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A sushi primer

September 15, 2016

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Pressing and scattering

One common style that developed in western Japan is oshizushi (“pressed sushi”) or hakozushi (“box sushi”). Vinegared rice is tamped down inside a box or mold, and then covered with a layer of fish that has also been steeped in vinegar to preserve it. Then it is further pressed down until the texture becomes firm. Removed from the mold, it is then cut and served in slices usually big enough for a couple of bites.

This style of sushi has become very popular as an ekiben (station lunch box) for eating on rail journeys, especially on lines running along the Sea of Japan coast. The best known version is masu-zushi prepared in Toyama Prefecture using locally caught masu (salmon trout). This sushi is often sold wrapped in sasa bamboo leaves, to help preserve it.

When this style of sushi is made for prompt consumption, there is no need for it to be pressed. Instead the vinegared rice is placed in a bowl or other receptacle and covered with a mixture of seafood and other ingredients. This is known as chirashizushi or barazushi (both meaning “scattered” sushi).

Besides sliced fish, standard ingredients include shrimp (broiled or raw), conger eel (cooked and seasoned), and shreds of tamagoyaki omelet. Garnishes such as shiso leaf or even cooked green beans add an extra accent to what is one of the most colorful dishes in Japan cooking.

The original Japanese fast food

The biggest change in sushi arrived in the early 19th century, when enterprising street food vendors in the Shogun’s capital, Edo (modern-day Tokyo) came up with the idea of preparing sushi to order, serving it in bite-sized portions and, for the first time, combining vinegared sushi rice with slices of raw fish.

Because the seafood was caught in Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay), it came to be known as Edo-mae (“in front of Edo”) sushi. A more generic term for this style is nigirizushi (“hand pressed sushi”), from the way the rice is formed before the seafood is placed on top. Prepared, sold and consumed at mobile street-side stalls, this was the fast food of its era. It was served with soy sauce as a dip on the side and with a dab of grated wasabi root under the fish. This is the sushi that has conquered the world.

It wasn't until around the beginning of the 20th century that vendors began to work from enclosed counters and the first sushi restaurants evolved. This process sped up after the devastating Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. In rebuilding the city, the central fish market was moved from Nihonbashi, its traditional home, to the site in Tsukiji that has become world renowned. This led to sushi restaurants clustering close by, especially in the fashionable Ginza district.

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