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History of sushi: Is sushi from Japan?

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

(Funa•Zushi, preserved fermented fish sushi)

Contrary to popular belief, sushi did not originate in Japan, but rather in Southeast Asia. Its roots trace back to an ingenious method of preserving fish using salt and rice. The concept of sushi, as we know it today, evolved over centuries, with fascinating historical transformations.

In the 8th century, sushi made its debut in Japan, introduced from China. The early form of sushi, called "sushi" in name but distinct from modern sushi, involved marinating fish in salt and rice for several months. The rice was discarded after fermentation, and only the preserved fish, akin to fish pickles, was consumed. This traditional method still endures in some parts of China and the northern regions of Thailand, where they continue to craft this preserved fish sushi.

During Japan's 9th century, preserved sushi took on various forms, featuring fish, shellfish, deer, and hog meat. Due to the intricate and time-consuming process, this type of sushi was exclusively served as a gift to the wealthy, high-ranking officials, and lords.

Around 1700, the emergence of “Oshizushi” (pressed sushi) marked a pivotal shift. In this method, vinegar was applied to cooked rice, topped with slices of fish, and compressed with a weighted press. It is believed that a visionary doctor named Ryoho Matsumoto conceptualized the idea of incorporating vinegar into the rice, further enhancing the flavors.

The quintessential sushi forms we cherish today, such as Nigiri and Rolls, were conceived in Tokyo during the 19th century, known as "Edo" at the time. A man named Hanaya Yohei is credited as the innovator of Edo-style sushi. To preserve the freshness of the fish, Hanaya adopted the practice of lightly cooking or marinating the fish in soy sauce and vinegar.

Sushi's captivating journey from Southeast Asia to Japan unveiled a delectable fusion of preservation techniques, culinary brilliance, and cultural exchanges. Today, sushi stands as a global gastronomic delight cherished by food enthusiasts worldwide.

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