The evolution of Sushi, from preservation method to street food

If you gave this sushi to a Japanese person, they’d probably eye you with a death stare for culinary blasphemy. But we aren’t in Japan, and I am no Japanese. I am talking about Western style sushi rolls that are sold from shopfronts, and in Sweden, that version is called Sushirullen.

Sushi has a very long history, this dish of vinegar rice with toppings came from humble beginnings but is now one of the most difficult dishes in the world to prepare but of the finesse required in the practice of the technique.

Sushi came from southeast Asia via China and was originally a fermented and preserved rich dish – preservation was a very important method to make food last longer, especially before the advent of refrigeration. The rice was not even meant to be eaten, it was the bedding that the fish was put into to ferment via lactic acid fermentation. This was therefore not a raw fish dish, but a preserved fish dish and the only portion that was eaten was the fish.

What makes sushi Japanese is the use of vinegared rice in the end product. The culinary tradition that the Japanese received dictated that the rice was used as a tool to pack the fish, adsorb the water from the fish and then thrown away after the rich got mushy. For a while this recievd wisdom was practiced fervently by the Japanese people. However, while the upper classes could afford to throw away the rice, the commoners of the day could not afford to throw away the rice. They also happened to develop an attractive to the flavour of the slightly sour rice and hence took the rice out before it grew mushy, serving it as part of the dish. This is thought of as the beginning of Japanese sushi proper.

Time waits for no one, and the passage of time and palates caused flavours to be modified. The earliest forms of sushi used the pre-mushy rice and preserved fish. There were different preparation methods which lent the names to different forms of sushi, the earliest form was Oshizushi or boxed sushi made up of the rice and preserved/cured sushi pressed in a box. A dish that has been perfected in the Kansai region where the city of Osaka is today.

Progression in technology led to new preservation methods which shortened fermentation time, but the smell of the dish was unfortunately repulsive even if many locals loved the flavour (not unlike Durian in Southeast Asia and Surtromming in Sweden).

A few centuries after Oshizushi was created a different form of sushi was created a short distance away in Shiga Prefecture (still in the Kansai region), this was called Funazushi. A fish species called Funa is scaled, gutted and then preserved with salt for a year before being repacked in rice annually for up to four years, this labour intensive process is said to create a dish almost like a fish salami.

While preservation might have been important in Southeast Asia, the archipelago of Japan and the location of its major cities near the ocean mean that fresh fish was easily available. Preservation of fish had become more labour intensive than eating the fish fresh and raw, that marked the shift from preserved fish to using fresh fish and eventually to what we know of today – the Nigiri Sushi.

Another vital stage in the development of sushi occurred in the mid 18th century when another commonly eaten Japanese food, seaweed or nori was made into dry and thin sheets. Sushi rice and fish were than bound within the nori as a way to hold the dish in a structure creating makizushi.

 

No one today however would even countenance the idea of sushi not being Japanese, but just as the dish evolved from its origins in Southeast Asia, the Nigiri Sushi that we know of today has also evolved. Nigiri sushi, also known as Edomae sushi, was originally a Tokyo specialty (hence the name Edo, the previous name of Tokyo), but later became a Japanese style of sushi when chefs from Tokyo moved around the country after a great earthquake. The way that the Japanese appreciated sushi evolved with the evolution of sushi with good sushi defined today first by the quality of the rice then the taste of the fish. Basically, the power of the chef in preparing the food is what defines good sushi before the ingredients are considered.

A new generation of chefs then brought sushi to the rest of the world. The earliest evolved their dishes for the places they settled in but as palates evolved authentic Japanese food has become more common.

Here’s a great infographic that covers the whole history of sushi.History of SushiJust because food flies across the world, doesn’t mean that the flavours of raw fish with rice suit every palate. Perhaps the first thing that needed to be done once the earliest Japanese chefs moved to Europe and the United States was to modify the recipe to suit Western tastes.

Japanese cuisine soon became popular around the world with more and more people jumping on the bandwagon to sell Japanese food. Japanese sushi had gone international. The street food sushi stalls had to up their game for customers more accustomed to eating hotdogs that taking single-bite sized sushi. The solution, massive sushi of makizushi. What differencetiates westerns tyle makizushi from Japanese makizushi are 1) the size of the cut being much much larger and 2) stronger flavours not from the fish but from sauces and other ingredients. Sushirullen in Stockholm exemplifies this, this chain street food stall sells massive, palm length makizushi by the roll and its eaten as is.

The size of the rolls are also very consistent because the raw ingredients are all pre-prepared and the rolls are made using an automated rolling machine. It’s not the best sushi I’ve had, but it’s convenient and a decent supplement when I really crave sushi, and it doesn’t break the bank in a city where dining out easily bursts your budget.

If sushi today is a typical meal in Japan, than the maki-rolls of Sushirullen represent the morphing of the dish back into its precursor form of street food. On the opposite end of the spectrum however is high end sushi, with the most amazing ingredients and a process and product that has been elevated into an art form – the most impressive of which is called omakase.

Simply put, omakase means that you trust the chef to decide what to feed you.

I’d love to try omakase, in fact I’d like to try all that sort of sushi, but for the sake of my financial sobriety I’ll stick, for the time being, with the Japanese culinary blasphemy here in Stockholm 🙂

ON THE MAP

Cover Image: Pixabay

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