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On the Origin of Sushi

Tom Smith investigates the evolution of Japan’s best-loved fast food.

Sushi California Roll

Sushi is serious business. Thought to be healthy, fresh and hip, the combination of vinegared rice with various toppings (notably fish) has become the food associated with Japan, and its history there stretches back almost as far as the country’s writing system. But if you thought the iconic delicacy was Japanese in origin – or even fresh for that matter – hold on to your chopsticks.

Sushi was always “fresh”. An early form of it was invented as a way to preserve food, allowing the storage of fish and meats for any time between a few days to a couple of years. The clever folk of Southeast Asia realised that this happens when fermenting rice extracts the lactic acids from protein-rich food, and thus developed an invaluable way of storing.

But this method resulted in the rice being inedible by the end of the process – sacrilege to any Japanese. Rice is central to Japanese culture and is enjoyed with nearly every meal – even the Japanese words for breakfast, lunch and dinner directly translate as morning-rice, midday-rice and evening-rice. Soon after the dish was introduced to Japan, local cooks started modifying it. It became less about preservation and more about fast, delicious fish served with that all-important rice. And sushi as we know it today was born.

Despite its long history in the east, the west has only been introduced to sushi in recent years – the first sushi restaurant only appears in the United States a mere 50 years ago. And, much like when sushi was first introduced to Japan, changes are, and have, taken place to make the dish more appealing to western palates.

Perhaps the best example of this changing of the sushi-formula is with the humble California roll. With such a tight and competitive sushi market in 1960s Japan, some ventured to pastures new – particularly America – in order to explore the possibilities of sushi abroad. However, these chefs were faced with one problem that they perhaps underestimated; the majority of Americans were not ready to contend with raw fish.

Noticing the universal problem, they started toying with sushi to create something essentially Japanese in style, but appealing to American tastes at the same time. Ichiro Mashita is widely credited for finding the solution. By using cucumber, crab meat and replacing tuna with avocado in a reverse roll, where the seaweed which would traditionally be on the outside was now on the inside, he found that customers were now happily indulging themselves.

Sushi Yoshio Maekawa at Yoshihachi

While I was in Okinawa this summer, locals pointed me in the direction of one such chef who owned a restaurant in America during this period; Yoshio Maekawa of the Yoshihachi sushi bar in Chatan. According to local legend, it’s him, not Mashita, who was responsible for creating the California roll and that he even reached celebrity status during his time in America. While I couldn’t find any evidence to support the California roll claims, his humble restaurant was decorated with evidence of his status – photos of him with State senators, actors and famous musicians took up every available space. The tables were also packed with Americans, many of them top military personnel, drinking and eating merrily. Maekawa-san was busy behind the bar, preparing food. A look on his menu confirmed why this place was so popular; amongst 200 choices of sushi were some of his certified original concoctions; for the health-conscious there’s the vitamin C-enriched Sweet Potato roll, plus three trademark creations made especially for Okinawa’s American population. Perhaps one of them the next big thing in international sushi. The United Kingdom has a lot of catching up to do.

Jerome chows down

Sushi has nothing to do with Manga Entertainment. Although here you can see our Head of Acquisitions “acquiring” some.

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