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The history of sushi on International Sushi Day

From the early days along the Mekong river to the bustling scene in Tokyo, take a look at the history of sushi on 18 June, aka International Sushi Day

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The 18 June is also known as International Sushi Day. This day celebrating all things sushi, all around the world has been going since 2009. The day was created for one reason, and one reason only – to encourage more people to eat and love sushi. But what about the history of this deliciously fishy dish?

The earliest form of Sushi, commonly known as Narezushi (Japanese for 'salted fish'), originated in the paddy fields along the Mekong river in Southeast Asia.

The fish was stored in fermented rice and salt to prevent it from spoiling or rotting under the humid conditions of the region, and also because the use of salt and rice contributed to making the fish more moreish and tasty.

Photo by Mojitaba Hoseini on Unsplash

Photo by Mojitaba Hoseini on Unsplash

Sushi was gradually adopted by other regions in Southeast Asia and the earliest reference to sushi in Japan appeared in 718, when a tax certification for an order of something called Narezushi was published in the Yōrō Code, a book regarding a set of governing rules during the Nara period in Classical Japan. So it sounds like we know more or less precisely when sushi first appeared in Japan because someone was particularly scrupulous with their tax return.

Sushi masters of the 16th century

Sushi remained virtually unchanged for over 700 years until the 16th century, during the Edo period, when sushi masters began tinkering with the recipe, thus creating something called Haya-zushi, which consisted of both rice and fish. But unlike previous forms of Sushi, rice was supposed to be consumed along with the fish. This was made possible because, around the same time, Japan had created a new type of ingredient, rice vinegar. This drastically reduced the amount of time it took to make sushi because rice vinegar fermentation didn't require weeks or months, as it was the case with rice and salt.

Rice vinegar and the 18th and 19th centuries

The development of rice vinegar completely changed the game and accelerated the growth of the sushi restaurant scene through the 18th and 19th century. In this respect, one of the early references to the bustling sushi scene of Japan was found in the 1852 book Morisada Manko, by Kitagawa Morisada. The author wrote that for every 'chō' (equivalent to around 0.11 km x 0.11 km) there were two sushi restaurants for every soba (Japanese noodles) restaurant in the Edo region (Edo is the former name of Tokyo).

Photo by Sorasak on Unsplash

Photo by Sorasak on Unsplash

Now, it's important to remember that the term "restaurant" can be a bit misleading because, for the most part, the sushi shops of the early days had very little in common with the sushi restaurants we know today. Typically, sushi chefs would prepare the food and then sell it through sushi stalls. The advent of modern refrigeration changed that because preserving fish became easier, thus allowing amazing new possibilities in terms of ingredients and techniques.

Photo by Derek Duran on Unsplash

Photo by Derek Duran on Unsplash

The word sushi first appeared in Japanese-English dictionaries in 1873, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest mention of sushi in the Western hemisphere dates back to 1893, found in a book about interior design. It read: "Domestics served us with tea and sushi or rice sandwiches". A few years prior, in the 1879 best-selling book 'A Tour Around the World by General Grant', written by James Dabney McCabe about former president Ulysses S. Grant, the then president of the United States was described as "dining with sashimi [fresh raw fish] during his visit to Japan".

Recent decades

Over the last 50 years, Sushi has grown in popularity and availability in the West to a point where it's hard to think of any capital or major city that doesn't have a sushi restaurant. Surprisingly, New York holds the record for the second most restaurants per capita in the world (after Tokyo), which means that there are apparently more sushi restaurants in New York than there are in Kyoto or Osaka.

Then in third place, you might want to sit down for this, we find Tel Aviv in Israel. Mind you, it's fair to say that these statistics probably do not include small and local sushi shops you'll find in Japan, but definitely won't find in New York.

Photo by Danis Lou on Unsplash

Photo by Danis Lou on Unsplash

In 2007, Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza, Tokyo became the first sushi restaurant in the world to receive three stars from the Michelin Guide and then in 2019, it was stripped of the three Michelin stars because the restaurant no longer accepts direct reservations from the general public.

What was your best sushi experience? Feel free to share in the comments

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