The History of Sushi 🍣

The history of sushi

Sushi! One of our favourite foods in the world. If not our outright favourite, frankly, as this stuff truly is epic.

It’s so fantastically concise—minimalism in foodstuff form.

Rice. Fish. Soy sauce. Wasabi. And a celebrated pair of chopsticks! Yes, there’s a rich history there and we’re here to consume it all.

What’s Sushi?

Sushi (すし) is a Japanese dish that has specially prepared vinegar rice (鮨飯—sushi-meshi) served in a variety of ways with fish, seafood, tofu, and raw vegetables. It looks like this:

🍣

To be clear, sushi isn’t the raw fish bit. That’s a common mistake to make. You can have raw fish on its own as a sushi meal, that’s called sashimi (刺身).

But to indulge in sushi is to attend a Japanese restaurant and have the rice, fish, and seafood aspect of it all. Traditionally, medium-grade white rice is used.

Sushi became very popular in the Western world during the 20th century. In London and Manchester (especially the former), the restaurants are everywhere.

This has led to Western variations on the dishes, such as uramaki (裏巻すし) am “omsode-our roll”. Plus, there’s Americanised versions such as makizushi and California rolls.

But typically, the more authentic Japanese sushi experience will involve platters, Bento boxes, and chirashizushi (ちらし寿司) where fish is layered on top of rice that’s served in a bowl.

For its seeming simplicity and minimalist approach, it’s actually quite a complex food with many variations.

But it’s also just very bloody tasty, which is why it’s so popular.

What’s the History of Sushi?

The most traditional form of sushi is narezushi (馴れ寿司) or “salted fish”.

This hails from the Yayoi period, which was early Neolithic and Iron Age era stuff (from around 10th-3rd centuries BC).

Working in paddy fields, locals would ferment fish with vinegar, salt, and rice. But the rice was discarded after the fermenting process ended, as it tasted godawful.

However, from the Muromachi period (1336-1573), that’s when the rice was included with the fish. We can say that’s when, officially, the concept of sushi truly came together.

The earliest available written reference to sushi is 718 BC in the Yōrō Code (養老律令), which was a civil code to conduct your life by.

Going on for the following 1,000 years, sushi gradually evolved and become part of the Japanese way of life.

In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), namanare (生成) was the most popular type of sushi. It was partly raw fish rolled up in rice and eaten whilst fresh.

Sushi’s development included Japan’s enforced isolation.

From the Edo period (1600-1868), Japan refused to get involved in international politics. No foreigners were allowed on Japanese soil.

During that era, a new type of sushi called haya-zushi (早寿司) emerged, which was essentially sushi finding its distinctive Japanese form.

It wasn’t until 1853 that American decided to bring an end to the obstinacy by turning up with a fleet of hyper-powerful warships. Japan had little choice—either allow global interaction again, or get annihilated.

For Americans visiting Japan around that time, they’d have finally come across the sushi concept.

And you can see that it wasn’t at all different from what we see today in restaurants all around the world.

Take a look at ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige’s (1797-1858) Bowl of Sushi, which is from 1830.

Hiroshige's Bowl of Sushi

As you can see, it looks pretty modern! You could hang that in a sushi restaurant and no one would think it’s almost 200 year olds.

The form of foods associated with sushi are all there and identifiable.

Americans potentially also saw three legendary sushi restaurants from the Edo period.

  1. Matsunozushi (松之鮨)
  2. Yoheizushi (興兵衛鮓)
  3. Kenukizushi (けぬき寿し)

These became famous amongst Japanese people of the day, but apparently there were already thousands more in the 19th century.

With the arrival of refrigeration technology (the first vapor-compressor refrigerator arrived in 1834), the potential for sushi grew further and gradually began to make its way across the globe.

When electric refrigerators arrived in 1913, 20th century industrialisation and globalisation was all set to make sushi one of the trendiest foods on the planet.

The Acceptance of Sushi in the West

The US embraced sushi quite openly in the early 20th century, with an LA restaurant opening in 1906. That’s considered the first true sushi restaurant in America—it was called Kawafuku.

Before we focus on the British experience, as it’s close to home for us, let’s have a look at a few other countries:

  • Canada: Sushi was served when Japanese immigrants arrived in the country in the 19th century. When immigration laws changed in the 1960s, it became more widespread. Vancouver is the country’s sushi capital, going from three outlets in 1976 to over 600 today.
  • New Zealand: Despite the abundance of fish and seafood in NZ, sushi was rare and usually served in posh restaurants. But by the 1990s it became trendier.
    • We also came across a southern sushi cheese roll debate that’s splitting New Zealand’s deep south. Restaurants are adding mustard and serving the rolls like sushi, which is fun! For more details see: Can southern sushi glow up?
  • Australia: Apparently, sushi arrived in the early 1970s and took off into the 1980s and 1990s. Kind of like with many countries, then. The ’70s seems to be a defining era for sushi in the West! Australia is now also one of the leading sources of sushi rice.

For us here in England, we certainly don’t recall any sushi restaurants during the 1980s and 1990s. They just weren’t around in the North West—Greater Manchester and Lancashire life demands the likes of hearty Wigan Kebabs, not raw fish.

For fussy eating Brits (and there are many of us), fish doesn’t go beyond fish & chips. The very concept of raw fish would be enough for some to have a brain haemorrhage.

How are you supposed to contemplate that after a lifetime of pork pies!?

It just shows the arbitrary nature of the British psyche. After World War II the country saw French, Italian, Chinese, and Indian restaurants become wildly popular.

But Japanese food didn’t catch on fast.

An early record of it being consumed was when the Crown Prince Akihito of the Imperial House of Japan was visiting Queen Elizabeth II at her May 1953 Coronation. Japanese women were photographed waiting in the streets to see him, whilst eating sushi.

We can’t include the image here as its copyright by Getty Images (bah!).

Exactly when and where the first sushi restaurant opened in the UK we couldn’t find a definitive answer for. We came across two dates:

  • Hiroko, opened in 1967 by Akiko Kuzusaka.
  • Ajimura restaurant, which opened in 1974.

Both were located in London, which has since become a hotbed of sushi activity. You can now barely move for sushi restaurants in London, they’re everywhere.

But it wasn’t really until the 1990s when it became trendy.

An early episode of Absolutely Fabulous from 1992 sees Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) refer to sushi restaurants.

Gradually, it spread up north (“oop norf”), but it’s only since around 2010 that it’s become a common sight.

And despite our love for fish and seafood, we didn’t try sushi properly until around 2008. That’s at Samsi restaurant on Whitworth Street in the city centre.

Samsi has been open since 1993 in Manchester and we used to eat there regularly. Before, you know, the pandemic hit and all that.

Manchester’s sushi scene really started kicking off around 2015.

Nudo is one establishment we visit regularly, one is in Piccadilly Gardens (the scene of many a drunken fight and full-scale football riot).

It opened in July 2016 and you can see how chuffed we were about that.

There’s another Nudo at the top of Oxford Road just up from the train station.

That one opened on 8th August 2015, as the Manchester Evening News noted in Nudo Sushi Box to open in Manchester city centre:

“On Monday [8th August 22015], there will be a chance to try it for free – with the first 50 customers through the doors after 12pm given a free Nudo sushi long box.

The concept for Nudo Sushi Box evolved from Nudo Noodle House restaurant, which opened in Newcastle in 2009, specialising in the preparation of noodles and other traditional comfort foods, including sushi.

Kit Lau, Karen Lau and Jim Zeng are the team behind the Nudo Sushi Box concept. Karen said: ‘Sushi, while incredibly popular, is still seen by many as a luxury, a treat to have every once in a while. Nudo Sushi Box makes sushi accessible for everyone without compromising on quality.

Manchester was a natural choice for us for our first outlet outside of the north east. The food and drink dynamic in the city is incredible and we’re looking forward to making our mark and contributing to the quality and diverse mix available.'”

Nudo is very tasty and offers great value for money, as sushi does tend to be quite pricey. So it’s the budget chain to go to, even if the quality remains high.

But you can find popular rival sushi chain Itsu located in fancy pants Spinningfields. That’s well worth a visit, too, even if it’s more expensive.

But many other sushi restaurants have popped up in the city centre.

That was inconceivable 20 years ago. Now they’re here, thriving, and sushi has been welcomed as part of the country’s regular dishes.

In major cities, at least. Go to our hometown of Chorley and you’re not going to find a sushi restaurant, of course. Locals would be baffled by that and we can’t see that situation changing ever.

But sushi is now trendy in Manchester. As trendy as can be.

Heck, you can even also visit Ohayo Tea for a cheese tea if you’re near to Chinatown. It’s all get gloriously diverse these days thanks to some fantabulous Oriental influences.

The Types of Fish Used With Sushi

The types of fish commonly used are raw, but sometimes cooked, and then placed on top of the rice. Other times, it’s wrapped up in seaweed and rice.

The types of fish you’ll see, and their Japanese names, are like this:

  • Salmon (鮭—Sake)
  • Squid (いか—Ika)
  • Shrimp (えび—Ebi)
  • Tuna (まぐろ—Maguro)
  • Mackerel (さば—Saba)
  • Horse mackerel (あじ—Aji)
  • Octopus (たこ—Tako)
  • Fatty tuna (おおとろ—Ōtoro)
  • Yellowtail (はまち—Hamachi)
  • Scallop (ほたて貝—Hotate-gai)
  • Sea urchin (ウニ—Uni)

In England, it’s also common to see bits of crab stick stuffed into some sushi rolls. That always feels like a bit of a cheap copout, but there we go.

The Types of Sushi

There are really five most common types of sushi. These are:

  • Nigiri: This is a roll of rice with a slice of fish topping it.
  • Uramaki: A rice wrapping, including seaweed, with fish or veg contained in the roll.
  • Sashimi: Raw fish slices.
  • Maki: This is a roll with seaweed around the edge and a filling in the middle. Maki is often topped off with a sauce added to the top.
  • Temaki: A hand rolled sushi roll in a seaweed cone with fish and sauce added into the mix.

They’re the most standard types you’ll come across, but there’s a much bigger variation these days.

That, in part, is due to Western influences on sushi. Americans have added all sorts of different types, such as the California, Tiger, Rainbow, Philadelphia, and Dragon Rolls.

To note, there are many vegetarian and vegan options as well. Sushi isn’t just for meat eaters as adding raw vegetables with rice and seaweed is just as tasty as the fish option.

The Sushi Masters: Becoming a Sushi Chef

The Japanese take their jobs very seriously—work is a way of life that enables them to reach a great level of mindfulness.

Sushi chefs are itamae (板前).

To become a sushi chef in Japan, this requires years of training. Participants have to go through apprenticeships to progress their careers to the top.

Arguably the most famous sushi chef in the world is Jiro Ono, at 96 we believe he’s still working at his restaurant (although COVID-19 lockdowns stopped him for a bit).

He reached international fame after the documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) became a big hit.

In the documentary, you can see several apprentices hard at work. One of Ono’s tasks was for them to massage octopus flesh for over 30 minutes so it’d reach peak standard.

After several years as an apprentice, if they’re doing well the trainee will get a promotion to wakiita. This job involves daily preparation of fish and other ingredients.

After several more years in that role, they may then develop into an itamea.

Then they’re officially allowed access to a cutting board and can create all manner of sushi dishes.

But some apprentices can face 2-20 years of training before reaching the level of an official sushi chef. It really depends on aptitude and commitment.

As you can see, then, they take it all very seriously in the land of Nippon.

This isn’t something you just fall into because you need a job and it’ll do to pay the bills. It’s a proper career.

Famously, we think of racing driver Kamui Kobayashi. He raced in F1 and at one stage acknowledged, should he fail to get a new drive ahead of the upcoming season, he’d have to quit racing and take up an apprentice sushi role at his father’s restaurant.

He got another drive and is still racing in various series to this day.

A loss for the world of sushi. But good news for motorsport, as he won the 2021 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota Gazoo Racing.

How do you Make Sushi?

Iron Chef Morimoto here to teach YOU how to make sushi at HOME.

Now, you don’t need a huge amount of ingredients. In fact, two of them should be pretty obvious to you by now. But here’s a selection of stuff to gather together:

Fish
Sushi rice (short-grain)
Nori (seaweed)
Rice vinegar
Soy sauce

If you’re making veggie sushi, then you can swap the fish out for avocados, cucumber, and carrot.

You can add into that a nuoshen bamboo rolling matt, which you’ll need to roll sushi over uramaki. Just makes it easier, you know?

How to Eat Sushi

The consumption of sushi has customs that go along with it.

Unlike in the west, where we just shovel food into our faces with a knife and fork, the Japanese have a more disciplined routine.

Most of the time, the idea isn’t to get soy sauce on the rice. The sauce is for your fish, which you should flip when required to dip the fish into it.

It’s common for people new to sushi to:

  • Let the nigiri bathe in soy sauce, with the rice soaking it all up.
  • Adding wasabi to the soy sauce and mixing it in, so it forms a type of soup.
  • Consuming large amount of soy sauce.
  • Biting chunks of sushi off and resting unfinished bit down on plates and bowls.

You shouldn’t do any of that. Sushi rolls are intended to be dipped in the soy sauce, but only with a small amount.

But, otherwise, it should be a light dip and then eat all the food in one bite.

Now, there’s also chopstick etiquette to keep in mind.

A common mistake many Westerners make is to rub their chopsticks together before starting to eat. Some people do this as they may have seen it in a film (Harrison Ford does it in Blade Runner, for example) and think it’s what you do. Or that it’s cool.

However, this is highly insulting in Japan. It suggests the restaurant has very low quality chopsticks and you don’t trust to use them.

Other no-nos include:

  • Jabbing the chopsticks into your food. This is disrespectful as the Japanese tradition is to only do so at funerals.
  • Transferring food from one plate to another with chopsticks. That’s seen as rude. You should put food on a plate or bowl and transfer it that way.
  • If you have to put the chopsticks down, place them neatly side by side on your plate or bowl.
  • Don’t point with your chopsticks.
  • Don’t wave your chopsticks across various dishes. That’s also impolite.

Not too complicated, we think, but maybe for some Westerners used to chewing with their gobs open whilst shovelling chips into their face with a fork… it could be tricky.

It’s a very Japanese way of eating.

Concise, clinical, methodical—you can see why sushi is such a big part of the way of life out there.

One day we’ll go to Japan and try all this out. Then we’ll report back on our experiences. Until then, we’ll stick to Samsi, Nudo, and Itsu restaurants in Manchester.

The Future of Sushi

In the US, the market size of the sushi industry was $22.25 billion, whilst in the UK it was in £1.3 billion in 2021-2022.

The industry is booming and sushi is more popular than ever across the world.

But there’s one major problem on the horizon—overfishing is decimating the world’s oceans. This is to the extent we’ll face serious ramifications within our lifetimes (being a bunch of late 30 somethings here).

We don’t like to end this feature on a Debbie Downer note. But this is the harsh reality of the situation and there’s no burying your head in the sand over it.

Rather grimly, the World Wildlife Fund believes we could well start seriously running out of fish as early as 2048.

Climate change will accelerate the issue.

And as sushi becomes a rare commodity the prices for it will skyrocket. It’ll, naturally, become a food for the upper class elite to enjoy… at least, until it all runs out completely.

Sustainable fishing is one potential solution, but given the profits involved in the global fishing industry, and the nature of human moneymaking, we can’t see how anything will change until it’s far too late.

In February 2017, William Cheung, an associate professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia’s Changing Ocean Research Unit, spoke with Vice Magazine in sushi as we know it will be wiped out by 2050:

“Options for keeping future sushi shops alive include something called ‘surimi,’ which his report encourages Japanese sushi chefs to use freely, since it’s derived from an otherwise un-tasty fish called pollock, and it’s what Cheung calls ‘a really low-priced sushi product.’ You’ve had surimi. It’s that stuff they cobble together from odds and ends and call ‘artificial crab’ or ‘krab’—essentially the seafood version of a hot dog. In the future Cheung sees, all-you-can-eat sushi buffets will have to get more creative than ever with the ways they market their surimi.”

It’s one of those issues some people will find a tad depressing, so totally ignore and pretend everything wrong with society is veganism, feminism, and the woke.

No. It’s capitalist driven excess and, sadly, the outcome won’t be good. It’ll be bad for livelihoods, bad for the planet, bad for biodiversity.

Could the next chapter of sushi’s history see its success story come to an end? What will humans in 100 years have as sushi?

With fish gone, the main appeal for the dish just won’t be there.

For those of us here right in the now we can enjoy this delicacy, but remember it’s a luxury. Within 20 years, it’ll be affordable only for the 1%.

15 comments

  1. There was a particularly good sushi restaurant in central Wellington that my wife and I used to go to routinely from the late 1990s. We also found another in central Sydney that was even better. The concept of food being brought to you on a kind of conveyor belt was part of it, I admit, but – yeah, sushi is pretty good. Note how I resisted making a bad Al Jolson/Eddie Cantor reference to the effect that if you knew sushi the way I know sushi… (oh wait, I DID succumb…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the conveyor belt ones took a while to reach the UK. There are a couple in Manchester city centre now. It’s a bit weird. You can easily run off, if you wanted to (not that I do that, of course).

      For NZ, I mean seafood is everywhere so it mustn’t be a big deal sushi, I suppose. In Blighty there’s fish & chips but, for the love of God, steer clear of Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

      Like

Dispense with some gibberish!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.