All over the world, you can find restaurants serving Japan’s greatest cultural export: sushi.
While many people enjoy sushi, most people have no idea of the origins of sushi beyond the fact that it comes from Japan.
There is also a great deal of confusion about what proper sushi etiquette is and what constitutes real sushi.
Learn more about the history of sushi and the global sushi industry on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Many people would be surprised to find out that sushi’s earliest origins aren’t actually in Japan but most probably in China.
Somewhere in Southern China or Southeast Asia, there developed a technique for the preservation of fish during the rainy season. Fish would be pickled in barrels along with salt and rice.
When the fish was later unpacked for consumption, the rice, which served as packing material, was usually thrown away, and the fish was consumed separately. The rice that was thrown out wasn’t anything that looked like rice after the fermentation process. It was more of a slime at this point.
This fermented fish was known as narezushi.
It was considered a delicacy precisely because the rice was thrown away, making it a luxury. This fish was nothing like the fish served with modern sushi.
Narezushi first appeared in Chinese written records in the 4th century.
Sometime in the 8th century, pickled fish crossed the sea and arrived in Japan.
Over several centuries, the tastes of the Japanese changed, and they began removing the fish from the pickling barrel earlier and consuming it with the rice it was packed with. This became known as namanari.
This might have been a matter of preferring the taste of partially fermented fish or just consuming it in such as way as not to waste the rice.
The change was recorded between the mid-14th century and the mid-16th century.
Around the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there was a huge change in Japanese diets. Most people began eating a third midday meal, boiling became more popular than steaming, and most importantly, vinegar became added to the list of common cooking ingredients.
The beginnings of something you might recognize as sushi began during the Edo period, which took place from the early 17th century to the mid-19th century.
A new style of consumption developed known as hayazushi or fast sushi.
The big difference between hayazushi and the previous narezushi was the use of vinegar.
Hayazushi was not fermented and didn’t contain the lactic acid from fermentation but rather acetic acid from vinegar. This completely changed the taste and also made it much quicker to produce.
The new tradition of a midday meal combined with the faster preparation time made this food style very popular across Japan.
The modern form of sushi, which is known as nigiri sushi, was developed in 1820 by a Tokyo chef named Hanaya Yohei.
While this bore a resemblance to modern sushi, and he did coin the name nigiri sushi, there were several major differences.
For starters, the vinegar rice ball served with the fish was much larger than the amount of rice served today.
Second, the fish wasn’t totally raw. In the early 19th century, there still was no refrigeration, so food spoilage was still an issue. Hanaya would usually lightly cook the fish or marinate the fish in either vinegar or soy sauce.
The fish was fresh but couldn’t be refrigerated or frozen once caught and taken from the fish market, because…..19th century.
Here I should note something that often confuses people. The word “sushi” doesn’t refer to fish. Sushi refers to the vinegar-infused rice that fish is served with. So, while sushi is more often than not served with fish, it isn’t the fish that makes sushi, sushi.
After Hanaya, nigiri sushi spread quickly throughout Edo, or what is today Tokyo. In 1852, one writer noted that you could find two nigiri restaurants for every one soba noodle restaurant.
During this period, another type of sushi developed. In the mid-18th century a sheet form of edible seaweed was developed. Known as nori, it led to the development of fish and rice rolled up inside the seaweed sheets. These rolls of nori became known as maki sushi.
Throughout the 19th century, sushi in Japan was basically the equivalent of fast food. It wasn’t a high-end dining experience. It was something fast and cheap that you could get from a neighborhood sushi stand.
As I alluded to before, refrigeration was one of the biggest technical innovations that changed the world of sushi. Refrigeration and freezing allowed fish to remain fresh for much longer periods of time.
This meant cooking or marinating fish was no longer necessary before it was placed on the sushi rice. It was really refrigeration that allowed for the form of sushi that we know today. It also allowed for the eventual global popularity of sushi.
While sushi was popular in Japan, it wasn’t really known anywhere else. Japan was closed to the rest of the world until the Meiji Restoration, on which I did a previous episode.
Even as Japan opened up to the rest of the world, sushi wasn’t something that caught on anywhere else.
It was the migration of Japanese outside of Japan that brought sushi to the rest of the world.
One of the first countries outside of Japan where sushi restaurants could be found was the United States. The first recorded sushi restaurant in the US was in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1906.
Japanese culture became a fad in the United States in the early 20th century, and sushi was often served at high-class events where the people throwing the event wanted to appear trendy.
However, this was rather short-lived as the United States and Japan agreed to stop Japanese immigrants into the country after 1907.
With the outbreak of the second world war, almost all Japanese restaurants in the country, the vast majority of which were in California, were forced to close.
After the war, sushi began to appear again in Japanese communities around the world. Decades after the war ended, well into the 1980s, sushi was still a relatively obscure Japanese food you had to go out of your way to get.
In major cities such as Los Angels or Vancouver, you probably could only find a small number of sushi restaurants, and the vast majority of people around the world probably had never heard of sushi, let alone tried it.
Nonetheless, the few sushi restaurants during this period began to innovate on their own. The California roll was developed, not surprisingly, in California. The roll’s origin is disputed as several sushi chefs claim to have invented it.
It simply replaced fatty tuna, known as toro, with avocado in a maki sushi roll with crab and cucumber. The first mention of a California Roll appeared in print in 1979, and it soon found its way back to Japan and on sushi menus there.
One of the things which really kick-started a revival in Japanese cuisine was the 1980 television miniseries Sh?gun. It was shot on location in Japan with Japanese actors and was a ratings hit.
Innovations such as the California roll and the spicy tuna roll, invented in the early 80s in Los Angeles, made sushi more palatable for Americans. Once they got in the door, however, they soon discovered just how great sushi was.
Further American innovations, such as rainbow rolls and Philadelphia rolls, further modified sushi for western tastes.
Today, sushi is a huge global business. You can find sushi restaurants in most countries and in most major cities around the world. The entire global sushi industry today is estimated to be close to $100 billion, with most of the industry located in the Asia/Pacific region.
While sushi has become global and popular, there are some quirks about the industry and the etiquette of eating sushi that many people are not aware of.
One of the first deals with the legendary fish known as fugu, or pufferfish.
Pufferfish has glad inside of it, which produces tetrodotoxin. Tetrodotoxin can be very lethal if consumed.
There are specialty restaurants in Japan that serve fugu. However, sushi chefs who serve fugu must be specially licensed by the Japanese government, requiring three years of training.
Deaths are very rare but not unheard of, and according to legend, the Emperor of Japan is not allowed to eat fugu. I’ve personally never tried fugu nor had the opportunity, but if it is something that strikes your fancy, I’d never ever ever try eating it outside of Japan.
One question that many people have is, what is the proper way to eat sushi? Are you supposed to use chopsticks, or are you supposed to use your hands?
The answer is, that either is fine. I’ve been to high-end sushi restaurants in Japan, and I’ve seen people do both. Personally, I use my hands for eating nigiri and maki sushi, and I’ll use chopsticks for any special roll with something on the outside or if I’m eating sashimi, which is raw fish.
A piece of nigiri, or any piece of a roll which is cut, it designed to be put into your mouth whole. So, eating just half of it in one bite would be considered bad etiquette.
When you enter many sushi restaurants, the chefs will often shout Irasshaimase! This basically means “welcome” in Japanese.
You aren’t obligated to say anything in return, but if you want to impress them with some Japanese, the proper response would be ‘Ojama shimasu’, which means “I’m sorry for disturbing you.”
If you ever try to make your own sushi, be aware that you can really only make sushi out of saltwater fish. Freshwater fish have bacteria in them, which requires them to be cooked before consumption. This is why you never see sushi made out of smallmouth bass or trout.
If you visit a sushi restaurant, unless you are with a large group, I always recommend sitting at the bar rather than at a table. If you sit at the bar, you can start up a discussion with the chef.
If you find the sushi chef to be good, you can order a dish Omakase, which means “entrust” in Japanese. You basically let the chef serve you whatever they want.
If you were to visit a super ultra high-end sushi restaurant, the entire menu is omakase. You eat what you are served, and most probably, the only seats in the restaurant are at the bar.
How can you tell if you are eating at a quality sushi restaurant? Having eaten sushi all over the world and all over Japan, here are three things I personally look for. Very few restaurants will have all three of these things.
First is amaebi, also known as sweet shrimp. This will be the most common item you’ll find, but the top restaurants will also serve the heads of the sweet shrimp deep-fried. They are quite crunchy and tasty.
The second is ankimo, or monkfish liver. This is fantastic and often served with daikon radish, but it is very hard to find, and most places will not have it on their menu.
The third thing is if they serve tobiko or ikura. This is flying fish roe and salmon roe, respectively. Many restaurants will have this. What will set a restaurant apart is if they have the option of serving it with a raw quail egg.
Just because a sushi restaurant doesn’t have these things on the menu doesn’t make it bad, but I’ve always found that if they do, they are probably very good.
I’ll end by making one other suggestion. If you ever happen to find yourself in Tokyo, I’d make a special trip to the Toyosu Fish Market. This is the world’s largest fish market, and it is where almost every sushi restaurant in town goes early in the morning to buy fish.
You have to wake up really early, or stay up really late as I did, but it will be an experience unlike anything else. I had the pleasure of visiting the old Tsukiji market, which the new Toyosu Market replaced.
They also have several sushi restaurants right on site, and you can have some of the freshest breakfast sushi in the world.
If you also just happen to be there in the first week of the year, you might catch the new year’s tuna auction, which is known for regularly setting records for the world’s most expensive fish.
The current record is over $3,000,000 dollars set in 2019 for a 278 kilogram or 612-pound bluefin tuna.
Sushi is unique among world cuisines. It mostly involves food that isn’t cooked, yet training to become a sushi chef can be far more demanding.
Sushi isn’t just a food, however. It is an art form that is designed to delight all of the senses, as well as allow you to take part in a centuries-old Japanese cultural experience.