Fingers and chopsticks are welcome. Forks and knives are not.
Sushi has names and customs that challenge the imagination. Creative sushi chefs (Itamae) are always coming up with something new and different. People love it. In the U.S. alone, the sushi industry is worth $22 billion, with over 4,000 sushi shops around the country. A sushi chef is highly skilled – those individuals go through up to ten years of rigorous training to become a master itamae.
Where did this versatile, beautiful-to-look-at-and-eat food come from? Most of us know the answer: Japan.
It’s like the California Roll originating in the U.S. (it came from Canada) and French Fries coming from France (they came from Belgium), sushi has taken some colorful twists and turns.
Go back to Southeast Asia, over two thousand years ago. They needed a way to preserve fish. They gutted, salted, and wrapped fresh fish in rice. Fermented rice produces an acid (lactic acid bacilli) that prevents spoiling. After many months, the rice was discarded and the fish eaten. It was called narezushi.
According to Tori Avey in PBS, “this process is sometimes referred to as pickling, and is the reason why the sushi kitchen is called a tsuke-ba or pickling place.”
The idea spread to China during the second and third centuries. Han-Chinese eagerly adopted foods from other cultures. They called narezushi “fish pickled by rice and salt”.
The technique finally arrived in Japan in the eighth century. The Japanese created namanare or partially fermented sushi. According to Wikipedia, “the invention of namanare sushi changed from a preserved fish food to a food where fish and rice are eaten together.”
The Japanese chef gutted the fish, cleaned it with sake (rice wine), and stuffed it with uncooked rice, fermenting it for two to three months.
Namanare smelled bad. The chefs added vinegar which created a pleasing odor and sped up fermentation.
It worked . . . but didn’t quite look like a sushi deluxe.
Years later in 1600, the town of Edo (Tokyo) began to grow. People came from all over the country, swelling the population to over one million. With so many people, Edo developed its own customs, tastes, and an iconic fast-food snack called nigiri sushi. It was made by pairing vinegar rice with fresh fish.
Sound familiar yet?
It took another two hundred years for the rest of the world to realize what they were missing.
Meet Noritoshi Kanai and his Jewish Business Partner, Harry Wolff. The Tokyo Journal called Kanai “the man who brought sushi to America.” The partners opened a restaurant in Los Angeles called Kawafuku and brought in Chef Saito to run the first sushi bar in America. Kanai described how they grew. “Many Japanese businessmen brought their American colleagues [who] loved sushi and they introduced more Americans to the restaurant.”
It was the 1960s.
Today sushi is loved around the world. You can get it in restaurants, markets, on a moving sushi train (conveyer belt where you select your rolls), and prepared boxes. You can find everything from Americanized pieces like California, Philadelphia, Dragon, and Alaska Rolls or the traditional tekka maki (tuna), temaki (hand rolls in a cone shape), and negihama maki (yellowtail and scallion). How about a splash of crunchies or spicy mayonnaise? Soy sauce with wasabi and ginger? There are even tempura rolls, sushi pizza, sushi ice cream, and Oreo sushi.
The beauty of sushi is its adaptability.
If you’re really hungry, imagine the world’s longest sushi roll at over 9,000 feet. It contained daikon radish and sesame and took 400 people to create. What about the most expensive roll, created by Filipino Chef Angelito Araneta, Jr., who offered 5 nigiri pieces wrapped in gold, decorated with pearls and diamonds, and sold for $2,000? Sushi Kirimon, a restaurant in Japan, serves the most expensive dinner with 20 pieces of rare fish like sei whale tail and big fin reef squid, all for $2,475.
Are you looking for something weird? Sushi combos like Dorito crunch, Kit Kat, grasshopper, and Nutella rolls might be your thing. If all else fails, you can get a supersized sushi plush, a Barbie doll sushi house accessory, or a My Little Pony sushi truck.
What are you waiting for?