It’s worth considering whether the opening ceremony to the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo will feature a nod to the origins of sushi, as discussed in this recent travel article. What we consume today in our local sushi restaurants is most likely to be a form of sushi which only appeared during the early modern period, known as hayazushi, ‘fast sushi’ (and depicted above in a painting by Hiroshige). The original version of sushi is narezushi (‘fermented sushi’), which includes the specific kind profiled in the article, the rare and ancient funazushi (made from funa, ‘carp’). Let us turn to how the Japanese came to carp at fermented sushi and take the fun out of funazushi.
Narezushi dates back some 1000 years to the ancient capital of Nara in the 8th century. Naomichi Ishige relates in his 2001 book The History and Culture of Japanese Food that this predecessor to modern sushi was prepared in parts of Southeast Asia and China as well. Specific kinds of fish, including carp, would be caught during the April to June spawning period; the catch would be gutted and descaled, and then pickled in salt; the fish would be rinsed in late July; and then layers of boiled rice and the pickled fish would be placed in a barrel along with water. The concoction would ferment, and smaller fish would be ready to eat by the new year, while larger fish would be pickled for about two years. The quantity of the product was small, and so it was considered a delicacy and side-dish. In other words, the modern idea of consuming several pieces of sushi with unpickled fish was, according to this recipe, not fer-meant to be.
The next major stage in sushi’s history was the creation in the 15th century of namanare-zushi, ‘raw-mature sushi’, which we would now consider an intermediate phase between narezushi and modern sushi. As the name suggests, the fish was fermented for only a few days to a month. The rice is vinegary in flavour, while the fish is fresh. The fish was thus eaten with the rice, rather than the latter being largely discarded as with narezushi. This form, then, was both a snack and a staple food, and prepared in short time for festivals and feasts rather than fermented for long periods. It did not require a specific seasonal catch, and involved varieties of fish and even vegetables. Preparation involved only a single bed of rice and fish, and would be sliced into large pieces as is still the case in Osaka hakozushi (‘box sushi’). Those purists attached to narezushi may have regarded namanare-zushi and hakozushi in particular as an O-sakrilege, and thought that anyone listening to the recipe should have their ears boxed.
The transition to modern sushi took place during the Edo period, 1603-1868. Prior to the early seventeenth century, Japan was embroiled in the Sengoku, or warring states, period–famously depicted in such classic films as Seven Samurai. The protracted period of civil wars finally ended with the victories of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early 17th century. Tokugawa established a Shogunate, or military government, ruled by him and his descendants and with its capital at Edo, in modern-day Tokyo. The long Edo period was one of peace, prosperity, and urbanity; the samurai, the feudal warrior class, turned into bureaucrats. This was also the era of the ‘floating world’, referring to the urban culture and pleasures of the time, including consumer luxuries, prostitution, theatre, and restaurants. Appropriately, hayazushi, ‘fast sushi’, was born then, with rice and fresh fish buoyant on the floating world.
Hayazushi is so-called because it doesn’t involve any of the fermentation time of narezushi or even namanare-zushi. Freshly caught fish was placed on rice, and vinegar added to the latter to bring out the acidic flavour which occurred in the earlier form of sushi. While hayazushi was first introduced in the early 17th century, it really took off by the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a staple in snack shops in urban districts. The most popular form was and is nirigi-zushi: vinegar is added to salted rice, wasabi is applied to a slice of fish, and the two are stuck together. Doing so properly requires long training, as viewers of the wonderful 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi will be well aware. Soya sauce is added to nigiri and the palate is refreshed with a little ginger. Other forms, of course, include maki (rolled in seaweed) and chirashi, in which pieces of raw fish are placed atop a bowl of sushi rice. For sophisticated urbanites in a hurry in Edo Japan, this new fast food was a novelty, to which they greeted, ‘haya, sushi!’; while the earliest form was only for the nare-minded. It is nevertheless the case that hayazushi belongs to a culinary tradition beginning with narezushi, though as a rather distant descendant given the much faster preparation. For traditionalists, then, there is something fishy and rather bitter (or at least acidic) about modern ‘fast sushi’.
Till next time,
Early Modern Sush-eer determination Studies Program