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  • Writer's pictureZukku Sushi

Where did sushi come from?

Sushi is one of the most popular Japanese dishes on earth with thousands of restaurants outside of Japan serving the traditional cuisine.

Today’s sushi seems so perfected for flavor, texture and presentation that it may come as a surprise that its earliest ancestor, narezushi, was a simple matter of practical necessity. Dating back to mainland Asia in the 2nd century, narezushi was salted fish, stored in fermented rice as a means of preserving it long before refrigeration. It guaranteed sustenance for the dry months when protein was hard to come by.

Funazushi. [Kida Yasuo, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons]

Today what’s known as funazushi, the earliest and most primitive form of Japanese sushi, believed to have developed there around the 10th century, is still commonly eaten in Shiga prefecture, though its pungent smell makes it a hate-it-or-love-it delicacy. It’s popularity was likely boosted by the spread of Buddhism in Japan, and its tradition of abstaining from beef.

Things developed further around 1400 when vinegar, still a key ingredient in today’s sushi rice, was added to the process, but it was the late Edo Era, nearly 400 years later, that brought the true creation of nigirizushi, fresh fish served over vinegared rice and nori.

Nori, the dried edible seaweed used in sushi today, had been cultivated from bays and lagoons since at least 702, when it was mentioned in Japanese tax law, but it was the rise of the Japanese paper-making technology that first allowed it to be pressed into sheets 800 years later, allowing for the creation of maki, or rolled sushi.

Hanaya Yohei is often credited as the inventor of modern nigiri sushi, though some believe he was just the first to successfully market it. He opened the first outdoor sushi stall in the Ryogoku district of Edo (which later became Tokyo) in 1824 and was so successful that within a few years there were hundreds of sushi carts on the streets of Tokyo. By the 1970s, when advances in refrigeration technology meant fish could be shipped long distances, sushi bars were found all over the country.

Sushi arrived in the U.S. (or at least became popular among influential Hollywood celebrities) after the opening of the Kawafuku Restaurant in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in the late ’60s, before spreading to cosmopolitan cities like New York and Chicago. Americanized versions like the California roll (invented by Japanese chef Ichiro Mashita in the U.S.) and the Philadelphia roll had appeared by the mid-1970s, and by the late 1980s sushi was a full-on craze available in pretty much every city in America.

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