This past Saturday, Yoko Isaji’s FoodStory brought food historians and sushi lovers together for “Travel With Sushi” at West L.A.’s Nibei Foundation. Looking over 1,000 years of sushi history, from its origins in Southern China to its rise as a popular Japanese street food in the 1800’s, Isaji used slides, artwork, and stories to convey the evolution of one of L.A.’s favorite delicacies. Even better, in partnership with a local sushi chef, Isaji served rare examples of raw fish that are next-to-impossible to find in the states, and nearly as tough in Japan, from rice-fermented nare sushi to Kansai-period pressed sushi that paved the way to the Edo-mae nigiri we recognize today. Come take a quick tour through FoodStory’s “Travel with Sushi,” scheduled again on October 8th.
The origins of sushi can be traced back to regions in Southern China where thinly sliced whole fish (typically freshwater carp) was being eaten as far back as 823 B.C. In time, whole and sliced fish were treated with salt, then eventually fermented from a few months to many years packed in rice (which can be traced to the paddies of Southeast Asia). Koji mold, the same mold used to ferment sake, helped preserve the food while imparting a pronounced umami. In time, as rice began to be used inside of the fish, people started eating the rice. From 1279-1368, Northern invaders crushed or pushed out Chinese cultures that rallied around sushi. Isaji tells that the Japanese people are descended from a Southern Chinese “minority” (still 7.65 million strong) called The Miao, who fled from invaders to Japan.This dish was fermented only five days in rice, producing a sweet, porridge-y surrounding for the raw fish.
This style of pressed sushi rose to popularity due to a shorter fermentation process of three to four weeks. Bound inside of a persimmon leaf, the fish was eaten along with the fermenting rice (which used to be thrown away), leading to a rise in people eating this combination, which has a pleasant, naturally sour taste.
As people started enjoying fish with rice, sugata sushi emerged, which would typically find the whole fish (head and all) placed on top of rice or stuffed with rice for consumption.
These egg-wrapped vegetables are still a common pleasure in the Japanese home, though this version is more stylized than your typical at-home omelet sushi.
With the advent of vinegar, the sushi fermentation process became much shorter, leading to the rise of pressed sushi on rice, above, which became very popular due to its improved taste and easier availability. Kansai sushi was typically made to order for special occasions, at restaurants, or for home delivery. Due to the vinegar and the sugar in rice, it could last up to a week. Soon, as Japan’s capital shifted to Edo (Tokyo), with its great population, the sushi we recognize today started popping up in front of Kansai sushi restaurants, being sold as cheap street food to workers with less or no use of sugar. This 18th century sushi was often 3-4 times bigger than what we see today. The reduction in size came about as restaurants tried to distinguish their product as more refined and delicate than the street food, leading to today’s daintier nigiri sushi.
Another form of Edo-era sushi popular in the Kansai region involves the use of kombu (seaweed) for fermentation. The seawed withdraws water from the fish, and increases the salt and umami flavors. Today, we see kombu still a popular technique used in modern sushi.
Due to the Kanto earthquake of 1923, many Edo-based sushi chefs returned to their hometowns, spreading Edo-mae sushi to other parts of Japan.
During World War II, Japan banned all restaurants. Clever sushi chefs fooled the system by declaring themselves “commission businesses,” which caught on with other sushi restaurants in the nation. Customers would bring in a cup of rice in exchange for ten pieces of nigiri, ensuring sushi’s survival over many strenuous years.