represents one of the five basic tastes, together with sweet, sour, bitter and salty, called umami (nothing to do with Ross Geller’s Unagi – which actually means eel in Japanese).
Apparently, they still serve this ancient form of sushi near Kyoto, in Thailand and in Taiwan.
This method persisted until the 15 century, at which point chefs realised that by adding more weight they could reduce the fermentation time to a month (instead of six) – and that it didn’t really need to be fully fermented to taste good. And so Namanare-zushi – or semi-fermented sushi – became the new “it” thing until the 17 century, when the production of rice vinegar rose significantly. Consequently, instead of “namanaring” sushi for a month, chefs would compress layers of rice and fish into a small wooden box for up to two hours, and slice it to look like little sandwiches. This two-hour sushi is called Hako-zushi a.k.a box sushi and is still quite popular today throughout Japan. Sushi chefs have been placing a layer of cooked rice seasoned with rice vinegar (for that umami kick) below a layer of fish, ever since.
When Tokyo was still known as Edo, in the early 19th century, street food was huge. In 1824, a clever stall owner called Yohei Hanaya was the first person to shape vinegar-ed rice with his hands and crown it with a slice of fish. The result was close to the Nigiri-zushi, that we consume today, but not identical as the layer of fish wasn’t completely raw. Pieces were quite thick and almost the size of two pieces of sushi; as we know it today. This new Edomae-zushi (Edo style sushi) was sold to hungry workers or fishermen who got tired of waiting for their two-hour sushi. This first “fast food” sushi-meal became a true working-class dish. At that point, sushi was more 7-eleven than Nobu. But as usual, haute cuisine borrowed a staple from the poor and gave it an extreme makeover.
What now is the most expensive cut of tuna –the fatty belly-meat of bluefin tuna called Otoro and Shimofuri– was considered good only for cat-food until the 1950’s. It only became a delicacy as a result of a Japanese government marketing campaign, which dealt with tuna shortages caused by so called nuclear weapon tests in the Pacific Ocean. Nowadays a single piece of pinky-yellow Shimofuri at Nobu will cost you £6.
After the eruption of an earthquake in 1923, thousands of houses collapsed and land prices fell significantly. This tragedy gave sushi vendors the opportunity to buy rooms, move their carts indoors and relocate all over Japan, while taking the secret of Edomae-zushi with them. When refrigeration arrived in Japan in the 1930’s, it allowed sushi (made from raw fish) to reach more customers than ever before, and slowly turned Edomae into Nigiri-zushi
Believe it or not but Westerners weren’t always big fans of the rawness. Just try to imagine Don Draper getting all excited about eating some raw fish, seaweed and cold rice.
Even though Little Tokyo in Los Angeles has had Japanese restaurants since the 1850’s (which mostly targeted Japanese immigrants), the first ever sushi restaurant in that neighbourhood was Kawafuku Restaurant, which opened in 1966. Their best customers were Japanese businessmen, who brought their American clients in the hopes of impressing them and closing deals. Four years later saw the opening of Osho Restaurant just outside the 20th Century Fox studio, which was the first sushi bar to open up outside of Little Tokyo.
This new type of food was considered low fat, high-protein and expensive – which suited Hollywood perfectly. LA became an American dream for many Japanese chefs eager to make their fortunes and to fast-forward the 10 years of training required in their homeland. But the key moment in sushi’s crossover from native cuisine to global snack was marked by the invention of the California roll.
The Uramaki or Karifounia maki was created in 1973 to substitute the Maki roll made with Toro (fatty tuna), at Los Angeles’s Tokyo Kaikan restaurant (which still exists) by a chef called Ichiro Manashita. Since the tuna fish was seasonal, he’d replace it with avocado whenever he’d ran out. The idea to turn the roll inside-out only came afterwards, when the number of Gaijin (non-Japanese) customers increased. They disliked the texture of the dry seaweed, which was consequently hidden on the inside. A new star was born. Since the rise and shine of this 50-year-old modern tale, an endless number of western ingredients like cream cheese, foie gras and deep-fried rolls made their way onto the market. Sushi chefs in Japan find all types of Uramaki chaotic and most of them are very hard to find in the land of the rising sun. So it’s really a “Jiro dreams of sushi” vs. “Samantha Jones dreams of sushi” type of situation.The concept of Nyotaimori, (where sushi or sashimi is served on a female – sometimes male – model) was first mentioned by a writer in the Edo Period (17th-19th Century), who ate sashimi from the most intimate areas of a prostitute. If this were to happen in Japan nowadays, it would probably be in sad sex clubs or gangster events.
Sushi took its time to get to Europe. Most Europeans who started eating sushi in the Seventies had their first taste in Manhattan, Sydney or San Francisco. The first sushi restaurant to open in Europe was the Ajimura, which opened in London in 1974. It’s only in the early eighties that the little shiny canapés really started to appear as party food at business gatherings. When the first European conveyor-belt sushi restaurant opened in 1994 (the idea came from Yoshiaki Shiraisha, in 1958 while observing beer bottles on a conveyor belt at the Asahi beer factory), sushi became the perfect lunch choice for the busy executive: compact, healthy and stylish. Since then an endless number of sushi chains have appeared. Yo! Sushi, Itsu, Sushi Shop, Kura, Planet Sushi, Wasabi: you name it. Even Chinese restaurants in Paris have turned Japanese. Everyone has become calorie conscious, which made eating sushi fashwun. Before we knew it, this trend created a whole new phenomenon and supermarkets were forced to notice it, and introduce lines of hard claggy rice, brown avocado and mushy crabstick.
After having survived 2500 years of change, sushi now faces its greatest challenge to date: the catastrophic decline of its raw ingredient. At the end of the day, real sushi will remain for the rich while “Street” or “fast” sushi will increasingly feature what the industry calls “seafood analogues” (an imitation of fish).
You may want to think twice before you pick up that box. It may leave your pockets empty, but the real deal is an unbeatable treat.
On how to eat sushi in Japan
Never ask for the menu
Don’t ask for a spoon for your soup, but drink it out of the bowl
Use the back of your chopsticks when taking food from a shared plate
Sushi can be eaten with your hands
Never mix wasabi in your soy sauce, but place it on the sushi
Dip the topping, rather than the rice, into the soy sauce
Ginger is used as a palate cleanser between different types of fish. Do not eat it with the sushi!
Traditionally, egg omelette sushi is eaten at the end to calm the palette and settle the stomach
Never pay the chef directly