Sushi. California rolls, sashimi, miso soup, and tempura. Don’t forget the sake.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when Americans started embracing sushi. This classic Japanese food has been a staple for date nights and GNOs for our entire lives. But where did sushi originate? And how much has it changed?
There is an old wive’s tale to be told here. Sushi was said to have been discovered by an elderly woman who was trying to hide her pots of rice from thieves. She discovered that pieces of fish mixed in with the rice. The rice was fermented around the fish, resembling what we know as modern sushi.
As with many cuisines of the world, it takes several decades for a dish to turn up in a commercial setting. Sushi dates back to the 9th century. In a PBS article, author Tori Avey explains the rise of sushi consumption.
In 1606, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a Japanese military dictator, moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo. Edo seemed to undergo an overnight transformation. With the help of the rising merchant class, the city quickly turned into a hub of Japanese nightlife. By the 19th century, Edo had become one of the world’s largest cities, both in terms of land size and population.
“In Edo, sushi makers used a fermentation process developed in the mid-1700s, placing a layer of cooked rice seasoned with rice vinegar alongside a layer of fish. The layers were compressed in a small wooden box for two hours, then sliced into serving pieces. This new method greatly reduced the preparation time for sushi… and thanks to a Japanese entrepreneur, the whole process was about to get even faster.”
In the 1820s, and man named Hanaya Yohei stumbled into Edo, in search of opportunity. He opened up the very first sushi stall in the Ryogoku district. He used freshly caught fish from the bay, so he didn’t need to use old fermentation processes that dragged out eating the sushi for months.
In the 1920s, hundreds of stalls were propped up throughout the city. After a major earthquake hit the area, buildings became a lot cheaper to rent. Many stall owners moved their stuff inside, marking the first step towards modern sushi.
Los Angeles was the first city in America to successfully embrace sushi. In 1966, a man named Noritoshi Kanai and his Jewish business partner, Harry Wolff, opened Kawafuku Restaurant in Little Tokyo. Kawafuku was the first to offer traditional nigiri sushi to American patrons. The sushi bar was successful with Japanese businessmen, who then introduced it to their American colleagues. In 1970, the first sushi bar outside of Little Tokyo, Osho, opened in Hollywood and catered to celebrities. This gave sushi the final push it needed to reach American success.
The story of sushi. From the 9th century to the 21st, humans have been innovating food and finding ways to do sushi. What you consume now has some similarities to what the Japanese ate long ago. With each bite, remember the history and the culture behind your California Roll.