When you think of sushi, you probably picture glistening pieces of expertly cut raw fish over rice. You might be surprised to learn that the sushi that you order at an expensive restaurant bears little resemblance to the original dish. Fish and rice have always been a popular part of the Japanese diet, but before the advent of refrigeration, the fish was commonly fermented so that it might be preserved. Also, the fish was cut in much larger portions instead of dainty mouthfuls. Just two or three pieces were enough for a meal. When vinegar became popular, modern sushi came into being. (The word “sushi” means vinegared rice.)
Common sushi fish included mackerel, clams, shrimp and whitefish. Tuna was not generally consumed as sushi until the 1940’s, and the tuna belly that is so prized today was considered “trash” and discarded. Some other relatively recent additions to the sushi menu are salmon roe and sea urchin. Today, diners can enjoy many different styles of fish with rice: battera, or pressed mackerel sushi; maki, or rice rolls with nori seaweed (in Japan, cucumber or tuna rolls are common); chirashi (assorted raw fish scattered over a bowl of rice); sashimi (thinly-sliced raw fish commonly served with a bowl of hot rice on the side); and the traditional nigiri-zushi. The next time you order the omakase (chef’s special) at your favorite sushi bar, you might think about the history of sushi.