Some like their fish hot and spicy, some prefer it mild and creamy, and some others want theirs fried. I, on the other hand, like mine raw, accompanied with rice and wrapped in seaweed. If you are wondering what’s got into me today, I have only one word to say — sushi. Seasoned with soy, accompanied by pickled ginger, it is one of my favourite comfort foods.
While sushi is now almost synonymous with Japanese cuisine, various sources say it was first made in either China or south east Asia. Contrary to popular perception, sushi is not raw fish — that would be sashimi. Sushi is vinegared rice served with various fillings and toppings, which may include raw fish. The toppings may differ depending on where it is being prepared. Raw fish will be used in areas where fresh fish is available close at hand (eg-Tokyo), others may use other seafood or ingredients like omelette and vegetables.
Sushi today has three basic components, shari, neta and nori. Shari is the white, short-grained, Japanese rice base; neta the topping and nori the black seaweed covering that keeps the rice packed.
The modern sushi differs vastly from its many predecessors but as a dish, it has existed for over two thousand years in some form or other. It was first prepared as a means of pickling and preservation. According to food historian B W Higman, the earliest variety of sushi involved packing rice inside a gutted fish and storing it over weeks. As the rice fermented it prevented the fish from spoiling and once the process was complete, the rice was discarded. The fish was well pickled and ready to be relished. It ensured that fish could be transported inland and was also handy for travellers going on long journeys.
Over a period of time the Japanese developed a fondness for the sour tasting rice left behind and began eating the fermented rice and preserved fish together. Sushi has gone through many changes since its alleged origins in the early BCs. The invention of rice vinegar made the fermentation process unnecessary and by the 18th century, sushi began resembling its modern avatar. In the 18th and 19th centuries nigirizushi was developed — the type to first use raw fish — and is the main style of sushi popular today. Back in the 1800s, sushi was vended from mobile food stalls in Edo (now Tokyo). At the time, a slice of fermented fish draped atop an oblong mound of rice comprised sushi.
Then came its more convenient form where lightly cooked or marinated fish was served on top of small vinegared rice balls. This was the creation of Hanaya Yohei, the man who is generally referred to as the father of modern sushi. But even he did not use raw fish as topping. Raw fish sushi (nirgrizushi) gained nationwide popularity only by the 1950s when modern transportation and refrigeration made it easier to keep it fresh. When using raw seafood, freshness is of paramount importance — for culinary, sanitary and aesthetic reasons. Fish, once caught, is flash frozen only to be thawed just before being served so as to preserve its freshness. Even sushi chefs or Itamae go through years of training and practice before they can prepare a dish that can be served to diners. No wonder then that they are revered and well respected. There are even rules as to how sushi should be eaten. Sushi etiquette requires that one dip the sushi topping-side down into the soy sauce to prevent the rice from soaking up too much sauce; leaving stray grains of rice in the sauce is considered rude. Sushi can also be eaten with your fingers and preferably each roll in one bite.
When prepared fresh, sushi is a great source of nutrients. Of late, many concerns have been raised about high levels of mercury in tuna, a favourite ingredient of sushi chefs and diners alike. And then there is a whole debate about indiscriminate fishing for human consumption and that applies to all fish eating cultures. But that’s a story for another day.