The Birth of Modern Sushi

What we know today as sushi is only the latest incarnation of sushi – you can find out about the history of sushi here. It was not until the Edo period (1603-1868) that what we recognise as sushi today became popular in Japan, complete with little boxes filled with nigirizushi, sold on the street by vendors. Find out more from sushi veteran Masayoshi Kazato.

From nigirizushi to street stalls: the birth of modern sushi

Sushi seller in the Edo period. (based on an illustration in ‘Fuzoku-Gahon’: with thanks to Mizkan Group Co., Ltd.)

By Masayoshi Kazato

Nigirisushi experienced a boom from the beginning of the 19th century, but at the same time, many regions of the country were going through a famine. Nigirisushi was of course made with rice, and it was popular as a luxury food, but also in more frugal times because the rice was eaten, not discarded. Other forms of sushi such as Narezushi and hakozushi, were still being enjoyed. At that time, sushi was bought from street sellers who carried their sushi in boxes. However, over the years, street stalls began to appear where people gathered to buy and eat their sushi on the spot. One particular street stall in Edo became famous for its sushi: for this was where Hanaya Yohei gained his reputation, by selling his nigirizushi in little sushi boxes.

In 1870, the Edo period of the Tokugawa Shogunate gave way to the imperial period of Meiji and the country opened up to foreign culture. By the end of the Edo period, sushi restaurants had mushroomed, but with Meiji came the advent of the railways, and sushi appeared in railway station bento boxes. During this time, narezushi evolved to become a rural dish and regional recipes using local ingredients developed throughout the country. Whilst nigirizushi was gaining popularity throughout Kanto, In Kansai, other forms of sushi such as makizushi (rolled sushi) and hakozushi (also known as oshizushi), were being sold. However, nigirizushi, predominantly a dish prepared and eaten on the spot, gradually spread to the rest of the country. Makizushi is also found in places such as the Korean peninsula, a legacy from the period of Japanese territorial occupation.

Sushi Stall in the Edo period
Varieties of sushi from late Edo / early Meiji period (based on printings by Gyokusho Kawabata: with thanks to Mizkan Group Co., Ltd.)

It is important to remember that the reason for the rising popularity of nigirizushi in Japan lies without doubt in the quality of raw ingredients the country offers. It is about selecting ingredients at their seasonal best, about bringing out and appreciating their natural taste rather than adding flavourings. Eating sashimi is to enjoy raw fish at its natural best; to make sushi is to lay a piece of sashimi on a bed of vinegared rice. Naturally, since sushi also involved raw fish, it needed to be kept absolutely fresh and its preparation required special skills and knowledge. It was not something anyone could do. However, with the 1960s came the invention of the refrigerator and raw fish became easier to preserve. As a result, using slices of raw fish on nigirizushi became more and more widespread.

In many other countries, sushi is often thought of as simply a piece of raw fish on a bed of rice and other original and easy to prepare forms of sushi have developed. Whilst this worldwide appreciation of sushi is very pleasing, it can also sometimes lead to danger. This is because harmful bacteria reside in all fish, and the fish itself has undergone excessive preparation, and travelled from kitchen to plate and to the consumer’s palate in its raw state.

Translation: Elizabeth Aveling
Illustration: 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.