Here, There, Everywhere!

Sushi, probably the most well-known Japanese food. Nowadays it has leaped over the borders of Japan to be found in myriad forms on menus worldwide, deliciously merging with indigenous ingredients and flavors to form the perfect fusion food.
When we hear the word sushi, most of us tend to imagine finger-food sized bites of raw fish atop a bed of vinegared rice, namely nigirizushi, but there are many other types of sushi to enjoy: chirashizushi, oshizushi, makizushi, inarizushi, temakizushi…and the list goes on! Now let’s try to calm those growling stomachs for a moment and explore how this delicious cuisine came about—and then let’s tuck in!

History of Sushi

It’s said that the type of cuisine that was the precursor to sushi was created in Southeast Asia about 4 BCE and this was transmitted to Japan via China during the Heian period (794-1185). This sushi, an important source of protein at the time, was called narezushi and consisted of a piece of salted raw fish placed on cooked rice and the whole thing was fermented for several days or months. Since there was no refrigeration, this type of sushi was made to preserve the fish (the lactic acid from the fermenting rice helped to keep the fish from spoiling). Also, with food condiments few and far between, the distinctive aroma and flavor of this slowly and carefully fermented food made it a highly appealing and coveted delicacy.

Birth of Nigirizushi

Nigirizushi was created towards the end of the Edo period in the first half of the 19th century. As many of our readers well know, during the Edo period (1603-1868) there was a great influx of members of the working class into the city of Edo (the old name for Tokyo), and they brought with them appetites that needed to be satisfied by something with plenty of volume, that was reasonably priced, and could be consumed quickly and easily. To that end there was a rapid growth of all sorts of street foods amongst which was nigirizushi. Edo’s nigirizushi was made using seafood caught in Tokyo Bay which was said to be “in front,” or mae of the city; thus it was called edomae zushi, or sushi from the front of Edo. Koikuchi shoyu, produced about the same time, in the same general Edo neighborhood, was indispensable in the development of nigirizushi; it was used to minimize any odors that might have been thought unpleasant, and it was also used to make zuke, or fish immersed for a bit in soy sauce before being placed on rice to extend the sushi’s shelf life and retain the fresh raw texture.

This was a vastly different product than narezushi which were made to last for several days at least--nigirizushi were made to be eaten on the spot. These tennis ball-sized combos of protein and carbohydrate were immensely popular quick and healthy meals for the typical always-in-a-rush, quick-tempered characters on which the Edokko stereotype was based; they were even nicknamed hayazushi, or quick sushi!

Today’s Nigirizushi

Since refrigeration methods for preserving fish had not yet been developed in the Edo period and ice was very expensive, the fish used for sushi were not used raw. They were cured or pickled using soy sauce, salt or vinegar, as well as stewed, steamed, or marinated in sauce. Raw fish nigirizushi came on the scene about 1900, approximately thirty years after the start of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912). Due to the dramatic improvements in the handling of fresh produce thanks to developments in ice-making techniques, coastal fishing and transportation, the use of raw ingredients for sushi gradually increased. The variety of toppings increased, the size of the pieces decreased, and as the skills of the sushi chefs rose, the food culture of nigirizushi became more and more refined and it began to slowly morph into the nigirizushi that we all know and love today.

From Japan to the World

Japanese immigrants opened what is likely the very first sushi restaurant in Los Angeles in 1906. It served as a casual dining hall style restaurant for the tens of thousands of immigrants who were living in and near LA. There was a great decline in the community’s numbers due to the tragedy of WWII, but in 1962 an authentic Tokyo-style sushi bar complete with a proper counter opened in LA’s Little Tokyo. At that time the majority of the customers were Japanese, but about the turn of the decade there was a slow but steady acceptance of sushi into American culture. The California roll, with which of course everyone is familiar, was developed during that time in a Little Tokyo restaurant, and many other “new wave sushi” specifically catering to westerners' palates were soon popping up all over. By the latter part of the 70s there was a full-fledged sushi boom which started in LA. It coupled with Japan’s economic success, and, with America at its center, spread like wildfire to all parts of the globe.

Bit o’ Sushi Etiquette

From the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) onward, there was a progressive increase in the ingredients These are not hard-and-fast rules to which you must adhere, but a few tips that might help make your next sushi dining experience a little more delicious!

OK, the sushi is on a plate in front of me—now what?
We recommend picking up one piece in your impeccably clean fingers and turning it so the rice is facing up. Lightly touch the fish into the soy sauce, then place the whole thing, still fish side down, on your tongue (go on, shove the whole thing in, it’s perfectly fine). Dipping the rice in the soy sauce tends to make the rice fall apart! Sushi such as unagi or anago that has already been seasoned is eaten as is.

There are lots of different kinds of fish—where do I start?
While you are certainly not obliged to eat in any particular order, we recommend starting with mild flavored fish, such as hirame or tai, and working your way to ones with stronger flavor, such as salmon, toro, or unagi.

Whee-hoo, I’m getting full! What’s a good way to wind down?
Many people enjoy lighter fare at the end of the meal such as the lightly sweet egg omelet called tamago, or cucumber or tsukemono rolls. However, if you are craving one last piece of amaebi or chutoro, that’s a fine way to finish as well!

By the way, what’s this pink stuff?
Gari, thin slices of ginger pickled in sugar and vinegar, has a gentle acidic spiciness perfect for cleansing the palate between different courses of sushi. This is particularly noticeable after consuming a fatty or highly seasoned ingredient. Gari also helps to neutralize the sting of wasabi.

Tea, please!

Beer and sake of course go well with sushi, but at the end of the meal you might want a nice cup of green tea. The catechins in the tea help to rinse away any remaining oils or fats, serving as a palate cleanser, though in a different way than gari. Large, thick teacups used at sushi establishments keep the sushi tea (usually konacha) at the proper temperature.

Originally created as a method to preserve vitally important protein, sushi has transformed down through the ages into today’s familiar shapes and tastes—a far cry from the first sushi! And we have so many types of sushi, ranging in price and style from mind-blowing expense account level to supermarket take-out and of course home-made--there is sushi for every occasion you can think of! Marukai has sushi bento, party trays, the freshest fish and seafood, and of course rice for sushi rice, sushi vinegar, nori, wasabi and different sizes of sushi oke (wooden sushi bowl).
So, if you’re thinking of throwing together an impromptu sushi party tonight, remember—the more the merrier! Hint, hint!