History of sushi

Bowl of Sushi (Painting by Hiroshige)

The history of sushi began around the 8th century in Japan. The original type of sushi was first developed in Southeast Asia as a means of preserving fish in fermented rice. In the Muromachi period, people began to eat the rice as well as the fish. During the Edo period, vinegar rather than lacto-fermentation was used to sour the rice. In modern times, it is an early form of fast food strongly associated with Japanese culture.

Early history

The original type of sushi was first developed in Southeast Asia and spread to south China before being introduced to Japan sometime around the 8th century.[1][2] Fish was salted and wrapped in fermented rice, a traditional lacto-fermented rice dish. Narezushi was made of this gutted fish which was stored in fermented rice for months at a time for preservation. The fermentation of the rice prevented the fish from spoiling.[3] The fermented rice was discarded and fish was the only part consumed. This early type of sushi became an important source of protein for the Japanese.

The Japanese preferred to eat fish with rice, known as namanare or namanari (生成, なまなれ, なまなり, semi-fermented). During the Muromachi period namanare was the most popular type of sushi. Namanare was partly raw fish wrapped in rice, consumed fresh, before it changed flavor. This new way of consuming fish was no longer a form of preservation but rather a new dish in Japanese cuisine.

During the Edo period, a third type of sushi was introduced, haya-zushi (早寿司, 早ずし, fast sushi). Haya-zushi was assembled so that both rice and fish could be consumed at the same time, and the dish became unique to Japanese culture. It was the first time that rice was not being used for fermentation. Rice was now mixed with vinegar, with fish, vegetables and dried food stuff added. This type of sushi is still very popular today. Each region utilizes local flavors to produce a variety of sushi that has been passed down for many generations.

When Tokyo was still known as Edo in the early 19th century, mobile food stalls run by street vendors became popular. During this period nigiri sushi (握り寿司) was introduced, consisting of an oblong mound of rice with a slice of fish draped over it. After the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, nigiri sushi chefs were displaced from Edo throughout Japan, popularizing the dish throughout the country.

Today the sushi dish internationally known as "sushi" (nigiri zushi; Kantō variety) is a fast food invented by Hanaya Yohei (華屋与兵衛; 1799–1858) in today's Tokyo (Edo). People in Tokyo were living in haste even a hundred years ago. The nigiri zushi invented by Hanaya was not fermented and could be eaten using the fingers or chopsticks. It was an early form of fast food that could be eaten in public or in the theater.

Sushi in Japan

The earliest reference to sushi in Japan appeared in 718 in the Yōrō Code (養老律令 Yōrō-ritsuryō). As an example of tax paid by actual items, it is written down as "雑鮨五斗 (about 64 liters of zakonosushi or zatsunosushi?)". However, there is no way to know what this "sushi" was or even how it was pronounced. By the 9th and 10th century "鮨" and "鮓" are read as "sushi". This "sushi" was similar to today's Narezushi.

For almost the next 800 years, until the early 19th century, sushi slowly changed and the Japanese cuisine changed as well. The Japanese started eating three meals a day, rice was boiled instead of steamed, and of large importance, was the development of rice vinegar.[4] While sushi continued to be produced by fermentation of fish with rice, the addition of rice vinegar greatly reduced the time of fermentation[5] and the rice used began to be eaten along with the fish. In the Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573), the process of producing Oshizushi was gradually developed where in the fermentation process was abandoned and vinegar was used. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1603), namanare was invented. A 1603 Japanese-Portuguese dictionary has an entry for namanrina sushi, literally half-made sushi. The namanare was fermented for a shorter period than the narezushi and possibly marinated with rice vinegar. It still had the distinctive smell of narezushi.

The smell of narezushi was likely one of the reasons for shortening and eventually skipping the fermentation process. It is commonly described as "a cross between blue cheese, fish, and rice vinegar".[5] A story from Konjaku Monogatarishū written in early 12th century makes it clear that it was not an attractive smell, even if it tasted good: In the early 18th century, oshizushi was perfected in Osaka and it came to Edo by the middle of 18th century. These sushi were sold to customers, but because they still required a little fermentation time, stores hung a notice and posters to customers on when to come for a sushi. Sushi was also sold near a park during a hanami period and a theater as a type of Bento. Inarizushi was sold along oshizushi. Makizushi and Chirashizushi also became popular in Edo period.

There were three famous sushi restaurants in Edo, Matsunozushi (松之鮨), Yoheizushi (興兵衛鮓), and Kenukizushi (けぬき寿し) but there were thousands more sushi restaurants. They were established in a span of barely twenty years at the start of the 19th century. Nigirizushi was an instant hit and it spread through Edo like wildfire. In the book Morisadamanko (守貞謾稿) published in 1852, the author writes that for a cho (100 meters by 100 meters or 10,000 square meters) section of Edo there were one or two sushi restaurants, but that only one soba restaurant could be found in 1 or 2 cho. This means that there were nearly 2 sushi restaurants for every soba restaurant.

These early nigirizushi were not identical to today's varieties. Fish meat was marinated in soy sauce or vinegar or heavily salted so there was no need to dip into soy sauce. Some fish was cooked before it was put onto a sushi. This was partly out of necessity as there were no refrigerators. Each piece was also larger, almost the size of two pieces of today's sushi.

The advent of modern refrigeration allowed sushi made of raw fish to reach more consumers than ever before. The late 20th century saw sushi gaining in popularity all over the world.


Funazushi is a rare type of narezushi still prepared near Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture.[6] Eighteen generations of the Kitamura family have been preparing the dish at Kitashina since 1619.[7]

Fresh funa are scaled and gutted through their gills keeping the body (and always the roe) of the fish intact. The fish are then packed with salt and aged for a year before being repacked annually in rice for up to four years. The resulting fermented dish may be served sliced thin or used as an ingredient in other dishes.[8]

Authentic funazushi is made from a wild subspecies of goldfish called nigorobuna (Carassius auratus grandoculis) endemic to the lake. It is actually technically misleading to say that "crucian carp" is used, as though any old funa type carp in the genus may be randomly used (or the European species may be used), especially since the true crucian carp is a distinct species altogether, C. carassius, and is not indigenous to Lake Biwa.[9] However, due to reduced catch of nigorobuna in recent years, it is true that, by necessity, certain other native species are starting to be substituted.


After the invention of the sheet form of nori seaweed around 1750, makizushi or norimaki, rice and various ingredients rolled with nori appeared.[10][11] The term makizushi was first used in a book Ryōri Sankaikyō (料理山海郷, 1749). However this dish is not current day makizushi but seafood rolled with bamboo mat (makisu). [12][13][14] Current day makizushi first appeared in a book Shinsen Kondate buruishū (新撰献立部類集, 1776) which describes makizushi as "Place a sheet of asakusa-nori, pufferfish or paper on the makisu and spread the cooked rice then arrange fishes on it. Roll the makisu tightly from one side ..."[12][13][15][16] In 1778, a food shop guide book Shichijyūgonichi (七十五日, 1778) listed a shop whose famous menu is "norimaki-zushi".[15] A later book Meihan Burui (名飯部類, 1802) describes makizushi as "Spread asakusa-nori on the board, place the sushi rice on it. Ingredients are sea bream, abalone, shiitake, mitsuba and shiso. Roll them firmly...."[17][11][13]

Appearances in the West

The Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest written mention of sushi in an 1893 book, Japanese Interiors, where it mentions that "Domestics served us with tea and sushi or rice sandwiches".[18][19] However, there is also mention of sushi in a Japanese-English dictionary from 1873,[20] and an 1879 article on Japanese cookery in the journal Notes and Queries.[21] Additionally, the 1879 best-selling book A Tour Around the World by General Grant by James Dabney McCabe describes former president Ulysses S. Grant dining on the "shashimi" [sic] version of sushi during his visit to Japan.[22]

United States

Two women eating sushi in the United States in 2016.

Sushi was first served in the United States in the early 1900s following an influx of Japanese immigration after the Meiji Restoration.[22] A wave of Japanophilia in American high society resulted in the serving of sushi at social functions.[22] The earliest published mention of sushi eaten by non-Japanese Americans was a August 18, 1904 article in the Los Angeles Herald about a luncheon served in Santa Monica by the socialite Fern Dell Higgins.[22] The popularity of the dish was at a peak in 1905 when it was served at Japanese-themed social gatherings across the United States, including in mid-western cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, St. Louis, Missouri and Bismarck, North Dakota.[22] Several years later, a wave of anti-Japanese nativism sentiments and restrictions on Japanese immigration, starting with the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907, caused a subsequent decline in the acceptance of Japanese cuisine.[22][23]

The first American sushi restaurants appeared in the early 1960s, most notably in major metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and New York City.[24] The Kawafuku restaurant in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles, founded in 1966 by Noritoshi Kanai and Harry Wolff, is credited as the first American restaurant "to commercially transport large amounts of fish from Japan, for the purpose of making sushi, on a regular basis."[24]

The California roll was invented in Los Angeles by substituting a slice of avocado for the seasonal toro (fatty tuna) in a traditional maki roll.[25]

United Kingdom

A report of sushi being consumed in Britain occurred when the then Crown Prince Akihito (born 1933) visited Queen Elizabeth II at the time of her Coronation in May 1953.[26][27] In September 1953, Crown Prince Akihito served sushi at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC.[28]


Australia is a major source of rice used in sushi, in particular Leeton, New South Wales, which is the headquarters of SunRice.[29][30]

The first known sushi conveyor belt in Australia appeared in Queensland in 1993, when Sushi Train opened its first restaurant.[31]


The Japanese name "sushi" is written with kanji (Chinese characters) for ancient Chinese dishes which bear little resemblance to today's sushi.

One of these might have been a salt pickled fish. The first use of "鮨" appeared in the face and hand, the oldest Chinese dictionary believed to be written around the 3rd century BC. It is explained as literally "Those made with fish (are called) 鮨, those made with meat (are called) 醢". "醢" is a fermented meat made from salt and minced pork and "鮨" is a fermented fish made from salt and minced fish. The Chinese character "鮨" is believed to have a much earlier origin, but this is the earliest recorded instance of that character being associated with food. "鮨" was not associated with rice.

In 2nd century AD, another character used to write "sushi", "鮓", appeared in another Chinese dictionary of Han dynasty: "鮓滓也 以塩米醸之加葅 熟而食之也", which translates as "鮓滓 is a food where fish is pickled by rice and salt, and itself is eaten when cooked" ("cooked" here referring to preparing food by denaturing proteins with acid rather than heat, similar to the preparation of ceviche). This food is believed to be similar to Narezushi, i.e. that the fish was fermented for long times in conjunction with rice and was then eaten after removing the rice.

A century later, the meaning of the two characters had become confused and by the time these two characters arrived in Japan, the Chinese themselves did not distinguish between them. The Chinese had stopped using rice as a part of the fermentation process, and then stopped eating pickled fish altogether. By the Ming dynasty, "鮨" and "鮓" had disappeared from Chinese cuisine.

See also


  1. "Sushi History".
  2. "The History of SUSHI". Archived from the original on 9 June 2012.
  3. Food reference
  4. Mpritzen, Ole G. (2009). Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body and the Soul. Springer Science-Business Media. p. 15.
  5. 1 2 Hsin-I Feng, C. (2012), The Tale of Sushi: History and Regulations. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 11: 205–220. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-4337.2011.00180.x
  6. "The Kyoto Project: Funazushi". Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. 2 September 2013. Archived from the original on 6 July 2015. Retrieved 6 July 2015.
  7. Atsushi Kitamura (December 9, 2008). "Japan". Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Season 2. Episode 13. Travel Channel.
  8. Hiroya Kawanabe, Machiko Nishino, Masayoshi Maehata (2012). Lake Biwa: Interactions between Nature and People. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 344. ISBN 978-94-007-1783-1. Retrieved 6 July 2015.
  9. Hosking, Richard (1998), Walker, Harlan, ed., "From Lake and Sea Goldfish and Mantis Shrimp Sushi" (preview), Fish, Food from the Waters: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Oxford Symposium Press, pp. 160–, ISBN 978-0-907325-89-5, p.161
  10. Miyashita, Akira (2003). 海苔 [Nori]. Hosei University Press. ISBN 4588211110.
  11. 1 2 Katada, Minoru (1989). 浅草海苔盛衰記 [Asakusa nori rise and fall]. Seizando-Shoten Publishing. ISBN 442582251X.
  12. 1 2 Kawakami, Kōzō (2006). 日本料理事物起源 [Origin of Japanese cuisine]. Iwanami Shoten. ISBN 4000242407.
  13. 1 2 3 Ōkawa, Tomohiko (2008). 現代すし学 [Sushiology]. Asahiya Publishing. ISBN 4751107275.
  14. Ryōri Sankaikyō (料理山海郷). Enshudō (園趣堂). 1819. Reprint edition of 1749
  15. 1 2 Miyashita, Akira (2003). 海苔 [Nori]. Hosei University Press. ISBN 4588211110.
  16. Nakagawa, Tōshirō (1776). Shinsen Kondate buruishū (新撰献立部類集).
  17. Sugino, Gonbei (1802). Meihan Burui(名飯部類).
  18. "Sushi", Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version December 2011. Accessed 23 December 2011.
  19. Alice Mabel Bacon, "A Japanese interior", Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893, 267 pages (page 180)
  20. James Curtis Hepburn, Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionary, Publisher: Randolph, 1873, 536 pages (page 262)
  21. W.H. Patterson, "Japanese Cookery", Notes and queries, Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1879. (p.263)
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Miller, Howard D. (August 17, 2015). "Americans Ate Sushi In The Early 1900s". Here & Now. National Public Radio. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
  23. Miller, H.D, (July 23, 2015). "The Great Sushi Craze of 1905 The Unexpected History of Japanese Food in America, From Edo Bay to the Bowery". An Eccentric Culinary History. eccentricculinary.com. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
  24. 1 2 Avey, Tori (September 5, 2012). "Discover the History of Sushi". The History Kitchen. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Retrieved 18 August 2015.
  25. "Raw". New York Times. 2007-06-10. Retrieved 2008-08-15.
  26. 30 May 1953 "Japanese women eating sushi whilst they wait to catch a glimpse of Prince Akihito, in England as a coronation guest of the Queen", photographer John Chillingworth, Picture Post at Getty Images
  27. "Prince Akihito Eats and Runs at Own Soiree", Chicago Daily Tribune, May 4, 1953, page 22
  28. "US Officials Know of Sushi Thanks to Japanese Prince" The Milwaukee Journal - September 11, 1935
  29. 2007 Kikkoman Food Culture Seminar - The Internationalization of Sushi
  30. Laurissa Smith (2014-04-22). "Sushi boom increases rice markets for Riverina growers". ABC.
  31. Sushi Train - About us

External links

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