Avid sushi eaters might not know that the ancient fish-and-rice dish has been around for more than 2,000 years, in some form or another at least. While the dish has adapted over time, it carries with it a rich and storied tradition of Japanese cuisine and culture. In fact, ancient sushi-eaters might not even recognize the dish that we know and love today!
Before we reveal tips to make your own sushi, let’s take a look at how sushi became popular in the first place, its transformation over time, and ultimate spread to nearly 4,000 restaurants in the U.S. alone.
Back in the 5th century BCE, the earliest version of sushi was made in the rice paddy fields of Southeast Asia. The fish was salted, packed with rice and then weighed down with a heavy stone to age. After a year or more of this “pickling,” the stone was lifted, the rice was tossed and only the preserved fish was consumed. Imagine one year for your treasured sushi—oh how far we have come!
While there are countless legends, the concept of sushi was likely introduced to Japan in the 9th century where it spread across the country alongside Buddhism, a tradition that restricted the consumption of red meat. It was here in Japan that sushi was first prepared and consumed with both the fermented rice and the preserved fish. This form of sushi is called “nare-sushi,” or “aged sushi.”
Fast forward a few years to the evolution of “han-nare sushi” which was similar in preparation to “nare-sushi” but instead this sushi was preserved for just one to four weeks, as opposed to 365 days. Still a long time for sushi—but our wait time is decreasing! By the 18th century, “haya-nare sushi” had become the preferred dish of choice and the Japanese were shortening the prep time even more thanks to vinegar, which sped up the fermenting process.
We finally start to see what sushi resembles today by the early 20th century in Tokyo. Except instead of bite sized bundles of rice beneath a strip of raw fish, it was about the size of a small burrito which shrunk in size as time went on.
The sushi we know and love today, raw fish over rice and inside out hand rolls, came into existence in the 1960s. The refrigerator was a game changer for sushi because it replaced preserving methods. Sushi went from street snacks to luxury fare, ironically returning to the elite status it had in its first year-preserved “nare-sushi” form.
The sushi craze soon spread internationally, becoming both a widely demanded and desired dish. Only in the 1980s did sushi become less exclusive and more accessible to the general masses, really taking off in popularity come the 1990s and 2000s, with both a return to more traditional Japanese style as well as continued fusions with Western ingredients.
Today in many places, sushi is almost as common as a hamburger. A salmon roll can be enjoyed at the most upscale of restaurants or in the comfort of your own home! For those looking to create your own sushi masterpieces, here are some helpful tips below.
Touch the Fish: When choosing the fish, look underneath the gills. Lift to see if it’s pink and red—those colors indicate freshness. Also, be sure that the fish meat is firm. A “mushy feel” often means it’s already started to go bad.
Look for Freshness: If touching isn’t allowed in the buying process, a large and tight belly, as well as clear eyes, are good indicators of freshness.
Choose the Right Rice: When making the rice, choose a white rice with super-short grains, and be sure to mix it with regular rice vinegar (the seasoned kind often contains unnecessary ingredients).
Don’t Squeeze the Rice: Rice should never be squeezed. Rather, gently slap it into shape so the rice clumps but doesn’t lose the air between kernels.
Properly Position the Seaweed: Always be sure to have the rough side of the nori (dried seaweed) facing inwards. The smooth side should face out.