With origins in China and Japan, sushi is an Eastern delicacy. However, there is no denying the popularity of sushi elsewhere in the world, particularly in North America.
As with many ancient foods, sushi’s origins have an element of mystery to them. The original type of sushi is believed to have first been developed in southeast Asia before spreading to southern China. Sushi was eventually introduced to Japan around the 8th century, where it would evolve into the type of sushi many people enjoy today.
According to The History Kitchen, a division of PBS Food, one origin story for sushi involves an ancient Japanese wives’ tale. According to that tale, an elderly woman began hiding her pots of rice in osprey nests, fearing that thieves would steal them. When she collected her pots, she found the rice had begun to ferment. She also discovered that fish scraps from the osprey’s meal had mixed into the rice. Upon sampling the mixture, she found the rice helped to preserve the fish. She also found that the resulting meal was tasty.
Early Chinese sushi involved fermenting fish on rice to preserve it. The rice was thrown away and the fish was eaten when desired. The Japanese took their own approach to sushi, deciding to eat the rice with the fish. Sushi innovator Matsumoto Yoshiichi began seasoning the sushi rice with rice wine vinegar. This made it possible to eat the sushi immediately, instead of waiting months for it to ferment.
Through the years, enterprising individuals began selling sushi to others. In the 19th century, rather than wrapping the fish in rice, sellers placed it on beds of rice and sometimes other ingredients. This presentation of sushi, credited to a man named Hanaya Yohei, became very popular. This type of sushi is called “nigiri sushi” (finger sushi). After World War II, the sushi style of presenting fish was adopted by western cultures.
Sushi preparation and dining is an art form that continues to evolve. New influences have changed sushi even more by marrying traditional recipes with “fusion” styles. Demand for sushi continues to increase. According to Statistic Brain’s sushi industry statistics, there are 16,000 sushi restaurants outside of Japan, with close to 4,000 in the United States alone. What began as a method of preserving food has transformed into a billion-dollar industry.