Pop quiz: Sushi originated in Japan . . . true or false?
If you guessed “true,” you’re wrong. But not to worry, you’re not alone.
Many assume sushi to be as Japanese as sumo or sake, but though it’s popular in modern-day Japan, it actually originated in Southeast Asia.
In fact, sushi remained relatively unknown in Japan until 1923, when the devastation caused by the Great Kanto earthquake forced Tokyo’s sushi chefs to leave the capital in search of work in other parts of the island.
The following is the history of how Japan’s most popular dish rose to fame and the part it plays in the culinary world today.
1) What is Sushi?
Though the definition of sushi has changed over the years, one common misconception is that sushi means raw fish.
Sushi is often made using raw fish, but it also frequently includes cooked fish and vegetables, as well. Raw fish, which is eaten with wasabi and soy sauce, is known in Japan as “sashimi.”
By strict definition, the word “sushi” refers to cold rice that’s been mixed with vinegar, molded into a circular shape and garnished with a piece of seafood or vegetable. What Westerners know as sushi (the rice roll wrapped in dried seaweed) is called “makisushi” and is just one of several different types of sushi.
Inarizushi, for example, isn’t made with seaweed or seafood at all, but instead, consists of a piece of fried tofu stuffed with vinegar-flavored rice.
In Japan, the word for raw fish is “sashimi.” Photo by Lorenia.
Inarizushi, deep-fried tofu filled with vinegar-flavored rice, is one of the many varieties of Japanese sushi. Photo by Laissez Fare.
2) Early Sushi
Though sushi eaters today may find it hard to imagine sushi ever existing without rice, in ancient versions of sushi, the rice was strictly used as a preservative and thrown away prior to the meal.
Beginning in the 4th century AD in Southeast Asia and later in China and Japan, raw fish was salted, wrapped in rice and kept in storage for months at a time. Because the rice would ferment, it helped preserve the fish.
After sushi was introduced to Japan in the 8th century, the Japanese started to use vinegar as a preservative instead of rice, creating a uniquely Japanese version of sushi that is still eaten today.
In earlier variations of sushi, rice was used for preservation purposes only and rarely eaten. Photo by Wikimedia.
3) Sushi: Japan’s First “Fast Food”
Sushi’s next major transformation happened in the 1800s, when it became a popular fast-food option.
A rice ball and a slab of raw fish required very little preparation, making it a popular choice with roadside food vendors. It became one of the few foods considered acceptable to eat-on-the-go and was the food of choice for picnickers or theater-goers.
4) Sushi in the United States
Sushi first began to appear on western menus after the invention of the refrigerator made it possible to transport raw fish, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that sushi became the international superstar it is today.
At first, Americans had a difficult time warming up to the idea that a cut of pink, slimy uncooked fish could be something tasty. That all changed, however, with the creation of the California roll in the 1960s.
Created by a Japanese chef in Los Angeles, this Westernized version of sushi, which uses avocado instead of tuna, was more suited to the American pallet.
The California roll was created in Los Angeles in the 1960s and is the most widely eaten sushi variation in the Western world. Photo by Toastforbrekkie.
Since then, though Americans have come to embrace sushi in its original form, many continue to enjoy interesting sushi hybrids, like the burrito sushi, which is made with jalapenos, and sushi containing mozzarella or fried chicken. There’s even a company that specializes in Poochie Sushi—sushi for dogs!
Sushi variations in the United States have taken on a Mexican flavor with sushi rolls stuffed with jalapenos and Spanish rice. Photo by Galiaxy.
5) The Sultry Side of Sushi
Nyotaimori, or body sushi, is the act of eating sushi off a person’s naked body.
Though it’s touted by some Western establishments as being an art form and a part of Japanese food culture, it’s actually a rare practice in Japan and mostly relegated to seedy clubs.
While some countries’ health laws require the human plates to be wrapped in protective plastic wrap, nyotaimori in its traditional form involves completely shaven nude models.
At body-sushi restaurants, the flesh of fish isn’t the only treat available; diners get to eat sushi off the bodies of naked models. Photo by Halcyon Styn.
6) The Future of Sushi
Concerns about overfishing have put sushi under scrutiny in recent years. Blue-fin tuna, a popular species of tuna used to make sushi, is now becoming endangered, which has led some sushi chefs to use more common types of fish or even meat and poultry instead.
Animal activists have taken this a step farther by attempting to stigmatize sushi-consumption, going as far as equating sushi to ivory.
But with blue-fin tuna selling in Japanese fish markets for upwards of a $100 a pound, it’s unlikely that the tuna demand will lessen any time soon. In fact, with sushi’s popularity on the rise among China’s growing middle-class population, sushi seems to be well . . . on a roll.
Is sushi in danger of extinction? Photo by Scott Hadfield.
Did you guess right in the pop quiz? What’s the weirdest sushi you’ve ever eaten? Let me know in the comments.
If you liked this, you might also like: The Art of Food Seduction.
Main image: Bowl of Sushi by Ichiyusai Hiroshige.