NIPPONIA No. 47 December 15, 2008


Special Featuresp_star.gifSushi! Sushi! Sushi!

Sushi: Ancient Traditions Still Strong Today

Each part of Japan has its own sushi recipes, matching local conditions and preferences. When and why did the Japanese start eating sushi? And why are there so many different varieties? The history of sushi helps us discover the links between the Japanese people and sushi.

Written by Hibino Terutoshi, professor at Nagoya Keizai University Junior College
Photos by Hibino Terutoshi, Kawada Masahiro and Kono Toshihiko

Nigiri-zushi is the most famous sushi of all. Nigiri means “press in the hand,” and zushi means sushi, of course. Nigiri-zushi is a clump of sushi rice pressed together, with a topping that is usually raw fish.

The world of Japanese cuisine would not be complete without sushi. But sushi apparently has its roots in Southeast Asia, where rice farmers have long pickled salted fish in rice or some other starchy food. You can still try this dish in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. It spread long ago to China and then, according to one theory, came to Japan from China along with rice farming techniques.

The “sushi” in those days was probably something like the funa-zushi made in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture even today by mixing a fish called funa with rice and salt. The fish ferments there for a long time—at least 10 months using today’s techniques, and sometimes more than two years! It takes this long in order to bring out the lactic acid flavor without using vinegar. The rice breaks down as it ferments, so it is thrown away and only the fish gets eaten. This most unusual food is said to be sushi in its original form, much like it was many centuries ago. But in this form it is not called sushi, but hon-nare. Nare means “aged through fermentation.” This method preserves the fish, and would have been useful at a time when refrigeration did not exist.

Until around the end of the Muromachi period (14th to 16th centuries), hon-nare was a delicacy for aristocrats, but later it began appearing on the tables of samurai families and prominent townspeople as well. They were a more frugal lot, and thought it a waste to throw out the rice—this led to the manufacture of nama-nare, which is fish and rice fermented for a shorter period of time so that the rice grains did not disintegrate. Because the fermentation was stopped sooner, the nama-nare sushi could not be kept for a long time.


Left: Funa-zushi is sushi in its original form. Funa fish is covered with cooked rice and allowed to ferment for some time. Later, the fish is sliced and eaten, but the rice is discarded.
Kabura-zushi (right above) and hatahata-zushi (right below). Both are fermented with cooked rice and a koji malt.