The History of Sushi: Its Ascent From its Origins of Necessity to its Status as a Beloved Global Dish
Sashimi Deluxe and Sushi Deluxe consisting of nigiri and rolls from Sushi Gen in Little Tokyo, LA
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Just only a few decades ago, sushi was not very popular in the US. The idea of consuming raw fish seemed bizarre to many Americans. As did the odd looking green paste that burned victims’ nostrils and the briny stench of fermented soybeans in the form of soy sauce. Holding two pieces of long wooden sticks to pick up food was a strange and unusual concept for Americans as well. Sushi restaurants were limited to major cosmopolitan cities that had a reasonably sized Japanese population. You could find sushi restaurants, together with other Japanese fare, in places such as Sawtelle or Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, but it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack in a place like Ohio.
Today the situation is completely opposite. Sushi, especially sashimi (a type of sushi dish which is simply thinly sliced raw fish), has become a beloved and ubiquitous dish in this country and beyond. Within the last two decades, sushi has exploded in popularity in the US. It seems that every American city and town has no shortage of sushi restaurants. High end grocery stores such as Whole Foods offer sushi platters, but so too do more mass market outlets such as Ralph’s or Safeway.
Its popularity has even spawned derivative types of dishes. For example, poke, a type of Hawaiian-Japanese dish, has become the latest trendy food popping up throughout major cities across the US. Poke hopped across the Pacific from Hawaii to the California coast, ultimately spreading onward to the point where a Costco shopper can buy poke by the pound.
How did sushi navigate the seas to the US from Japan? And how many thousands of years of transformation did sushi go through to eventually become one of the most popular cuisines beloved by many around the world? In the next section, we’ll discuss the origins of sushi, which go back to ancient China thousands of years ago beginning with nare-sushi, or fermented raw fish. After discussing nare-sushi, we will delve into how this dish transformed through a few iterations into today’s sushi. While the nigiri sushi, which is a slice of fish placed on pressed rice, is what defines sushi today, sushi has many varieties that have been made and enjoyed in different places and times over the course of its history.
Beginnings of the fermented fish, or Nare-Sushi
The humble beginnings of sushi started with one of necessity: ancient Chinese farmers were looking to preserve the fish that washed ashore when rainy seasons flooded their rice fields. Starting between the 3rd to 5th century BC, the Chinese began fermenting excess fish with salt and rice in barrels for up to a year to make the fish last as long as possible. Rice was the key factor in the fermentation process – when rice begins to ferment, it produces lactic acid, which combined with salt slows the growth of bacteria in fish and ends up pickling the fish. Back then, people would take the fish, gut and salt it, and keep it in a barrel for a few months. After that, the fish would be cleaned of the salt and stuffed with rice. These rice-stuffed fish would be packed in wooden barrels and held down by a heavy stone for a year. After a year or so, the fish was taken out to be eaten, and the rice was discarded.
By 8th century CE, this style of preservation eventually carried over from China to Japan, where it was called nare-sushi. The style of preservation eventually disappeared in China after nomadic tribes conquered China. However, the style of preservation they pioneered became popular in Japan, and in fact can still be found in some regions of Japan today. As this style of sushi is fermented with salt and rice for a period of time, it has a very sour taste and a strong funky aroma. In this sense it is similar to blue cheese, which also has a smell and taste people either love or hate.
Today’s Version of Nare-Sushi, or Fermented Fish from Japan. Picture from Wikimedia Commons
Nare-Sushi -> Han-Nare-Sushi
By the 14th century, nare-sushi evolved into han-nare-sushi. The key difference was in the pickling method. For han-nare-sushi the fish was fermented for a shorter period – a few months instead of a year. Taking out the rice and fish after a few month meant the rice was only a little sour, and was not broken down to remnants in a paste like texture as would be the case after nare-sushi’s longer fermentation period. Thus, the rice could be eaten along with the fish, a more efficient arrangement in an era when poor farmers could not afford to waste much rice.
Perhaps the transition to han-nare-sushi was aided by a separate food development taking place in Japan at the time. The vinegar industry in Japan took off in the 13th century. This was likely the result of an increase in production of rice fields, because vinegar is created from sake, which is made using fermented rice. With vinegar being more widely available, people became used to sour tastes in their food, so it was a straightforward transition to enjoying the han-nare-sushi and the sour rice.
Nare-Sushi -> Han-Nare-Sushi -> Haya-Nare-Sushi
Over the course of the following few centuries, up until the 18th century, haya-nare-sushi replaced han-nare-sushi. Over the course of this period, the amount of time it took to make sushi rapidly decreased from a whole year to just a few days. Instead of fermenting the fish with rice, the Japanese began adding vinegar to the sushi to make it taste similar to the taste of the fermented rice used for han-nare-sushi. The rice was then packed underneath slices of cured or cooked fish and pressed with a wooden box. This box-pressed sushi varied depending on different regions of Japan. For example, in Kansai, they used seaweed (kelp) to cook the rice and then seasoned it with vinegar and sugar. In Nara, persimmon leaves were used to wrap the sushi.
Nare-Sushi -> Han-Nare-Sushi -> Haya-Nare-Sushi -> Edo-Mae-Sushi
The 18th century was known as the Edo Period, and it was during this period when sushi came to closely resemble today’s nigiri sushi. The process to make Edo-mae–sushi (Edo is the name for modern day Tokyo and mae means “in front” as in waterfront) became even faster than before – it would take a few hours instead of few days. The edo-mae sushi, which is cured fish or raw fish over vinegared rice, was invented because the Japanese needed something that was fast and easy to eat in the bustling, busy streets of Edo.
Strikingly, Edo-Mae-sushi was three times the size of modern-day sushi pieces! Events over the following few centuries would shrink these sushi pieces to the size with which we are more familiar. The rise in food stalls occurred in 18th century Edo, and led to the spread and popularity of edo-mae-sushi, which consists of a ball of rice smeared with wasabi and topped with cooked, cured, or raw fish. A form of fast food, Edo-mae-sushi was designed to be eaten on the go – you could grab it with one hand, eat it quickly, and head out to go about your way. It was sold to laborers from waterfront pushcarts.
Bowl of sushi painted by Ichiyusai Hiroshige (1797–1858). The edo-mae-sushi was three times the size of today’s sushi. Picture from Wikimedia Commons
While not the inventor of edo-mae-sushi, Hanaya Yohei, a 19th century sushi chef, was the one who brought edo-mae-sushi to the height of its popularity. Selling sushi from his food stall (which eventually became so popular he opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant), he pioneered the new nigari style sushi: raw fish over hand-pressed vinegared rice balls and a pinch of wasabi. It was still rare to eat fish raw during that time, so this new style of sushi piqued many palates. Hanaya was also marinating tuna in soy sauce prior to serving it, a method which jump-started a tuna craze in Edo. This was important because tuna was plentiful during the Edo period, but not highly regarded due to its short shelf life compared to other fishes. It was typically used for fertilizer instead of sushi!
Another interesting fact is that the old style of sushi had a pink hue to its rice. Vinegar made from rice was expensive, so vinegar was made from sake lees, which is a residue byproduct of sake fermentation. Using sake lees to produce vinegar meant cheap vinegar was readily available. However, the vinegar was reddish from the sake lees, which made the rice pink.
Following from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, edo-mae-sushi spread throughout Japan. The quake forced many sushi chefs who ran food stalls out of Tokyo, dispersing them to other regions of Japan. They took the art of sushi with them.
From Food Stall to Conveyer Belt to Global Dish
Nare-Sushi -> Han-Nare-Sushi -> Haya-Nare-Sushi -> Edo-Mae-Sushi -> Modern Sushi
Technologically, modern day sushi came to be from edo-mae-sushi with the invention of refrigeration. Refrigeration essentially changed the way sushi was eaten as raw fish slices over rice could be eaten frequently and fishes did not have to be marinated or fermented by necessity but rather preference.
World War II, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, was the main cause of sushi’s shrinkage to its modern size, about 1/3 as large as edo-mae. Due to food shortages during World War II, the government ordered pubs and restaurants to close. The Tokyo Sushi Union argued that places serving sushi were not restaurants but establishments offering their services to create sushi for customers. The government accepted this argument, and so for a fee and 150 grams of rice, customers could receive 10 pieces of nigiri sushi made from the rice provided. These pieces were smaller than what people were used to, but they accepted the change under wartime circumstances, and it became standard going forward. While sushi in its early days was seen as a quick bite for workers during the Edo period, during this time sushi began to be considered as a gourmet experience. Most people in Tokyo did not have sushi frequently and it was saved for special occasions or parties.
However, in 1950s came the invention of the kaitenzushi, or conveyer belt sushi. This was a significant factor in making sushi an essential part of Japanese culture and cuisine. The conveyor belt restaurants offered casual settings with low prices and hence the demand for sushi rapidly spread. Prices were fixed and clear cut, and the image and tradition of sushi changed from one of luxury to one that any working class could enjoy.
Conveyor belt, or Kaitenzushi, sushi restaurant. Picture from Wikimedia Commons
The first restaurant to use the conveyor belt was called Kaitenzushi, which opened in Osaka in 1958. It used a rotating conveyor belt that circulated through the restaurant to serve small plates of sushi. Conveyor belt sushi is widely popular in Japan today, yielding 246 billion yen annually, with almost 3,000 restaurants countrywide! It was originally invented by Yoshiaki Shiraishi, who got the idea by observing beer bottles on conveyor belt in an Asahi brewery. He decided to apply this format to his sushi restaurant as a cost effective solution to manage operations and keep prices affordable. Demonstrated to visitors from abroad at the Osaka World Exposition in the 1970s, the conveyor belt sushi craze spread around the world.
Nigiri from Q Sushi, an omakase restaurant in LA (http://www.qsushila.com/). Picture by Author.
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The introduction of sushi to the US
Sushi spread to America during the late 20th century. It was only after World War II that Japanese cuisine began appearing in US media. Prior to World War II, Japanese living in the US would have eaten sushi at home. The sushi they ate was not the sushi of today – it consisted of sushi rice topped with vegetables or stuffed into fried tofu pouches known as inari or wrapped in seaweed as fresh fish was not readily accessible back then. In the 1950s, Americans were still resistant against Japanese food and culture; however, this slowly changed over the decades. When sushi was originally discussed in American social mediums, articles and recipes avoided bringing up raw fish and instead discussed cooked seafood to make it more relatable. However, with Japan emerging as a global economic powerhouse in the 1970s, Japanese cuisine, especially sushi, concurrently came to be favored as a popular choice of cuisine.
Sushi Chef prepping sushi. Picture from Wikimedia Commons
Noritoshi Kanai, a Japanese businessman, was the sushi pioneer who helped popularize sushi in the US when he opened up Kawafuku in 1966 in what is known today as the Little Tokyo neighborhood of LA. It was the first authentic sushi bar restaurant in the US. Noritoshi Kanai brought a sushi chef from Japan to operate a nigiri sushi bar. His original goal was to target Japanese expatriates, but these Japanese individuals introduced their American colleagues to sushi, which in turn lead to the spread of sushi as a popular cuisine in LA.
Besides Kawafuku, Osho restaurant also played a role in inspiring Japanese immigrants to start sushi bars in Little Tokyo and other areas in Los Angeles. Osho was the first sushi bar outside of Little Tokyo, opening in 1970 next to the 20th Century Fox Studio. It attracted a celebrity customer base due to its proximity to celebrities. As Hollywood became exposed to sushi and embraced it in the ‘70s, fish, and evidently sushi, became more desirable as the US Senate issued a report called Dietary Goals for the United States instructing citizens to consume more fish and grains. During this time, health experts also promoted fish due to its abundance omega-3 fatty acids. Thus, many Americans embraced sushi a healthy alternative for fine dining.
Besides the Japanese restaurants growing in Little Tokyo, one television series ended up changing America’s relationship with Japan and America’s view of Japanese cuisine. The show was called Shōgun, based off James Clavell’s 1975 novel, a historical fiction about a British sailor and his rise as a political player in 17th century Japan. The Shōgun miniseries aired in 1980 and became a smash hit, watched by more than 30% of American households and earned 3 Golden Globes and three Emmys. Shōgun was unique because it was also filmed entirely in Japan and Japanese roles were played by Japanese actors. The series also showed Japanese culture and food with authenticity. Alongside that, the series was a requirement to watch in many high school history curriculums throughout the 1980s.
The show triggered a large interest in Japanese culture and cuisine. During this time, the economic boom in Japan brought many Japanese businesses to the US in the 70s and 80s and in effect, led to a new wave of Japanese immigration. The increase in Japanese expatriates in the US and Americans enraptured with Japanese culture due to Shogun created a large demand for Japanese food, especially sushi.
Rainbow Roll Sushi, created in the United States for the American palate. Picture from Wikimedia Commons
Besides the increase of Japanese restaurants, and the miniseries Shōgun, sushi chefs invented iterations of sushi that were more accepting to the American palate such as the California rolls rainbow rolls, inside-out rolls, and spicy tuna. The California rolls and rainbow rolls ended up being made as fatty tuna became hard to find, and avocado replaced it in the 60s. Eventually, inside-out rolls, with the seaweed hidden in the middle, was created, to hide the seaweed, as Americans saw the seaweed, or nori, as foreign. The spicy tuna roll was invented in the 1980s by mixing tuna with chili sauce. All these inventions were a mix of both Japanese and American flavors, and helped make sushi appealing to Americans.
Kawafuku and Osho were the sushi restaurants that introduced sushi to Los Angeles and the United States. However, there are a few other Japanese restaurants that have also made Japanese cuisine and sushi an irreplaceable part of the American palate. Nobu, the world’s most recognized Japanese restaurant of chef Nobu Matsuhisa is accredited for the mass popularization of Japanese food, including sushi, in America in the 80s and 90s with his unique Japanese-Peruvian cuisine. With his restaurant brand having a celebrity following, Americans who would typically shun sushi as a foreign dish were more open to eating it as their favorite celebrities enjoyed it.
Prior to the Nobu restaurant empire, Nobu Matsuhisa had opened his first flagship sushi restaurant Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills in 1987. He was hoping to just avoid another catastrophe (the restaurant he opened in Alaska, prior to Matsuhisa, was destroyed by an electric fire in the kitchen just 15 days after grand opening) and pay off his high debts. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter to commemorate Matsuhisa turning 30, Matsuhisa said “our first three years there were very hard. The business and food costs were more than 50 percent. We made no money. We just broke even.” Yet, his unique Japanese-Peruvian cuisine gradually won over many celebrities and neighbors and became so popular that he eventually started the Nobu restaurant empire with Robert De Niro, which now includes forty-one restaurants and four hotels. During the same interview Nobu Matsuhisa was conducting, Ruth Reichl, an early supporter of the first Nobu restaurant and also LA Times Restaurant Critic from 1984 to 1993 and New York Times Restaurant Critic from 1993 to 1999 noted “It’s difficult to understand from this vantage point, but as late as 1995, I still had to explain what sushi was to the readers of The New York Times. There was not a big sushi aesthetic, not like in L.A.”. Sushi in the 1995 was still just an ethnic cuisine that was not popular outside of Los Angeles. Today, it goes without saying that sushi has become a major part of the American diet, especially at the high end of the spectrum.
Salmon, Scallop, Snapper, and Tamago Nigiri. These days, it is easy to order sushi and get it quickly to go in Los Angeles. Picture by Author.
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The fascination with sushi all over the world has brought much interest to Japanese cuisine and culture. With sushi having a global following, Japan has seen its tourism rise. Places like the Tsukiji Fish Market of Tokyo, one of the largest wholesale fish and seafood markets in the world, is visited by millions of visitors annually. Besides the Tsukiji Fish Market, the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi aired in 2011 and became a international hit. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a Japanese-language documentary about 85-year old Jiro Ono who runs Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi restaurant located in a Tokyo subway. Sukiyabashi Jiro is also one of the few sushi restaurants in the world to have been awarded 3 Michelin Stars. The documentary has been a big hit with a 99% score on rotten tomatoes, and has become so popular that the director David Gelb was hired by Netflix to produce the critically acclaimed series “Chef’s Table”.
Sushi has come from a long journey of time from its origins as fermented fish necessary for survival to one of a global phenomenon and loved by many all over the world, especially in the US. Per IBISWorld, the sushi industry in the US brings in $3 billion annually, and there are over 3,600 sushi restaurants all over the United States. For comparison, $3 billion dollars is equal to that of Belize’s economic output for the year. New iterations of sushi in the US still pop up to this day, such as Sushiritto, a restaurant serves sushi in the form of large burritos. It makes it clear that sushi had initially had a slow rise as ethnic cuisine in the US, but rapidly spread throughout the US, and has become a permanent part of the American diet.
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