The origins of sushi

25 August 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

Sushi has replaced the lunchtime order of salad. Rolled-up rice with a sliver of filling has been adopted by Australians and commonly associated with traditional Japanese cuisine.

I’ve  always loved sushi and have spent many nights at places like Sushi Train choosing what I want from the conveyor belt.

When I went on exchange to Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, the first question I asked my host mother was, ‘So, are we going to eat sushi tonight?’ I will never forget the strange look on her face. She said they hardly eat sushi at home.

I was puzzled by the response.  I thought sushi was the main type of food in Japan but we ended up eating sashimi every night, which is just raw fish. Where were the California rolls and canned tuna sushi?

The origins of sushi trace back to China where caught fish had to be preserved.  Cleaned raw fish was kept in rice so that natural fermentation would occur. This would take months and the rice would then be discarded after the process was complete. The fermented fish would later be eaten with new rice.

It was only during the Heian Period that the Japanese picked up this idea, and discovered the process of fermentation could be accelerated with the use of vinegar. Sushi started to develop into a cuisine rather than just a means to preserve fish.

In Edo (now Tokyo), fresh fish slices were used to cover small batches of rice, which were then pressed together, forming nigiri-zushi.

Wasabi (horse radish) is a common condiment normally eaten with sushi and sashimi to kill germs and prevent food poisoning from raw fish. Soy sauce further enhances the fresh flavour of the raw fish.

There are certain etiquettes for eating sushi that don’t require chopsticks. The traditional way to eat nigiri-zushi (which already has wasabi in it) is to use your hands and simply dip the raw fish side in soy sauce with the rice facing upwards, eating the sushi in one mouthful.

California rolls and teriyaki beef sushi may be popular in Australia but you won’t find them in Japan.

Salmon, kingfish and tuna are the most common raw fish sold at Sydney fish markets, but in Japan there are hundreds of sushi combinations. Just within Ishikawa Prefecture there are more than 30 types of fish available throughout the seasons.

The most prized raw fish used in sushi is the southern bluefin tuna, which can sell up to $100,000 at auctions in Japan. About 98 per cent of tuna caught in Australia are anchored off to Port Lincoln, South Australia and then fattened and sold to Japan.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society has listed the southern bluefin tuna as ‘critically endangered’ as a result of overfishing.

Australia agreed to cut its southern bluefin tuna catch by 30 per cent last year following a major international agreement. However, in March the Australian government announced that it would not vote for the global ban on bluefin tuna trade.

Nevertheless, due to the continual shortage of bluefin tuna, Japan has turned to other alternatives for sashimi and sushi, including raw horse meat. There have also been indications that Australia exports horse meat to Japan.

Sushi is connected to the notion of a healthy diet, especially because of omega 3’s from fish and some variations being  low in calories. Japan has the lowest rate of obesity in the industrialised world and medical experts claim this is due to their diet.

Sushi continues to rise in popularity in Australia yet it is completely different to sushi in Japan, a delicacy that should be enjoyed in a specific way so that you can savour the flavours of the fresh fish a little longer.

The initial idea of fermentation has grown into an enormous industry, where sushi is continually being reinvented and increasingly adapted by many countries.

Although I did not end up eating sushi every night in Kanazawa, at sushi trains and sushi-yas, I learnt to appreciate and savour the taste of sushi. I now eat sushi  in one mouthful. It is worth a try.

Joni Sham is a Law and Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney. This is her first piece for upstart.