The Definitive Guide to Sushi

In an ancient Japanese tale, an old woman hid her pots of rice in osprey nests to prevent thieves from stealing them. After some time, she discovered that the rice had begun to ferment within the nests. She also found that scraps of fish from the osprey’s meals had mixed into the rice. But not only was the fishy rice mixture delicious, but the rice had also helped to preserve the fish. This clever elder had unintentionally invented a way of extending the shelf stability of seafood. So if a child ever asks, “How was sushi invented?” you can say that a shrewd old lady invented it and that is why we should respect our elders.

While that’s an endearing story, the origins of sushi are actually more of a mystery. The first known historical mention of salted fish being combined with cooked rice and fermenting is found in a fourth-century Chinese dictionary. Historians believe this to be the first concept of sushi in print. The use of fermented rice as a means of (preserving fish) originated in Southeast Asian countries several centuries ago. As rice ferments, lactic acid bacilli begin to form. The acid and the salt unite to help slow bacterial growth in fish. This process is also called pickling, and that is why a sushi kitchen is known as a tsuke-ba, or “pickling place.” While we may never get a definitive answer as to how and when sushi was invented, we can learn all there is to know about modern sushi! The team has created this ultimate guide to sushi!

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When Did Sushi Come to Japan?

The basics of sushi likely came to Japan between the eighth and ninth centuries. The earliest literary reference to sushi in Japan appeared in the Yōrō Code, which was a compilation of governing rules used in the early Nara period. Its popularity was aided by the rise of Buddhism; Buddhist practitioners abstained from meat, which made fish become a dietary staple. The Japanese are credited with adapting sushi into a complete dish, eating the fermented rice and fish together. This combination is known as nare-zushi, which translates to “aged sushi.”

How Did Sushi Come to America?

Although sushi has been part of Japanese culture for centuries, it did not make an official appearance in the United States until 1966, with the opening of the nation’s first sushi restaurant in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Named Kawafuku, this two-floor restaurant served more accessible dishes on the bottom floor, such as teriyaki and tempura, and the then-progressive sushi dishes on the top floor. At that time, sushi master Shigeo Saito only served more traditional sushi, such as sashimi and nigiri.

About a decade later, American-style sushi such as California rolls emerged. The California roll was invented by a sushi chef at the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles. Tuna was seasonal in California, so he tried to re-create the luscious and creamy texture of this fatty fish with avocado. The crab was used to replace the fishy flavor. This clever adaptation to the natural resources of California helped make sushi the beloved dish nationwide that it is today.

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This page was last updated by Megan Miller