The Japanese culinary traditions were greatly influenced by the country’s geographical location. There was no arable land on an island surrounded by ocean waters, which meant that rice, fish and seafood became the main nourishment for the people of the Land of the Rising Sun. For this reason sushi (by the way, the correct spelling is susi), prepared with cooked and specially fermented rice and fish fillet slices, is to this day a traditional food on the tables of Japanese families.
But the sushi does not originate from Japan; it reached the islands from Central Asian countries where the people of fishing villages preserved fish by sprinkling salt inside the fish and then placing it under a stone press. After some time, the weight was removed and the fish was placed in a regular lidded pot. The fish was left to ferment for several months, after which it was deemed edible. Some restaurants in Tokyo still offer freshwater carp sushi prepared according to this recipe.
This is how fish was prepared over a hundred years ago, until one resourceful head chef (his name is known – Yohei) came to an idea to abandon the traditional fermentation technique and to serve the fish raw. Customers immediately took to this novelty food and it gained a lot of popularity. Due to its popularity it spread quickly and in no time new recipes occurred. Rice became an ingredient of sushi thanks to Japanese merchants who traded with rice groats and came up with edible ‘packaging’ – the rice, fish and other ingredients were wrapped in pieces of seaweed. This is to this day considered to be the traditional sushi.
Another interesting fact is that once the rice that had been used for sushi was simply thrown out or used for marinating the next batch of fish. Thanks to the rice the fish remained edible for a full year. It was only in the 16th century when people started to consume fermented rice as food and, after some time, when new fermentation methods were invented, it became the main ingredient of sushi.
Then sushi makers started to add vinegar mixed with salt water to the rice, sometimes also adding sugar, honey and sake. First, the rice was cooked, then the fish, seafood, seaweed and vegetables were added, and finally, this flavoured liquid was poured all over the dish. The flavoured rice was kept under a press for a while and then served for enjoyment.
Sushi recipes have improved and changed over the years and even new ingredients have been added but this base – some rice, a small piece of fish and a sea kale or other seaweed leaf – has always remained the same. It really seems simple but this apparent simplicity is what makes sushi and sushi rolls so attractive to the admirers of Japanese cuisine all over the world.