From our comfortable twenty-first century perspective, we can afford to feel somehow rather grateful that in ancient times people didn’t have access to refrigerators. If this convenient means of preserving food had been available then, human resourcefulness wouldn’t have set about devising such ingenious means as curing, drying, pickling and jellying to make food keep. And of course, a world without such delicacies as hams, cheeses, pâté, smoked fish, salami, kimchi, duck confit and jams doesn’t bear thinking about. Decidedly less obvious, though, as an item that owes its origins to food preservation is delectable sushi.
Time was when someone writing about sushi for a non-Japanese reading audience actually had to explain what the thing was. But that was back in a far-off age when food was a much less international business and Japanese restaurants around the world were about as common as hen’s teeth. Now, the notion of eating quantities of raw fish is no longer anathema, sushi is warmly embraced as decent low-fat health fare and the Western world can even get its head around the notion of conveyor belt sushi.
However, if sushi had undergone no development from its primordial form, it’s hard to imagine it being the stuff of ritzy restaurants and sometimes even ritzier prices. Sushi traces its origins to China, and it probably made its way to Japan a couple of millennia ago along with the wet rice cultivation that transformed not only agricultural practices but also the country’s whole way of life. The ancient practice consisted of packing fish into a mixture of rice and salt and leaving it to ferment for several months or several years, after which the rice was discarded and only the fish consumed.
The making of sushi the good old-fashioned way is still practiced in Japan, notably in the area around Japan’s largest freshwater lake, Biwa-ko, in whose depths lurk the Crucian carp that go to make funa-zushi. After slow fermentation for two to three years, the dish is ready to eat. However, the vast majority of people who do not hail from the region—plus a hefty number of the locals themselves—would believe that at that point, the dish is actually ready for the bin. The refrigerator containing the fish from which the customer typically has to select their own funa-zushi smells as if someone has died. And as for the actual taste, well, it’s enough to make a grown man weep.
Thankfully, funa-zushi was not the end point in the development of sushi. The fermentation time was reduced, vinegar was introduced to improve the taste and the rice also came to be eaten. In early nineteenth-century Edo (former Tokyo), it was realized that fermenting fish did not make for the greatest flavor in the world, the fermentation was abandoned and fresh raw fish was served on freshly cooked vinegared rice in a form that bears some resemblance to the sushi we know today.
There is of course remarkable variety in that sushi, both in Japan and overseas. The form familiar to most people—a bite-sized piece of vinegared rice topped by a slice of usually raw seafood—is referred to as nigirizushi and is only one of a number of basic sushi types eaten in Japan. Oshizushi is a favorite of the region around Osaka and consists of sushi rice and toppings pressed into an oblong box-shaped mold. Makizushi is sushi rolled into a cylindrical shape and often containing a variety of ingredients. Chirashizushi has regional variations, but it usually involves a bowl of sushi rice with seafood and garnishes either on top of the rice or mixed in with it. Inarizushi comprises a pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice.
With the internationalization of sushi, various modifications of the food have developed to appeal to non-Japanese palates. Notably in the United States, such exotica as cream cheese, avocado, mango, smoked salmon and mayonnaise find their place in the sushi format. The sushi purist would of course look askance at such creations. To them, there is simply nothing to compare with the melt-in-the-mouth succulence of classic sushi in a traditional restaurant featuring perfectly selected seafood at its seasonal finest.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.