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A sushi primer

September 15, 2016

There is no Japanese food better known around the world than sushi. Two decades ago, it was little eaten outside of Japan, except at specialized restaurants. Now it can be found in corner shops and high-street supermarkets around the world.

And yet, this food that has captured global appetites – slices of raw fish served on bite-sized patties of vinegared rice – is only one form of sushi, a style that originated two centuries ago. In Japan there are many other styles and traditions, some dating back over a thousand years.

Narezushi: a preserving tradition

In its earliest forms, sushi was developed as a preserving method. The fish, usually freshwater varieties such as carp, would be cleaned and packed whole into large barrels filled with uncooked rice, which was then allowed to ferment. Left for months on end, the proteins in the fish would break down into amino acids, preventing spoilage. When it was ready, the rice was thrown away, and just the fish eaten.

This technique, thought to have been introduced from Southeast Asia in ancient times, results in narezushi (“ripe sushi”). You can still find examples in some parts of Japan, including the area around Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, where it is known as funazushi. Although the aromas of fermentation are pronounced – akin to those of blue cheese – narezushi is often considered a chinmi, literally “rare flavor,” and thin slices of the fish are often served at traditional bars and izakaya taverns as a tidbit to be nibbled on while drinking sake.

By the 15th century, the narezushi fish was starting to be eaten at an earlier stage in its fermentation. It was also served together with some of the sour rice packed in it, instead of throwing all the grain away. Gradually, people began to speed up the fermentation by using rice vinegar. And eventually, the entire process was shortened, by adding vinegar to cooked rice, rather than using the raw grain. This marked the birth of modern sushi, and was the origin of many dishes still eaten today.

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