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It would be odd to say that anyone “invented” eating raw fish. Surely bears, sharks, penguins, and otters can stake an earlier claim than humans. And yet far too many of us think that the Japanese specialty, sushi, which is now known and enjoyed worldwide, think of it only in terms of eating raw fish with rice. Some might not even associate it with “cooking,” assuming incorrectly that cooking requires the transformation of a raw material into a somehow heat-processed one, before consuming. But in this month’s installment of our Cooking the Classics series, we’ll seek to correct these misconceptions, and shed some light on the history of sushi, before trying to prepare some at home.
THE HISTORY OF SUSHI
Sushi, as we know it today, is at least as old as the 9th century, having originated in Japan first as a method of preserving fish by wrapping it in fermented rice (with only the fish then consumed), then using fresh fish that was gently cooked, like ceviche, in an acid (vinegar or soy sauce), and finally actually eating fish that is truly raw, as fresh as possible, on a mound of rice that is not fermented but spiced with vinegar. The earliest form of sushi, called narezushi, likely began in Southeast Asia, but reached Japan in the early 8th century—there is a 718 document, the Yoro Code, that refers to “sushi,” though we can’t be sure what that “sushi” actually looked like.
Narezushi was a preservation method that wound up tasting good, much like the air-drying of pork leg turned into the specialty prosciutto, or cod dehydrated in salt to make it last months became a favorite when rehydrated, as baccalà. Uncooked fish, wrapped in fermented rice, could last months without spoiling, but you wouldn’t want to eat the fermented rice with it. It also may not have tasted all that good, and probably smelled pretty funky. It was during the Muromachi period in Japan (the late 14th century to the late 16th century) that a new type of sushi came into use, namanare, This is really sushi as we know it: a mound of unfermented rice with fresh fish draped over it. It was about flavor, not a means of preservation. The Edo period, starting in 1603, saw another step forward: adding spices to the rice and fish. Haya-zushi saw rice mixed with vinegar for flavor, with fish and vegetables added to it and consumed all together. This type of sushi is still available, but there is one further step in the evolution of sushi that owes it origin to one man: Hanaya Yohei.
THE INVENTOR OF NIGIRI
Hanaya (1799-1858) is credited with having invented nigiri sushi (hand-formed), the preferred Tokyo-style, and what we see in action in films like the mesmerizing documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, where we see sushi-making as a Zen art form. But Hanaya was as concerned then as we would be today about not giving his customers food poisoning, particularly before the invention of the refrigerator (this is always a good tactic for a restaurateur, regardless of which century you work in). He briefly sautéed his fish, or marinated it in an acid, to lightly “cook” it. He also popularized tuna marinated in soy sauce, still the world’s most popular type of sushi. He served slices of fish on balls of rice, the size of large meatballs (much larger than we would expect today), that were spiced with vinegar. During Hanaya’s career, sushi stands began to pop up in Tokyo. When an earthquake devastated the city in 1923, displaced chefs spread throughout Japan, bringing their techniques with them. Sushi only made its way to the United States in the 1960s, with the Kawafuku restaurant in LA credited as the first in the country.