The History of Sushi:
A Quest for Speed
EMG Sushi Show Notes
Sushi has grown from being a subsection of Japanese cuisine to being perhaps Japan’s most famous global export. It is now a huge business and is sold in outlets ranging from fine dining establishments to convenience stores. Quite a story for a dish that was originally created to preserve fish before refrigeration.
In this episode, our host, Simon Majumdar, follows the path of sushi’s rise from the origins of preservation in the Mekong to its arrival in the West. Oh, and he even looks at the thorny issue of who invented the California Roll.
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EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
THE HISTORY OF SUSHI: A QUEST FOR SPEED
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi everybody. I’m Simon Majumdar, and welcome to “EAT MY GLOBE: A Podcast About Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.”
In June 2007, I found myself awake, but bleary eyed, at 4 am in Japan. I had been instructed by my guide to meet them at the entrance to a metro station adjacent to one of the world’s great food locations: Tokyo’s legendary Tsukiji Fish Market.
In its present form, this world-famous market has been open since 1935, and every morning, nearly 900 fish and seafood wholesale businesses, hundreds of associated businesses and dozens of restaurants run their operations from this location. As of 2016, commercial operations were worth an estimated 2 billion Yen -- or about $18 million -- a day.
At the time of my first visit, tourists were quite free to move around the market at will, get up close and personal with the fish and seafood on offer, as well as being able to stake a prime place to view the famous tuna auction, which began at a little after 5 am. It was an experience that, as a food lover, will stay with me for the rest of my life, watching as experienced auctioneers and bidders sang their way through the hectic sales in a fashion that made no sense to the uninitiated but had been taking place in the same way for decades.
The market has all changed now, mainly due to the huge problems caused by non-Japanese speaking tourists, who got in the way of the tuna bidding as they took pictures and touched the fish. On a subsequent visit, I was shepherded through the market by very strict official guides and had to fight my way through dozens of other early morning risers to get a view of the auction. It was definitely not the same experience as before. However, one thing did remain just as I remembered it, and that was the post tour meal.
As I mentioned, at the beginning of the podcast, Tsukiji market is surrounded not only by associated businesses, but also by streets of small restaurants that provide welcome breakfast sustenance after such an early start to the day. These could be bowls of “Unadon” -- steamed rice topped with eel, “Aji” -- dried horse mackerel with rice and pickles, or my own favorite, an indulgent meal of sushi with fish that had been purchased from the market that morning.
Like the view of the auction itself, eating sushi at a restaurant adjacent to Tsukiji is an experience not to be forgotten. However, it would be fair to say that eating a great meal of sushi anywhere is something that ranks pretty high on my list of “go to” meals.
And, that’s not just true for me. Sushi, despite being an element of cuisine that still remains somewhat reserved for special occasions in its native land of Japan, has become one of the biggest culinary exports to the west, and particularly to the United States of America.
The sushi industry, for that is what it’s become, in the United States is now worth over $3 billion annually and employs nearly 25,000 people in over 3,500 businesses. In part, this is because of the move of sushi from only being found in high-end restaurant settings, to a food staple that can be found not only in restaurants around the world, but has now become ubiquitous as a snack staple. Sushi, admittedly of very varying qualities, can be found in convenience stores, college commissaries, airport food outlets and on supermarket shelves. Heck, I have even seen it for sale at cinemas, where at least I guess, it would be quiet to eat.
So, how did Sushi become one of our favorite foods?
Well, it may surprise some of you to know that the sushi we are so familiar with today has its roots, not in Japan, but in the areas around the Mekong river in South East Asia, and began as a way of preserving fish by packing it in fermented rice. In fact, the name sushi refers not to the fish itself, but to a dish of rice that is seasoned with vinegar, salt and sugar. While it might more often involve fish, it can also be based around meat and vegetables instead, and indeed I’ve enjoyed delights such as horse meat sushi on previous visits to Japan.
Rice itself has a fascinating history, and I do plan to delve into that on another edition of the podcast, so, for right now let’s just concentrate on sushi itself.
From the 3rd to 5th Century, there are references to narezushi, a fermentation method of combining gutted fish, cooked rice and salt for a long period, which has its roots in Southeast Asia and China. The fish was then pressed with a heavy stone and then left until ready to be eaten. The cooking of the rice meant that it would continue to degrade as it sat with the fish. This produced lactic acid and served as a pickling element to preserve the fish allowing it to be eaten at a later date, which was at a minimum two months but often up to a year later. This long history of pickling fish is likely the reason why today, a sushi kitchen is known as a Tsuke-ba or “pickling place.” However, unlike the sushi of today, once the box was opened, the rice was discarded before eating, and just the fish was consumed. The fish too had broken down and developed an odor which was described as being close to that of blue cheese.
Although it’s likely that this form of fish preservation probably came to Japan at the time of the development of rice cultivation, the earliest references to sushi actually appearing in Japan come in two sets of law codes: the Yororitsuryo and the Taiho-Ritsuryo from 718 C.E. We really don’t know what type of sushi they referenced but the mention is there.
A form of narezushi, called Funa Zushi, is still eaten today using carp -- known as Funa -- and is popular in the Lake Biwa area of Japan. Sushi was a costly and time-consuming process and meant that this style of cuisine was aimed only at those in the most prosperous levels of society.
In any event, as Trevor Corson puts it in his very readable book, “The Story of Sushi,” the history of sushi became, and I quote, a “quest for speed.” End quote. Not only was making sushi a very expensive proposition, it also took a great deal of time. Over the next few centuries, developments were made to speed up the time it took the fish to ferment. Primarily, by the use of heavier weights in the pressing process.
Indeed, in the 14th Century, Oshizushi, which means “pressed sushi” or “box sushi,” developed in the Osaka region where fish was layered in a small bamboo box or mold with rice and packed tightly in a box and pressed with heavy stones for a few days. It was then sliced into individual portions to be eaten straight away. Again, this style of sushi making can still be found in some restaurants, and if you go online, you can actually find the small bamboo boxes if you want to try making it at home.
Added to which, by the 15th Century, people had also begun the process of opening up the boxes of fish earlier in the process to create a new style of sushi known as Han-Nare or Nama-nare. Nama-nare means “ready raw” or “raw aged” where the semi-fermented fish was eaten with the rice which had been pressed to create a dish that was less about the necessity of preservation, but more about creating this new element of cuisine in Japan. This semi-fermented style of sushi is still on offer in some sushi restaurants today, and while the taste is definitely an acquired one, once you do fall for it, it’s really rather addictive. So do give it a try if you see it on a menu.
In the 17th Century, sake makers discovered how to make rice vinegar. In the mid-17th Century, in the city of Edo, which is now known as Tokyo, a doctor named Matsumoto Yoshiichi discovered that adding rice vinegar to the rice when making sushi could really speed up the process even more. This new form of sushi, called haya-zushi -- or “quick sushi” -- immediately became very, very popular. After all, this “quick sushi” allowed people to have fresh, not preserved, rice.
Around the same time, in the Osaka region, Oshizushi had also progressed to using rice seasoned with vinegar when layering fish in the box. So sushi making was definitely speeding up.
The sushi that we are familiar with today, has its origins in the period known as Edo, named after the country’s capital city from the period of 1603 to 1867, which is located on the banks of Edo bay, where the fish used in sushi were taken. By the beginning of the 19th Century, Edo was one of, if not the biggest city in the world, and was known both for the busy lifestyles of its inhabitants and the raising of restrictions that allowed commoners to own businesses -- it created a whole new merchant class.
These new developments led to a growing street food and fast food culture and the development of a cuisine known as Edomae or “from Edo” which would satisfy the impatient population. This included dishes with which we are very familiar today including Tempura, Soba, or Unagi -- freshwater eel. However, in their constant search to produce food more rapidly, they were always looking for a way to take sushi to the next level and they achieved that with the creation of the sort of sushi that is very similar to the one that you and I could buy in our neighborhood sushi spot today.
Hanaya Yohei had come to the city of Edo in 1818 and in 1824 he hit upon the idea of slicing the raw fish and seafood he purchased from the harbor and serving it on top of hand formed tubes of rice seasoned with vinegar. The strips of fish or Neta, as they became known, would often be brushed with soy sauce and heavily salted to prevent spoilage and to add to the umami that would be lost by the lack of fermentation. Yohei named his new creation Nigiri-Zushi or “hand pressed sushi” which he made by using his, and I quote, “index and middle fingers of the right hand to be held in the palm of the left hand,” end quote, and began to sell it on the streets of Edo from a box which he carried on his back. It was an immediate hit and he was soon able to open a permanent stand, and then later a full-service restaurant in the Ryogoku area of modern Tokyo which remained in business until the 1930s.
There are arguments that other chefs had similar ideas for creating hand pressed sushi at the same time as Yohei. It’s hard to prove one way or another if he truly was the originator, or just one of a number of chefs. However, what cannot be denied is he was the great promoter of Nigiri Sushi and is recognized now as the “creator” of modern sushi. There is even a plaque in the Ryogoku area to commemorate his “discovery.” Soon his success meant that Nigiri sushi was being copied by other chefs in Edo, and dozens of other stands began to appear.
At the same time as Yohei was beginning to develop his new style of “hand pressed” sushi, another style was also developing, and that was one where rice and fish were formed into cylinders that were enclosed in a roll of “nori.” Nori is a form of seaweed that has been harvested in Japan for thousands of years but began to be cultivated during the Edo period when fishermen saw that it began to cling to the stakes they drove into the sea beds in Tokyo harbor to hold their fishing nets.
At first it was eaten in a wet state, but sometime after the early 18th Century, farmers drew from the techniques of paper makers to create frames in which shreds of nori were pressed together to make wafer thin sheets that could be dried in the sun. Once dehydrated, these sheets could be stored almost indefinitely, and then could be moistened with a little water until they were pliable enough to be rolled around rice and a filling to create a cylinder that was then cut into eight portions. Although the fillings were different from today, this was the origin of the other classic form of sushi: Maki-Zushi or “rolled” sushi.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, there were thousands of stands selling sushi in what was now Tokyo. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake hit the city of Tokyo and much of the Nihonbishi area in which the fish market was based. This had two impacts for the development of sushi. The first being that many sushi sellers moved their businesses to other parts of Japan, helping to spread the passion for Nigiri sushi, and the second being those who stayed or returned to Tokyo at the Tsukiji fish market in 1935, were able to buy plots on which to build restaurants rather than selling from stalls on the street.
Just prior to the beginning of World War II, sushi was very much established in Japan. But, there’s a long way from that point to the ubiquity which it now experiences globally. So, how did sushi go from being a staple, but niche part of the Japanese diet, to becoming one of the most globally successful cuisines of all time?
Well for that, as with so many things, we need to look to the United States of America.
The first Japanese restaurants in the United States opened at the end of a period of isolation, which was precipitated by the arrival of the US Commodore, Matthew Perry, and his flotilla of four ships in Tokyo Harbor in 1853. His aim was to restore trading relations between Japan and the West, which had been all but negligible for the past two hundred years. There was resistance at first, but in 1854 the two nations signed the Treaty of Kanagawa which, although not a commercial treaty, marked the beginning of negotiations.
Japanese immigrants first began arriving in the United States in the late 1860s. They came in increasing numbers after the introduction by President Chester A. Arthur of the Chinese Exclusion Act in May of 1882, which allowed immigrants from Japan to take the jobs in railway construction previously filled by the Chinese. They were often treated with the same prejudice as their Chinese counterparts, including facing their own exclusion act in 1924. In his book, “The Story of Sushi,” Trevor Corson states that the earliest forms of Japanese restaurants were part of what was referred to, and I quote, “the homesickness trade,” end quote, which was a way of offering Japanese immigrants a taste of home.
While there is debate about when the first sushi restaurant opened in the United States, we do know that people were aware of its existence at the turn of the 20th Century, as a post in a North Dakota newspaper on May the 11th 1905 speaks of a, and I quote, a “Japanese afternoon held for The Monday Club,” end quote, which offered sushi on its menu.
The restaurant most usually credited with having the first dedicated sushi bar in the United States is called, Kawafuku, in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles. It opened in 1966 after consultant Noritoshi Kanai and his business partner, Harry Wolff, returned from a trip to Japan during which the latter had been introduced to and fallen in love with the joys of raw fish and rice. Wolff persuaded Tokijiro Nakajima, the owner of the restaurant, to add a sushi counter and bring in a chef from Japan. It was an immediate success, first with Japanese businessmen, but then with their American colleagues and it soon began to be copied not only in the area of little Tokyo, but also throughout the city and in other large cities such as New York -- where Restaurant Nippon opened in 1963 with a tempura bar that also served sushi and the first, and I quote, “full-fledged sushi restaurant,” end quote, called, Takezushi, opened in 1975, and also in Chicago -- where Kamehachi opened in 1967.
Added to which, one of the original Kawafuku chefs brought in from Japan, Chef Shigeo Saito, returned to Japan a few years later to open his own restaurant in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. He immediately became a local celebrity because of his success in the United States and stories of his fame prompted more sushi chefs to cross the waters and try their luck.
Despite its success, sushi still remained an option aimed at the higher end of the dining category until the 1980s. The cost of the fish, often flash frozen and flown in from Japan, and the training required for the chefs meant that opening a sushi restaurant was quite an undertaking. This began to change when chefs began to take advantage of locally available -- and cheaper -- fish and seafood. As well as adapting their sushi to fit the tastes of a local audience, which still saw sushi as a little bit of a frightening option, and wanted dishes containing more salt, fat and sugar.
The perfect example of this is the invention of the California Roll, a form of Maki-Sushi which is produced “inside out” so the rice is on the outside covering a filling of avocado, imitation crab and cucumber, while the outside of the rice is sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Now, there are three main contenders for the inventor of the California Roll: the first is Hidekazu Tojo, from Vancouver, Canada, who claims that he came up with the creation to hide the seaweed from wary guests. Visitors from Los Angeles, he claims, fell in love with the dish and hence it was give the name of their home state. A rival theory gives the credit to Chef Ichiro Mashita of Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo who substituted avocado for fatty tuna belly in the off season. While a third theory gives the honor to Ken Suesa at a restaurant called Kin Jo Sushi in Hollywood.
As is so often the case, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer as to who created the California Roll, although I should note that in 2016, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries appointed Chef Tojo as a goodwill ambassador of Japanese Cuisine. Whether the appointment cements his claim to inventing the California Roll is unclear but what we can be certain of is, by the mid 1980s, it had not only become incredibly popular in Southern California but had spread across the country where it was the perfect “in” for people who were wary of eating raw fish. It’s success also prompted other chefs to create their own style of rolls which helped incorporate local flavors.
Also, the 1970s and 80s began to see Americans becoming far more focused on their health. In February 1977, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs released a document called, “The Dietary Goals for The United States,” which not only blamed high cholesterol foods for the increase in the nation’s heart disease incidents, but also specifically suggested that people, and I quote, “decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of poultry and fish.” Sushi was the perfect food to fit this category, and with the general belief that Japanese people’s diets were far healthier than their Western counterpart, sushi restaurants began to spread across the country and around the globe.
And now, of course, Sushi is everywhere. Not just in the United States, but around the world. Great Britain now has a number of Sushi-based fast food chains including Itsu and Yo Sushi -- which brought the Japanese fast food concept of conveyor belt sushi to London. The Aussies have inevitably developed their own unique take on the cuisine and on my travels around the world, I have seen sushi restaurants in places as far apart as Ulan Batur, the capital of Mongolia, Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, and airport stalls in Chile as well as being prepared on the harbor side by fishermen in Brittany, France.
And, not only can you find sushi all over the world, you can also find it at all levels of dining from meals that cost many hundreds of dollars, as the finest fish is flown in from around the world, but also in supermarkets and convenience store “to go” sections, where the price alone should confirm that the fish is not coming from prime sources and is often subject to mislabeling.
And, it should be noted, that this success comes at a price. The rapid rise of sushi to a point when some have called it an obsession, has had a major impact on the oceans and the populations of the most prized fish. More efficient methods of fishing mean that the daily catch is bigger than ever and stocks don’t have time to replenish, while the fact that so many species not even intended for the sushi table are also now being captured and killed is doing damage that may well be beyond repair.
Does this mean we should stop eating sushi? I hope not, but I hope it does encourage you to always seek out the origin of the sushi you buy and to make sure that all the fish involved comes from sustainable sources.
I also hope that the next time you eat a piece of sushi, that having listened to this podcast it will make you think of a story that includes fermenting fish in salt in China, the impatience of the city dwellers of Edo, the mistreatment of Japanese immigrants to the United States, and that person who decided to turn a maki roll inside out and by doing so made sushi one of the most popular dishes on earth.
See you next time.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History and its Public History Initiative Director, Karen Wilson, PhD. We would also like to thank Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and preparation of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published: October 22, 2018
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.