Mystery of Sushi
In the previous article “What is Washoku? Part I”, I confessed that I did not know what Washoku (Japanese cuisine) really was, I mean. which dishes can be categorized as Washoku.
For me to understand clearly what Washoku means, I would like to look back to the history of each popular Washoku dish.
Sushi is, without question, one of the national dishes which represent Washoku. There will be no one who denies it and now it is well known in many other countries outside Japan. I may not have to explain what Sushi is but I put a photo of famous sushi just in case.
Sushi (Nigiri-sushi) was born in Tokyo in Edo period. The oldest documentary record of Sushi is in a collection of Senryū poetries, ‘Yanagidaru’, which was written in 1827. It is said that Hanaya Yohei or Sakaiya Matsugoro invented the Edo-style Sushi. But I’ve heard that it was someone who had just put a slice of cooked fish on a rice ball (onigiri). Seen and heard by many other people, the original style was modified and improved continuously and finally reached the standard style that we know now of Sushi. This Edo-style Sushi is called “Edomae-sushi”, which literally means “Edo front Sushi”. It is called “Edo front” because Sushi was made with fish that were captured in bay of Edo (Tokyo). As I wrote in “What is Washoku? Part I”, Edo was full of workers who needed to feed themselves outside. For those demand, there were many stalls where they sold ready-made food, such as Fish and Chips in Great Britain. So, Sushi was born as fast food. People used to eat three or four pieces of sushi standing in front of stalls and walk away as soon as they finished eating.
According to Rosanjin, this custom had been continued for long and people started to eat Sushi seated after the World War II ended at length. This fast-food aspect still remains in language. The verb “eat” is not used for Sushi, but instead, “Tsumamu (to pinch)” is used. Of course, they used to eat Sushi not with chopsticks but with fingers. They say Gari gingers were used to wipe their fingers on!
Fresh fish goes bad easily. In Edo period, there was no refrigerator, of course, and ice was very precious because the temperature of Edo scarcely went below zero degree like now. So people could not use fresh fish raw, even though Tokyo bay was much closer than as it is now. (The bay side was reclaimed continuously from Edo period. If you are interested in knowing more about the past geography of Tokyo, please have a look at my previous article; “What was Edo like before Edo Period?”
The first artificial ice was made in Japan in Meiji period, in 1877, and in 1899, the first refrigerated warehouse was built in Yonago, Tottori. (Information from Housenreizou Co.,Ltd.)
Edo people who were famous for their quixotic courage even hesitated to eat fish in raw, nor did they ever imagine Sushi with raw fish at that time. So, many techniques were invented to make Sushi safer and more delicious. Edo-style techniques were mainly “pickling” in salt, vinegar, and soy sauce, “wrapping” with Kombu kelps, and “boiling” in soy sauce-based liquid.
That’s why sushi lovers now would still say “If you eat Kohada (middle sized dotted gizzard shad), which is pickled, and Anago (Congridae), which is cooked, you can tell the quality of Sushi restaurants.”.
Thinking about Sushi , I remembered my great grandfather’s word which was handed down to me, “Edokko (Edo native) never eats fatty part of tuna. That’s a rubbish.”
Sushi was born in early 1800’s. Within approximately 200-year history of Sushi, it has undergone many modifications as well as people’s change. It started as fast food, became luxury food during Japanese post-war economic miracle and recently, it has become casual food which goes round on conveyor belt. In liberal contemporary Japan, there are all styles of Sushi. You can spend 50,000 yen for each or in one coin, 500 yen, depending on your demands. Making Sushi is thought to require an experience, wide knowledge and a high technique. However, at some places and in some occasions inexperienced temporary staff or robots will make Sushi. Moreover, the rubbish has become luxury food which can take people in a dreamy state of mind. My great grandfather, who was a chef, would never believe this metamorphosis and chaos which we see today.
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