Bon Appetit! Japanese Culture in the Kitchen
Pressed Sushi in a Jewelry Box?
A Delicious Idea from Osaka
Written by Otani Hiromi, food journalist
Photos by Kono Toshihiko
Off comes the top of the box to reveal an astoundingly beautiful interior — it looks like a fabric woven with different colors of silk, but no, it is a special Osaka treat called hako-zushi, sushi compacted in a box-like press. The distinctively tasty ingredients making up this pattern are pale-pink crimson sea bream, auburn-colored sea eel, bright red shrimp beside pieces of yellow omelet, and almost black kikurage mushrooms seen through the transparent flesh of sea bream.
Even in Japan, the word "sushi" now generally refers to hand-molded, bite-size clumps of rice seasoned with vinegar and sugar, topped with pieces of raw seafood. But this type, called nigiri-zushi, is actually only one variety of many. Until vinegar became common in Japan around the 17th century, sushi was generally of the nare-zushi type, a mixture of fish, salt and rice all fermented together. The unfermented sushi that is common today has a surprisingly short history.
In Kansai (the Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe region), the unfermented variety developed mainly as oshi-zushi, or pressed sushi, made by pressing sushi rice and other prepared ingredients in a wooden box-like press. What went with the rice was almost always some type of seafood. But in 1841, a well-established sushi shop in Osaka's Senba district, called Yoshino Zushi, developed hako-zushi, with its different toppings and sandwiched insides arranged like a work of art. The idea came from Yoshino Torazo, the third owner of Yoshino Zushi. The technique and tastes still live on under the hands of the present manager, Oyama Yuichi.
The hako-zushi pictured above and at right was made by first packing vinegared sushi rice in the bottom half of the press. The chef then took thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms that had been previously simmered in sweetened salty water, and placed them in a layer on the rice. On another batch of rice, he put down a layer of toasted nori seaweed. Next, he covered these layers with more sushi rice, and topped the rice with one of the toppings mentioned at the beginning of this article and shown in the photo. He then placed the press cover on top, pushed down lightly, removed the press sides, and cut the sushi. He did the same with the other three toppings, and placed the cut pieces of sushi neatly in a box for serving.
The taste of pressed hako-zushi is of course different from hand-molded nigiri-zushi. With the pressed variety, the rice and other ingredients are already seasoned, so you do not dip each piece in soy sauce, as you would for nigiri-zushi where you want to bring out the special flavor of the fresh seafood. With pressed sushi, the flavors of the rice and other ingredients blend together to make a nicely distinctive taste.
Oyama explains, "Nigiri-zushi is one of Japan's fast foods, hand-molded to be eaten right away. Pressed sushi is placed in a box to be taken home to eat later. It keeps well for a while, although it tastes best if you eat it within 24 hours."
The Senba district, where Oyama's shop is located, has been a flourishing center of commerce in the middle of Osaka for centuries. The box sushi made there is nice to look at and delicious to eat, a good reason why it is considered a fashionable present to give to others. Oyama says that business owners have patronized Yoshino Zushi since the early days. And no wonder — when the top is removed from the box, surprise is the first reaction, followed quickly with a delicious taste and delight spreading on the recipient's face.