The history of sushi in Japan starts from the period when rice cultivation came to Japan, some 2,000 years ago.
The original type of sushi was first developed in Nara as a means of preserving fish in fermented rice.
Like some cuisines in Japan, the sushi incorporated many foreign influences. Most of these dishes don’t even have a hint of the original influential cuisine since they have evolved into entirely different recipes through hundreds of years.
The Edomae sushi (Edo style sushi; Edo is the old name of Tokyo), or plain “sushi” known to the world today, is a combination of vinegar flavored rice and the Japanese sashimi. All the original ingredients were local to the Edo bay, or the present Tokyo bay.
Sushi is often confused with raw fish and rice. This is correct if referring to the Edo style sushi,but originally, sushi was a term for fermented meat or fish, which was prepared for the sole purpose of preservation.
It is believed that sushi has its roots in Southeast Asia where fish and meat were salted, then fermented for long periods oftime. Records of similar methods of fermented fish are first seen in Chinese scriptures in the 2nd century. It also seemed that it wasn’t the most popular dish at the time. This type of sushi is documented in Japan in the 7th century.
It was later in the Heian period or during the 10th century when uncooked rice was stuffed inside the fish after they were gutted, and cleaned with sake or Japanese rice wine, before they were fermented. A fresh water fish such as carp was often used for this type of sushi, and was called the nare sushi (ripe sushi). The rice aided in the fermentation process and made it quicker to prepare than the original sushi. The rice was discarded after the fermentation was complete (a period of 2 to 3 months depending on the season) and only the fish was consumed.
During the Muromachi Period, or 15th century, the nare sushi began to divide into two types, the hon nare (true ripe) and namanare (raw ripe, or pre-ripe). The hon nare is the original version of the sushi which began its roots in the 10th century. The nama nare is the same type of sushi, but it is consumed prematurely. This way the rice stuffed inside the fish to aid the fermentation process became somewhat edible. The nama nare sushi is distinct from the hon nare in a way that it has a more pleasant sour taste. Eventually the nama nare became more popular for its quicker preparation and it’s extra side dish, the fermented rice which had a mild tangy flavor to it.
About a hundred years later, vinegar was beginning to be added to cut the preparation time even further. This way, only minimal time was required for fermentation, since vinegar was added later to artificially create the tangy taste. This was not done just to cut time and cost for hon nare or naresushi production.It was actually more favorable to people, since nare sushi in general has a very pungent smell, and was not widely appreciated by many, even though it was (and still is) considered a delicacy.
From here on, less and less fermentation was required to create nare sushi, and eventually a new type of sushi using only fresh vinegar and cooked rice began to evolve. This began a trend of new types of sushi being evolved in local areas, such as the Osaka style sushi, Oshi sushi, chirashi sushi and nuku sushi just to mention a few. All of these are still popular in Japan.
Although sashimi or slices of raw fish were consumed in Japan for centuries, it was not until between 1827 and 1829 when sushi and raw fish were first combined. This became what is known as the Edo style sushi.This is the sushi widely known to the world today. It was initially created as an inexpensive fast food to cater the busy streets of Edo,and proved to be a success from the beginning. The vinegar rice resembling the naturally fermented sushi rice helped the sashimi from spoiling too quickly, and the fast preparation made it ideal for such a business.
History of sushi took a new turn when during the late 1970’s, Japanese businesses started expanding to the United States,and more and more sushi restaurants opened to serve the Japanese business men living locally. Besides catering to the local Japanese, sushi chefs in the United States tried hard to introduce sushi to Americans, but it was difficult to persuade people to try eating raw fish. Soon, the California roll was invented, and sparked a new trend towards fusion sushi. The California roll was the perfect introductory sushi for people unfamiliar to raw fish. More and more Westerners started to eat raw fish and many adaptations were made to the Edo style sushi to adapt with western culture.
The history of sushi is very long, and the interesting thing about it is that the sushi evolves through time. Without the advice and comments of Western customers, it would have been difficult for a conservative sushi chef in Japan to create all the new types of sushi that are now made today. Some things which were considered taboo in the Edo style sushi tradition actually turned out to be very good.
At the present,the tradition of sushi has spread world wide, and is in the fusion style sushi, or American style sushi phase. It has been this way for almost 20 years and is starting to level off at its peak (as a culinary evolution), since there has really been no revolutionary “breakthrough’s”like the California roll. Many new rolls are seen here and there, but they are only different combinations of existing ingredients with different names given to them.
Fusion or American style sushi is more of a new versatile attitude towards sushi, and once again, it has been proved to be an evolving cuisine. It will be interesting to wait and see what the next trend in sushi will be like.