A fly on the wall of many households across Japan would witness a baffling sort of sight on the evening of February 3. The insect would view all the members of a household solemnly and silently engaged in the business of consuming a super-sized sushi roll. All the faces and sushi rolls would be pointing in the same geographic direction. And once the family members began their hushed munching of the comestible, they would not pause until ingestion was complete.
As might be supposed, there is more to such scenes than a sudden appreciation for the merits of compass-guided consumption of hefty sushi rolls in utter silence. Those sushi rolls (makizushi) are known as ehomaki (“lucky direction rolls”), and the day of their eating is called Setsubun, which is the day before the commencement of spring according to one traditional Japanese calendar. The propitious direction in which those ehomaki are pointed changes according to a five-year cycle (this year, it is south-southeast). As people noiselessly chomp through the outsized sushi roll, they make a wish for the coming year.
In line with the auspicious nature of ehomaki, they usually contain seven ingredients, a number that is related to the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. Typical ingredients include kampyo (dried gourd), cucumber, shiitake mushrooms, tamagoyaki (rolled omelet) and eel, which represent prosperity, good health and happiness. And the idea is that all that good fortune is symbolically rolled up in the makizushi. As with most forms of makizushi in Japan, the stuff used to hold the roll in place is a sheet of the dried laver seaweed called nori.
Regarding the origins of ehomaki, opinions differ. According to one story, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a sixteenth-century warlord, was struggling to unify Japan (under his control of course). He had a vassal named Horio Yoshiharu, who ate makizushi on the evening of Setsubun before a battle that Horio went on to win. Sadly, the story does not relate whether Horio consumed the sushi roll or rolls in the manner dutifully observed by his latter-day compatriots. Another story has it that merchants in Osaka began eating makizushi at Setsubun in the hope of enhancing their prosperity over the coming year. Given that the custom of eating ehomaki spread fairly recently from that region to other parts of Japan thanks to deft marketing ploys by convenience stores and supermarkets in promoting some food other than chocolate in the period up to Valentine’s Day, the mercantile origins of ehomaki seem entirely more appropriate.
Ehomaki are a rather special, increasingly popular form of makizushi. Sushi rolls are of course commonly eaten in Japan, but to most Japanese the classic image of sushi is that of nigirizushi (“hand-pressed sushi”), which originated in Edo (former Tokyo). With nigirizushi, the chef shapes sushi rice with the palms of the hands into an oval ball, topping the mound with a smear of horseradish-like wasabi and a strip of, usually raw, seafood. And it takes years and years of experience to master that shaping of the sushi rice such that it maintains its shape while having optimal consistency for the diner. (Of course, as they seem to be doing in all other walks of life, robots are making an inroad in the world of sushi: sushi-making robots have been developed that can turn out a completed piece of sushi every 11 seconds. Sushi masters claim that the robotic competition does not trouble them in the slightest.)
The huge amount of time it takes to become adept in the technique of shaping sushi rice by hand has probably played no small role in the fact that nigirizushi is not widely eaten overseas. Another factor is that according to Food and Drug Administration regulations in the United States, raw seafood has to be frozen before serving so as to kill off any parasites. That coupled with the relative difficulty of acquiring fresh seafood there compared with Japan prompted Americans to adopt their own take on the food.
Sushi has undergone the transformation from being a type of food eaten only in Japan or in Japanese restaurants overseas to one that is readily consumed entirely outside a Japanese context. But the type of sushi enjoyed outside Japan is usually makizushi. One popular way of eating sushi involves the plates of sushi being transported on a conveyor belt in front of customers seated at the restaurant. Though the novelty of conveyor belt sushi (or “sushi train” as Australians prefer to call it) has found considerable favor abroad, the sushi that trundles around on the belt abroad, unlike in Japan, is typically of the rolled ilk.
Just as countries outside Japan have taken to sushi in rolled form, so has the internationalization of sushi resulted in innovative approaches to the basic concept. Perhaps the best known of the sushi varieties created outside Japan is the California roll, which is a type of makizushi containing crab (or imitation crab), avocado and cucumber. The exact origins of the California roll are unclear, but it would appear to have been developed in either Vancouver or Los Angeles in the 1970s. The California roll is a type of sushi that has come to be known as uramaki (“inside-out roll”), whereby the rice is on the outside, usually sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds or tobiko (flying fish roe). The roll played a big role in boosting sushi’s global popularity.
With digital media company Ranker, California roll was voted highest among the forty-six types of sushi rolls listed on its website. Other popular types include such exotica as dragon roll (eel, crab, cucumber, avocado), scallop volcano roll (California roll with baked scallop and mushrooms), rattlesnake roll (eel, avocado, shrimp tempura) and firecracker roll (spicy scallop, tuna, avocado). However, such Western takes on sushi rolls have not traveled well across the Pacific. Only occasionally might you come across California or other extravagant rolls on sale in a Japanese supermarket. They are barely consumed. To the Japanese, they are just not what sushi is about.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
[This article first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of the Japan Journal.]