Sushi is hugely popular around the globe today and is often associated with modern fine dining experiences, but its earliest, humble origins will likely come as a surprise to most people. (Spoiler alert: sushi did not originate from Japan!)
The very first iteration of sushi was used for centuries in Southeast Asia as a means of preserving raw fish. This prototypical sushi (now called narezushi) was made by salting raw fish and packing it inside fermented rice in barrels, allowing the fish to undergo fermentation to prevent it from spoiling. The rice was discarded and only the fermented fish was eaten, and though described as smelling pretty terrible, fish could be stored for a year or longer without spoiling using this method. Food historians believe this first type of sushi was invented around the 5th-3rd century BCE in Southeast Asia, predating refrigeration by over a millennia.
By the 2nd century AD, narezushi had spread into China and made it into a Chinese dictionary as the character sa (鮓, pickled fish with salt and rice). By the 8th century, it became popular in Japan, and in the following centuries the dish slowly began to change. The Japanese developed a way to ferment fish more quickly using vinegar, taking about a month to ferment instead of at least half a year. The Japanese continued to evolve the dish and develop ever quicker methods of fermentation, curing fish in mere weeks, then days, then hours. The Japanese are the first to begin eating the pickled fish along with the rice, as quicker fermentation time meant that the flavor of the rice did not change as drastically. Over time, they began introducing different ways to season the rice with vinegar and sugar.
The first modern sushi dish was invented by Hanaya Yohei in the 1800s in Edo, today’s Tokyo. Using freshly caught fish, he served slices of fish (either slightly cooked or marinated) over vinegared rice balls and sold them on the bustling Tokyo Bay as an early form of fast food, since these portable pieces of nigiri zushi could be eaten on the go with either chopsticks or fingers. Modern sushi, now referring to any dish with vinegar seasoned rice, spread across Japan and in its restaurants at an extraordinarily rapid rate.
Following Japanese immigration, modern sushi was first introduced to the West around the early 1900s, but it did not become popular in the United States until about two decades after World War II in the 1960s. To help Americans get used to the idea of sushi, restaurants began experimenting with new taste combinations and sushi rolls, such as the now ubiquitous inside-out California Roll. Today, sushi has become a global phenomenon and continues to change as Western chefs add their fusion flair to a once traditional dish. Sushi bowls and sushi burritos are commonplace, and many Western sushi rolls are actually quite foreign in Japan, where sushi has largely remained more traditional and simple.
From a centuries-old staple to a modern foodie classic, sushi has had a long journey - and it’s nowhere near over! Chefs continue to experiment and innovate, and we continue to see (and eat!) new and delicious iterations of sushi all the time. Join us in enjoying the deliciousness that is sushi!