Sushi are so popular outside Japan that the word "sushi" has become English! Some people even think that "sushi equals Japanese food," but as this website shows, there is a lot more to the cuisine of the Rising Sun.
Interestingly, sushi started as a way to preserve cleaned fish by wrapping it in rice and keeping it for a year or longer in a hermetically closed pot. The rice would ferment and produce lactic acid and alcohol and this would keep the fish fresh - although it would become rather smelly. The all too sour rice would be thrown away when eating the fish. This method is called "narezushi," and it is still applied to making funazushi at Lake Biwa.
Gradually the fermentation period was shortened to a few months and then even a few days, so that the rice would stay fresh enough to be eaten as well (this process is called "namanare"). The custom of eating the combination of fish and sour rice was born!
The next great step was the invention of su, rice vinegar, somewhere around 1600. It was more delicious to add vinegar to the rice to get a pleasant sour taste (sushimeshi). But the vinegar would prevent fermentation, so instead of preserving fish, this became a new dish of fish and rice. It was called "hayazushi," "fast sushi." The rice was put in a wooden box, the fish on top and the whole would be pressed together with a weight, resulting in a sort of "fish on rice" cake that would be cut in one-bite parts. This way of making sushi is still popular (especially in Western Japan) and is called hakozushi ("box sushi") or oshizushi ("pressed sushi").
The final big invention was made in 1818 in Edo, at that time the largest city in the world where life ran along at a fast pace. Making box sushi was much too laborious for the impatient inhabitants of Edo, and a certain sushi maker started squeezing individual sushi with his hands... and so modern nigirizushi was born. This method of making sushi quickly became popular and sushi were sold from booths set up along Edo's roads. They were called Edomaezushi, as the ingredients came from the bay "in front of Edo" (Edomae).
There are today the following five main types of sushi:
- Nigirizushi or "finger sushi" (nigiri literally means "to squeeze"). Squeezed "fingers" of sushi rice topped with a slice of raw fish, etc. The basic type, often called just "sushi." The old name is Edomaezushi as we saw in the above. A variant of this type are gunkan-maki, literally "warship-rolls" (more friendly also called "boat sushi" in English), where nori is wrapped around the sides of a nigirizushi. This is done to prevent loose ingredients as ikura (salmon eggs) from falling off.
- Makizushi or "sushi rolls." With the help of a thin bamboo mat (makisu) sushi rice is rolled together with various ingredients and then cut. Depending on the thickness there are various types such as hosomaki or "thin rolls," which include only one ingredient, or futomaki or "thick rolls," which feature a whole variety. And we also have uramaki or "inside-out rolls," where the nori is on the inside - these include "California rolls."
- Oshizushi or "pressed sushi." Sushi rice with a topping of fish is pressed into a cake form by using a wooden box with lid. We already met these in the above as the type that is older than nigirizushi. Served throughout Japan, although most popular in the Kansai.
- Chirashizushi or "tossed sushi." Fresh raw seafoods (cut in slices as for nigirizushi) are put as a topping over a bed of sushi rice. A variant in Western Japan is Gomokuzushi or "Five Item Sushi" (also called barazushi, "scattered sushi," or mazezushi, "mixed sushi"). The main differences between Chirashizushi and Gomokuzushi are that for the last type no raw seafood is used and that the ingredients are not put on top of the rice, but mixed through it. Moreover, they are finely cut or shredded. Temakizushi also belong in this category, as these are simple "hand rolled sushi," where the nori is folded into a cone and loosely filled with sushi rice and ingredients as one likes - a sort of "party sushi" that is easy to make by the guests themselves by picking their favorite ingredients.
- Sushi pockets. The vinegared rice is used as a stuffing and is usually mixed with some very finely cut vegetables or other ingredients. The main types are inarizushi, where the sushi rice is stuffed into pouches of abura-age (fried tofu) boiled in a sweet sauce; and fukusazushi (also called chakinzushi), where the pouch is made of paper-thin omelette. This is more a snack than a meal.
All the above sushi are made with sushimeshi (vinegared sushi rice) - which is the determining factor whether to call a dish "sushi" or not.
All types of sushi are popular for lunches and picnics and are often sold in take-away restaurants and supermarkets to eat at home. The larger supermarkets and department stores make sushi fresh in their own kitchen.