Prominent in Japanese cuisine, sushi is a food made of vinegared rice balls combined with various toppings or fillings, which are most commonly seafood and can also include meat, vegetables, mushrooms, or eggs. Sushi toppings may be raw, cooked, or marinated.
Sushi as an English word has come to refer to the complete dish (rice together with toppings); this is the sense used in this article. The original term (寿司) sushi (-zushi in some compounds such as makizushi) in the Japanese language refers to the rice, not the fish or other toppings.
There are various types of sushi. Sushi served rolled in nori (dried sheets of laver, a kind of seaweed) is called maki (rolls). Sushi made with toppings laid onto hand-formed clumps of rice is called nigiri; sushi made with toppings stuffed into a small pouch of fried tofu is called inari; and sushi made with toppings served scattered over a bowl of sushi rice is called chirashi-zushi, or scattered sushi.
Sushi has become increasingly popular in the Western world, and chefs have invented many variations incorporating Western ingredients and sauces together with traditional Japanese ingredients.
The basic idea behind the preparation of sushi is the practice of preserving fish with salt and fermenting with rice, a process that can probably be traced back to seafood-preserving methods used in Southeast Asia, where countries have a long history of rice cultivation. The process originated during the Tang Dynasty in China, though modern Japanese sushi evolved to have little resemblance to this original Chinese food.
The dish internationally known today as "sushi" (nigirizushi; Kanto variety) is a fast food invented by Hanaya Yohei (華屋与兵衛; (1799–1858) at the end of the Edo period in today's Tokyo (Edo). More than one hundred years ago, the people in Tokyo were already in a hurry and needed a food they could eat on the run. The nigirizushi invented by Hanaya was not fermented and could be eaten with the hands (or using a bamboo toothpick). It was a convenient food that could be eaten at a roadside or in a theater.
One of these might have been a salt pickled fish. The first use of "鮨" appeared in the Erya, the oldest Chinese dictionary believed to be written around the third century B.C.E. The definition is literally "Those made with fish (are called) 鮨,” “those made with meat (are called) 醢." "醢" is “a sauce made from minced pork” and "鮨" is “a sauce made from minced fish.” The Chinese character "鮨" is believed to have a much earlier origin, but this is the earliest recorded instance of that character being associated with food. “鮨” was not associated with rice.
In second century C.E., another character used to write "sushi," "鮓," appeared in another Chinese dictionary: "鮓滓也 以塩米醸之加葅 熟而食之也," which translates as "鮓滓is a food where fish is pickled by rice and salt, which is eaten when it is ready." This food is believed to be similar to Narezushi or Funazushi, fish that was fermented for long periods of time in conjunction with rice and was then eaten after removing the rice.
A century later, the meaning of the two characters had become confused and by the time these two characters arrived in Japan, the Chinese themselves did not distinguish between them. The Chinese had stopped using rice as a part of the fermentation process and then stopped eating pickled fish altogether. By the Ming dynasty, "鮨" and "鮓" had disappeared from Chinese cuisine.
The earliest reference to sushi in Japan appeared in 718 C.E. in the set of laws called Yororitsuryo (養老律令). In a list of taxes paid with actual goods instead of currency, it is written down as "雑鮨五斗 (about 64 liters of zakonosushi, or zatsunosushi?)." However, there is no way to know what this "sushi" was or even how it was pronounced.
By the ninth and tenth century C.E., "鮨" and "鮓" are read as "sushi" or "sashi." These "sushi" or "sashi" were similar to today's Narezushi. For almost the next eight hundred years, until the early nineteenth century, sushi slowly changed and Japanese cuisine changed as well. The Japanese started eating three meals a day, rice was boiled instead of steamed, and most important of all rice vinegar was invented. While sushi continued to be produced by fermentation of fish with rice, the time of fermentation was gradually decreased, and the rice used in fermentation began to be eaten along with the fish. In the Muromachi Period (1336–1573), a process to produce oshizushi was gradually developed which eliminated the fermentation process and used vinegar instead. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1603), namanari was invented. A 1603 Japanese-Portuguese dictionary has an entry for namanrina sushi, literally “half-made sushi.” The namanari was fermented for a shorter period than the narezushi and possibly marinated with rice vinegar. It still had the distinctive smell of narezushi, which is commonly described as "a cross between bleu cheese, fish, and rice vinegar."
Oshizushi was perfected in Osaka in the early eighteenth century and came to Edo by the middle of eighteenth century. This sushi still required a time to ferment, so stores hung up notices announcing when customers could come to purchase sushi. Sushi was also sold near a park during hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and a theater as a type of bento (lunch box). Inarizushi (sushi made by filling fried tofu skins with rice) was sold along with oshizushi. Makizushi and chirasizushi also became popular during the Edo period.
There were three famous sushi restaurants in Edo, Matsugasushi (松が鮓), Koube (興兵衛), and Kenukisushi (毛抜き), but thousands more were established in a span of barely twenty years at the start of the nineteenth century. Nigirizushi was an instant success and it spread through Edo like wildfire. In the book Morisadamanko (守貞謾稿) published in 1852, the author writes that in a cho (100 meters by 100 meters or 10,000 square meters) section of Edo there were 12 sushi restaurants, but that only one soba restaurant could be found in 12 cho. This means that there were nearly 150 sushi restaurants for every soba restaurant.
These early nigirizushi were not identical to today's varieties. Fish meat was marinated in soy sauce or vinegar or heavily salted so there was no need to dip into soy sauce. Some fish was cooked before it was put onto a sushi. This was partly out of necessity as there were no refrigerators. Each piece was also larger, almost the size of two pieces of today's sushi.
The advent of modern refrigeration allowed sushi made of raw fish to reach more consumers than ever before. The late twentieth century saw sushi gaining in popularity all over the world.
The common ingredient in all the different kinds of sushi is sushi rice (simply sushi in Japanese). There is a great variety in the choice of fillings and toppings, condiments, and in the manner in which they are put together. The same ingredients may be assembled in various ways, traditional and contemporary.
All sushi has a base of a specially prepared rice, complemented with other ingredients.
Sushi is made with white, short-grained, Japanese rice mixed with a dressing made of rice vinegar, sugar, salt, kombu (kelp), and sake. It is cooled to body temperature before being used. In some fusion cuisine restaurants, short grain brown rice and wild rice are also used. Sushi rice (sushi-meshi) is prepared with short-grain Japonica rice, which has a consistency that differs from long-grain strains such as Indica. The essential quality is its stickiness. Rice that is too sticky has a mushy texture; if it is not sticky enough, it feels dry. Freshly harvested rice (shinmai) typically has too much water, and requires extra time to drain after washing.
There are regional variations in sushi rice, and of course individual chefs have their individual methods. Most of the variations are in the rice vinegar dressing: the Tokyo version of the dressing commonly uses more salt; in Osaka, the dressing has more sugar.
Sushi rice generally must be used shortly after it is made.
The seaweed wrappers used in maki and temaki are called nori. This is an algae traditionally cultivated in the harbors of Japan. Originally, the algae was scraped from dock pilings, rolled out into sheets, and dried in the sun in a process similar to making paper. Nori is toasted before being used in food.
Today, the commercial product is farmed, produced, toasted, packaged, and sold in standard-size sheets, about 18 by 21 centimeters in size. Higher quality nori is thick, smooth, shiny, black, and has no holes.
Nori by itself is edible as a snack. Many children love flavored nori, which is coated with teriyaki sauce or toasted with salt and sesame oil. However, this tends to be cheaper, lower-quality nori that is not used for sushi.
When making fukusazushi, a paper-thin omelet may replace a sheet of nori as the wrapping. The omelet is traditionally made in a rectangular omelet pan (makiyakinabe) with sugar and rice wine added to the egg, and used to form the pouch for the rice and fillings.
Beef, ham, sausage and horse meat, often lightly cooked.
In Japan, and increasingly abroad, sushi train (kaiten zushi) restaurants are a popular, cheap way of eating sushi. At these restaurants, the sushi is served on color-coded plates, each color denoting the cost of that piece of sushi. The plates are placed on a conveyor belt or boats floating in a moat which travels along a counter at which the customers are seated. As the belt or boat passes by, the customers can choose what they want to eat. When they have finished, the bill is tallied by counting how many plates of each color have been taken. Some kaiten sushi restaurants in Japan operate on a fixed price system, with each plate, consisting usually of two pieces of sushi, generally costing ¥100.
More traditionally, sushi is served on minimalist Japanese-style, geometric, wood or lacquer plates which are mono- or duo-tone in color, in keeping with the aesthetic qualities of this cuisine. Many small sushi restaurants actually use no plates—the sushi is eaten directly off of the wooden counter, usually with one's hands, despite the historical tradition of eating nigiri with chopsticks.
Modern fusion presentation, particularly in the United States, has given sushi a European sensibility, taking Japanese minimalism and garnishing it with Western touches such as the colorful arrangement of edible ingredients, the use of differently flavored sauces, and the mixing of foreign flavors, highly suggestive of French cuisine, deviating somewhat from the more traditional, austere style of Japanese sushi.
In Japanese culture, becoming a sushi chef requires up to ten years of training. Apprentices may start at the age of fifteen or sixteen, and spend the first two or three years sweeping, washing dishes, doing chores, and learning to wash, boil, and prepare sushi rice. Then they learn how to select and buy the freshest fish and how to prepare it. Finally they are taught the techniques for making and presenting sushi, and can work alongside the master chef. It is an honor to become a sushi chef.
Today there is such a demand for sushi chefs, especially in the West, that many receive only six months of training before going to work as qualified sushi chefs. A good sushi chef is also a creative artist, with a repertoire of decorative sushi and sashimi for special occasions.
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