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The History of Sushi, Pt. 2


Welcome to our second entry in our new series “The History of Sushi”! Last time we talked about the early appearance of sushi. We looked at why sushi was created and learned that it was originally stored in fermented rice as a preservation technique. The rice was then discarded and the salted fish was the only part of the dish that was eaten. Over time, different forms of sushi eventually developed and made their way to Japan. But what happened to sushi – or what would eventually become sushi – once it made it to Japan? Let’s take a look at that question below!

Yoro Code

There is no definitive year that sushi was first introduced to Japan. Unfortunately, that’s not how history tends to work. When we’re talking about things that happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago, some guess work is a necessity when it comes to pinning down dates. What we do know is that the earliest known reference to sushi as it appeared in Japan is in the Yoro Code from the year 718. The Romanization of the word that appears in the Yoro Code reads something like zakonosushi. As you can see, the sushi part comes in at the very end of the word. Over the next hundred years or so, eventually the term “sushi” ("鮨" / "鮓") comes into the common vernacular.

Fermentation

As mentioned above, sushi was originally a form of preserving fish in fermented rice. In fact, while the food evolved for around 800 years after its appearance in the Yoro Code, the fermented rice remained an important part of the equation. Once rice vinegar was developed, the overall process of fermenting rice began to be shortened dramatically, and the rice was no longer thrown away but rather eaten with the fish.

Around the 14th century in the Muromachi Period, the fermentation process of the rice was slowly phased out in favor of using vinegar. The resulting sushi was known as Oshizushi. This kind of sushi is still served today! You can find it in many restaurents, and it even still tends to be made using an Oshibako, or a traditional box used to press the rice that was then topped with fish. In the 16th century, however, it appears as though the process of fermentation was back – but drastically shortened.

Look forward to more in the next part of our series!