This Thursday (June 18) is International Sushi Day-and we’re betting you didn’t even realize that it was a thing. This event was launched in 2009 as an announcement via Facebook. As this day is comming close, our team at Gastro_IC decided to do a couple of blogs about sushi and what better way to start than illutrative history.
Here we will break down five evolutionary stages of sushi throughout history.
First generation: Nare sushi
Originated: 3rd century B.C. in Southern China
Preparation time: 1 year
Where to find it today: Regions near Lake Biwa
This first generation of sushi involved an intensive fermentation process. While documentation of this practice is sparse, the character for pickled fish with salt, si (鮨), appeared in the Chinese dictionary as early as the 3rd to 5th century B.C. Then in the 2nd century A.D., the character sa (鮓) appeared, which translates to pickled fish with salt and rice. This created the foundation for sushi. The fish of choice was usually carp, and it would be cleaned out, rubed with salt and pickled in a wooden barrel for a few months. Then after that, the salt would be scraped off and then the belly would be stuffed with rice. Dozens of rice-stuffed fish would be packed in a wooden barrel and then weighed down with a heavy stone. The fish would sit for a year before being cracked open for consumption and this practice spread to Japan but eventually went out of vogue in China after northern nomadic tribes invaded and ruled the area.
Second generation: Han-Nare sushi
Originated: Before the 14th century in Japan
Preparation time: 1-4 weeks
Where to find it today: Wakayama
The only difference between the process of making han-nare and nare-sushi is the fermentation time. Instead of a year, the barrels would be cracked open within the month and instead of discarding the rice, people would actually eat it with the fish. Also, the rice had a sour taste to it because of the presence of lactic acid and people began to appreciate the taste of it, most likely because the vinegar industry had exploded in Japan in the 13th century.
Third generation: Haya-Nare sushi
Originated: 14th-18th century Japan
Preparation time: Hours to a couple of days
Where to find it today: Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Toyama
By the 18th century, the process of sushi-making shortened dramatically, taking only a couple of days compared to the year long process of prior generations. Instead of waiting for lactic acid to naturally develop on the rice, people started to add vinegar to mimic the sourness. The rice would be packed underneath slices of cured or cooked fish, then pressed with a wooden box for hours (sometimes days) at a time. Fish still had to be treated, and it was done either through pickling, curing or just simply cooking it. Every prefecture developed its own style of box-pressed sushi. In Kansai, they used kombu (kelp) to cook the rice, and seasoned it with vinegar and sugar, in Nara, people used persimmon leaves to wrap the sushi and in Toyama, they used bamboo leaves. Also, adding sugar to the rice was a common practice to preserve the longevity of the sushi.
Fourth generation: Edu-Mae sushi
Originated: 19th century to early 20th century in Edo (modern-day Tokyo)
Preparation time: Within a few hours to half a day
Where to find it today: Tokyo
The fourth generation of sushi developed in modern-day Tokyo. Because Edo (the former name of Tokyo) was really dense, they often dealt with fires. They’d appear every several years. To extinguish the flames and stop them from spreading, they would have to knock down all the houses. As a result, hordes of blue-collar workers flocked to the street to help with the rebuilding process and that’s how the culture of street food in Japan started. People would use fish from the Edo bay, quickly cure it, and serve it over packed vinegar-seasoned rice. They used to discard fatty tuna on the fields for fertilizers since there wasn’t a way to properly treat these cuts (because there wasn’t refrigeration). The first varieties of Edo-mae sushi were also three times bigger than modern-day sushi slices and with time the portion sizes got smaller and smaller.
Fifth generation: Modern-day sushi
Originated: 20th century
Preparation time: Instant
Where to find it today: Global
The invention of refrigeration in the 20th century changed the sushi scene forever. This is when raw fish slices over rice came into vogue and sushi morphed from a humble food into a luxury experience. In Japan, eating sushi is usually reserved for special occasions. Soon sushi began to spread globally and in the 1960s, the United States came up with its own rendition: the inside-out roll, which was invented in Los Angeles, followed by conveyor-belt sushi, which peaked in the 1980s.