The Real History of Sushi – An evolution of a simple dish!

It’s safe to say we are sushi fanatics, which lead many of us here at The Boathouse to have heated debates regarding the real history of sushi! So, we decided to do our own research on the matter of sushi history.

Sushi is arguably the most famous Japanese food in the whole world. But, did you know that it’s originally not from Japan? Indeed, most people assume that sushi was created in Japan, yet that was not the case.

Here at Skull Creek Boathouse, we believe that we serve the best sushi on Hilton Head Island. But serving the best sushi did not necessarily mean we knew all the history. So we decided to do some research and share the story with you. A quick take: sushi has been around for a very long time although not in its present form.

The history of sushi is an interesting tale of the evolution of a simple dish. So let’s find out how sushi rose from its humble beginnings to become a beloved and ubiquitous dish in this country and beyond.

Sushi is ringed by mythology and folktales

As with many foods, the history of sushi is ringed by mythology and folktales. In an ancient Japanese wife’s account, an aged woman began concealing her pots of rice in osprey nests fearing that thieves would pilfer them.

Over time, she returned to her pots and found the rice had begun to ferment. She also observed that fish fragments from the osprey’s repast had mixed into the rice. Not only was the concoction savory, the rice served as a way of preserving the fish, thus birthing a new way of lengthening the life of seafood.

History, though somewhat sketchy, reveals this endearing story to be nothing more than an old wives’ tale and false. Sushi seems to have begun life at some time between the 5th and 3rd century BC in the paddy fields alongside the Mekong River which runs through modern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Then, as now, the shallow waters were the ideal home for maritime life, especially carp, and farmers often went fishing to add to their scanty diet.

the paddy fields alongside the Mekong River

But this presented a problem. Whenever a catch was landed most of the fish would spoil in the sultry heat before they could be eaten. In order to avoid squandering food, some method of curtailing, or at least delaying, the decomposition was needed. Fortunately, the glutinous rice cultivated in the bordering fields turned out to be a first-rate preservative.

Why is a sushi kitchen called a “pickling place”?

To start with, the fish were cleaned and disemboweled, slathered with salt and placed in a barrel to dry for a few weeks. Then the salt was scraped off and the bellies of the fish stuffed with rice before being arranged in wooden barrels, pressed down with heavy stones, and let to rest.

The rice would begin to ferment and produce lactic acid. The acid, along with the salt, generated a chemical reaction that curbed the bacterial production in the fish. This technique is sometimes cited as pickling and is the reason why the sushi kitchen is called a tsuke-bar or pickling place.

Whenever there was a need, the barrel was opened, the rice scraped off, and the fish eaten. The smell was offensive but the fish was succulent.

Steadily this embryonic form of sushi, known as nare-sushi, began to advance. From the Mekong it made its way south to what is now Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and also north along the Yangtze River into the Yurman, Guangxi, and Guizhou provinces of modern China.

Invasion took it further. By the 4th century BC nari-sushi was in the Chinese heartlands.

For many years it remained an “impoverished” food eaten by those, like its first purchasers, who worked in or near paddy fields.

But, in time, it became so widely eaten that it attained recognition in more eminent sections of society, so much so, that a 4th century Chinese dictionary mentioned salted fish being placed in cooked rice causing it to undergo a fermentation process. This may be the first time the concept of sushi appeared in print.

The Buddhist tradition of refraining from meat

The notion of sushi was likely imported to Japan in the 9th century and became favored there as Buddhism proliferated. The Buddhist tradition of refraining from meat meant that countless Japanese people turned to fish as an essential food.

Yet, while the fish tasted good, many Japanese found the smell repulsive. The nauseating smell, therefore, provided the impetus for change. Steps were taken to make it more appetizing. Instead of leaving the fish in barrels for months at a time, the fermentation process was reduced to a few weeks. Less acid was allowed to form, and the unpleasant smell was kept to a minimum.

This reduction of fermentation time also had the positive effect of making the ingredients in the barrel less acrid. Instead of being bitter, the rice was now pleasingly tangy and could be eaten with the fish instead of being thrown away.

It was just the type of mouthful that the Japanese were looking for. The Japanese are recognized as the first people preparing sushi as an integrated dish, eating the fermented rice together with the preserved fish.

Sushi becomes a delectable 

During the 12th century, the evolution of rice vinegar revolutionized palates in Japan and created a taste for tart foods. All kinds of new dishes were being created, including namasu (vegetables in vinegar) and tsukemono (pickles).

But none held the attention or was quite as sought after as the novel fusion of semi-fermented fish and rice known as han-nare. No longer just a staple for the agrarian poor, it was now being enjoyed by artisans, merchants, warriors, and in time, nobles.

All kinds of new dishes were being created

At the beginning of the 15th century, Japan found itself in the center of a civil war. During this time of uncertainty and unrest, chefs were looking for ways to decrease the time it took to prepare sushi. They found that adding more weight to the rice and fish reduced the fermentation time to about one month. They also discovered that pickled fish did not need to reach full decomposition to taste great. This new sushi preparation was called mama-nare sushi or raw nare-sushi.

Now that fermentation had been drastically reduced, it was not long before chefs started to ponder if it was imperative at all. It had been necessary on the embankments of the Mekong and the Yangtze, but its efficacy was less apparent in Japan. Not only were  saltwater fish more readily available, but the rise in wealth, the quickening of cityscapes, and improvements in the standard of living made longstanding preservation less of a worry.

Sushi preparation gets a makeover 

In 1606, Tokugawa leyasu, a Japanese military dictator, moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo (present day Tokyo). As a result, Edo underwent a rapid transfiguration.

With the support of an ascending merchant class the city swiftly turned into the heart of Japanese entertainment. By the 19th century, Edo had become one of the biggest cities, not only in populace but in land area.

In Edo, sushi makers used a fermentation process that had evolved in the mid-1700s, placing a layer of cooked rice seasoned with rice vinegar side by side next to a layer of fish. The layers were wedged in a small wooden box for two hours then sliced into portioned pieces.

The new procedure significantly decreased the preparation time for sushi. Then, kudos to a Japanese impresario, the entire process was about to get even speedier.

Japanese military dictator

In the 1820s, a man named Yohei Hamaya settled in Edo. In 1824, he opened a sushi stall in a busy section of Edo near the bay. Taking advantage of the speedier fermentation process, he added rice vinegar and salt to freshly cooked rice and let it sit for only a few minutes.

He topped a small ball of hand pressed rice with a thin slice of raw fish, pristine from the bay. Because of the freshness of the fish, there was no need to ferment or preserve it. Sushi could now be made in a matter of minutes, rather than hours or days. Yoheis’s sushi became a crowd pleasing dish. The bite-sized sushi was delicious and affordable making it very easy to be a new form of fast food in the bustling city. Thus, fast food sushi, or nigiri as it was called, became the accepted way of sushi preparation.

Aside from Yoheis’s establishment many restaurants serving nigiri began to open in Edo, the most famous were Kanukizushi and Matsunozushi (which still exists). Within decades they numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands.

In 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake, which killed more than 100,000 people and left many more homeless, forced many sushi chefs to leave the city. They then spread the nigiri sushi to other parts of the country. That’s why sushi is so strongly associated with Japanese culture in pre-modern and modern times. 

Sushi in America

The earthquake also brought about another change. Land prices in Edo, now known as Tokyo, dropped substantially allowing the surviving sushi vendors to buy rooms and move their stalls indoors.

Quickly, restaurants specializing in the sushi trade, called sushi-ya, sprang up throughout the capital city. By the 1950s, sushi was a completely indoor experience.

In the 1970s, improvements in refrigeration allowed fresh fish to be transported over long distances. This, coupled with a booming post-war economy, resulted in the skyrocketing popularity of sushi.

Sushi bars opened throughout the country and an expanding chain of purveyors and distributors spurred sushi to spread worldwide.

Most histories mark the appearance of sushi in the United States with the opening of Kawafuku, in 1966, in Los Angeles. But we found it hard to believe that sushi and sushi bars were unheard of in America prior to the time. So we decided to dig a little deeper and found that sushi was also trendy in the early 1900s.

By the 1950's sushi was a completely indoor experience

One of the earliest mentions of sushi in America appeared in 1904 in a Los Angeles Herald article regarding a luncheon thrown by socialite Fern Dell Higgins. Sushi continued to be a “now” dish served at high society luncheons and dinner parties across the country. But, in 1907, the US and Japan cut ties. Years later, WWII further exacerbated anti-Japanese feelings in America and sushi was no longer a part of our culinary palate.

In the late 1940s and early 50s Japanese business once again began to open in California especially in Los Angeles. These businesses brought Japanese businessmen and a longing for sushi.

For more on Sushi’s backstory, check out the recent guide from The Food We Know and their Primer On Sushi.

Matsuno Sushi, located in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, opened in 1949 and became a haven for many Japanese. More of a luncheonette than restaurant, it offered rolls made with local tuna and inari (rice stuffed tofu skins). By the 1960s, there was a scattering of Japanese restaurants, but nothing that could be considered a true sushi restaurant.

Sometime between 1964 and 1966 (accounts vary) an importer, Noritoshi Kanai, and his Jewish business partner, Harry Wolff, opened Kawafuku Restaurant in Little Tokyo. They hired sushi chef Shigeo Saito with Saito’s wife serving in front of the house. The menu was based on local seafood such as sea urchin, abalone, mackerel, and tuna. Saito also added to the menu by having seafood shipped from Japan’s renowned Tsukyi Market. Saito created meals to order and, in many instances, served customers over the counter. It was a real sushi bar and is credited with serving the first traditional nigiri sushi in America. 

a real sushi bar

Not long after Kawafuku opened, a different style of sushi restaurant appeared. It was quite a different experience than Kawafuku, which was primarily inhabited by Japanese immigrants.

Tokyo Kaikan was a large restaurant seating over 300 in the main dining area. It also served more than just sushi, with different sections of the restaurant serving tempura and teppanyaki.

It had a disco on the second floor named Tokyo-a-Go-Go. It was a big hit with celebrities like Rock Hudson and Audrey Hepbarn.

Tokyo Kaican is one of the restaurants that professes to be the inventor of the California roll. According to the legend, chef Icjiro Mashita invented the roll when he exchanged king crab for fatty tuna when the fish was out of season and decided to turn the roll inside out to ease America’s antipathy to seeing seaweed.

The mayonnaise and sesame would come later….and also, unfortunately, the imitation crab.

In 1970, the first restaurant outside of the Little Tokyo neighborhood opened. Named Osho, this early sushi restaurant attracted a loyal and appreciative following from the rich and famous thanks to its location next to the 20th Century Fox Studios.

Sushi was rapidly becoming the food choice of not only immigrants but trendsetting young people, actors, actresses, and artsy types. Osho gave sushi the final nudge to reach the American mainstream. Throughout the 1970s, more and more sushi bars began opening up in cities like Chicago and New York.

Then came the California Roll 

Not only was sushi hip and tasty, but it was filled with healthy ingredients like fish and vegetables. Suddenly, everyone wanted to revel in the scrumptious goodness of sushi found in a high quality sushi restaurant.

Towards the end of the 1970s, sushi began to become Americanized. First we had the California Roll.

Next came the spicy tuna roll, which combined tuna with chilli sauce. Then came the Philadelphia roll, which contained salmon and cream cheese.

Today, adventurous sushi chefs, like those here at Skull Creek Boathouse, use local flavors to create a variety of rolls unique to American tastes.

At present, the sushi craze has come full circle with Japan offering Americanized versions in sushi restaurants all around Japan. While traditional rolls using raw fish are still quite popular in Japan, many restaurants are embracing the new, Americanized versions. Some even offer a fusion of both traditional Japanese sushi and Americanized versions.   

the sushi craze has come full circle

Sushi in America continues to evolve and grow as more diners learn to appreciate its simple yet complex nature. Sushi in America will continue to walk the fine line between Japanese tradition and American innovation. Here, at Skull Creek Boathouse, we offer you a four-star dining experience that transports you to Tokyo while firmly honoring the American sushi tradition.

Remember, we also have a bit of history. We opened our doors in the early 1980s and we continue to be a mainstay of Hilton Head Island dining.

We hope you enjoyed our look back at sushi history and that you will join us in the future to experience how history, tradition, technique, and fresh ingredients translate into a delicious, wonderful meal.

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