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Sushi History's Paradox: Navigating Fact and Fiction

In this article, I like to delve into the complex nature of history, using my journey of understanding sushi's past as a springboard. This discussion isn't solely about the history of sushi; it's about the broader implications of historical interpretation.

The general consensus holds that sushi originated from southwest Asia around 600 BC or an undefined period, initially as a method to preserve fish. This involved packing gutted fish in salt or a mix of salt and cooked rice, then discarding the rice post-fermentation or preservation. This form of "sushi" eventually made its way to Japan, evolving into what is known in Japan today as Funazushi.

In a conversation with sushi historian Eric Rath, a professor at the University of Kansas and author of "Oishi: The History of Sushi," he shared insights that challenge the Southeast Asian origin theory, emphasizing the inherent nature of historical record-keeping and the gaps within available records. (Watch the video: History of Sushi with Eric C. Rath.)

Consider the hamburger: Is there an official body documenting its history? Is there a dedicated historian or food enthusiast tracking every development? Highly unlikely. And if we struggle to track the complete history of something as contemporary as the hamburger, imagine the challenge of chronicling sushi's evolution from 600 BC with scattered, sporadic, and sometimes missing records.

This scenario poses a significant challenge for historians, who often have to bridge these gaps with educated guesses. Yes, much of what we accept as historical fact is actually conjecture pieced together by historians.

My point isn't to discredit historians' work but to highlight the reality that the full picture of what happened is often unknown. "Historical facts" represent only a slice of the actual events.

For example, when researching the origins of the California Roll, I initially found a story attributing its invention to Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, in the 1960s-1970s. However, further searching reveals multiple stories of its creation. So, who really invented the California Roll?  (Read more on this article: Who invented the California Roll? (2024 version with Chat GPT & Gemni))

Likely, it wasn't the brainchild of a single chef or restaurant but a collective effort within the industry. Eric C. Rath echoes this sentiment, suggesting that while Hanaya Yohei is often credited with inventing modern sushi (Edomae sushi) around 1860, it was probably the result of collaboration.

I'm not here to argue which account is correct. My aim is to acknowledge that our grasp of history is limited. No one truly knows the full story, and that's okay. Recognizing multiple perspectives on an event is more productive than debating right or wrong. Instead of arguing over the accuracy of historical accounts, I prefer to explore different viewpoints.

When it comes to sushi, I admit my knowledge is limited. There's much more I don't know than do, which fuels my desire to learn. Embracing the unknown parts of sushi's history, and history in general, is not a sign of defeat but an open door to understanding and appreciating the diverse tapestry of our past.



Breakthrough Sushi offers sushi classes and sushi catering in the San Francisco Bay Area using sustainable seafood.

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