Sushi History

Where did sushi come from?

The first thing to realise is that “sushi” doesn’t mean “raw fish”. It actually refers to a dish of vinegared rice served with various fillings and toppings, which may include raw fish. Sushi was originally invented as a means of preservation, when fermented rice was used to store fish for anything up to a year. This was known as narezushi, and in fact the rice was thrown away and only the fish consumed. A later variant called namanarezushi, invented in the 16th century, introduced the idea of using vinegared rice, which was consumed instead of being thrown away, and this is still enjoyed today, particularly in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto. Find out more from sushi veteran Masayoshi Kazato.

The History of Sushi

By Masayoshi Kazato

Sushi is said to have originated in China between the 5th and the 3rd centuries BC, as a means of preserving fish in salt. Narezushi, the original form of sushi, has been made in South East Asia for centuries, and nowadays, there are still traces of it in some parts. Narezushi appeared in Japan in the 8th century, and still survives today in the form of foods such as carp sushi. Narezushi was primarily a means of food preservation, and each Japanese region developed its own version. In those days sushi was eaten during feast days and festivals, and was also an integral part of the celebration. Generally speaking, narezushi was made of rice and fish pickled together, mixed with rice vinegar and sake, laid under a large stone to prevent decay and left to ferment. However, the rice was used primarily to encourage fermentation, and was discarded so that only the fish was eaten.

Izushi, which is found in Hokkaido and Tohoku, is also a form ofnarezushi, whereby rice is mixed with yeast, topped with fish and vegetables such as radish, sprinkled with sake and wrapped in a bamboo leaf, then placed under a heavy stone to set. This sushi is similar in taste toasazuke (pickle) and is not usually a strong smelling dish; the rice melts away leaving the fermented fish, and it appeals to people who are not familiar with this kind of food.

Sushi Stall in the Edo period
Sushi stall in the Edo period (based on an Ukiyoe by Hiroshige Kitagawa: with thanks to Mizkan Group Co., Ltd.)

Vinegar, which is indispensable to sushi, was first made in Mesopotamia, around 5000 years BC. Rice vinegar processing came over from China to Japan around the 4th or 5th centuries together with wine-making. Rice vinegar, such as the widely available Mizkan Rice Vinegar, first came to the Izumi region, south of Osaka, and Izumi vinegar, as it was known, was made until the Edo period. During the Heian period, the Japanese also made wine and fruit vinegars. Sushi sprinkled with sake or rice vinegar had been in existence for a long time, but because making narezushi was a lengthy process, in the Edo period, people began to make vinegar from the lees of sake. Mixed in with rice, this became a popular dish, and thus spread the custom of sprinkling vinegar on rice to make nigirizushi.

Nigirizushi first appeared in 1800, but was different from the bite-size nigirizushi we are used to today. At that time, a piece of raw fish was laid on a bed of vinegared rice the size of a rice ball. Nigirizushi became known as Edomaezushi because it was made with seafood caught from the bay near Edo (today known as Tokyo), and Hanaya Yohei is still recognised as its creator.

Translation by Elizabeth Aveling
Illustration by Takayuki Ishikawa

Masayoshi KazatoMasayoshi Kazato

Masayoshi Kazato has worked as a sushi chef for more than fifty years. At the age of twenty, he travelled around Japan and settled in Hokkaido, where he began his career as a sushi chef. He opened his first sushi bar aged 26, and his current establishment, Sakae-zushi, is highly regarded throughout Japan, attracting customers in droves.

Chef Kazato is devoted to introducing sushi and training chefs in countries all over the world, including the US, Germany, the Czech Republic and the UK. He is Executive Director of the All-Japan Sushi Association and Executive Director of the AJSA Sushi Skills Institute. Chef Kazato has collaborated with Eat-Japan to create the SUSHI: Key Skills and Basic Techniques e-book, available here, which covers the core techniques needed to make safe, delicious and authentic sushi.