A conveyor belt sushi (kaitenzushi) restaurant
Credit: Oraz Studio
Some classic Japanese sushi.
A chef at work
Credit: Michael Krigsman
A symbol of Japanese culture
Sushi restaurants are found worldwide, and the consumption of sushi has almost become second nature in the west. However, sushi, a symbol of Japanese culture abroad, remains an expensive and luxurious food reserved for special occasions.
The story of sushi
Originally from Southeast Asia, the concept of what would eventually become sushi first spread to reach China. It was the Chinese who, in the fifth century BC, invented the first method of preserving fish. The method was to salt it then cover it with rice - the fish was then preserved from rot, and could be kept for several months. While this technique quickly disappeared in China, the Japanese, big consumers of fish, took to the idea, and soon adapted it. This way, the Japanese living further inland could also eat fish, by way of what was then called narezushi, several days or even months after fishing. Later, namanare was invented: raw fish was again surrounded with rice. However, it was no longer a question of preserving the fish, but simply of consuming it differently, by way of a new recipe.
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A third version of sushi later emerged, called haya-zushi, which this time allowed for the consumption of the fish and rice at the same time, the rice having been previously vinegared and mixed with vegetables. But it wasn't until the early nineteenth century that sushi as we know it appeared. Edo, the city that would become Tokyo, was in full swing. Yatai, ancestors of food trucks, filled the streets and offered fast food that was easy to eat. Hanaya Hohei created nigirizushi, a small ball of vinegared rice, topped with raw, but slightly marinated fish, refrigeration techniques still not being too advanced. Nigirizushi became popular throughout the city! Later, following the big earthquake of 1923 and the subsequent dispersion of the surviving chefs in the country, sushi became a national hit.
From 3-star to 100 yen sushi
The government ended up banning these low price sushi stalls, and it was then that discrete but luxurious restaurants began to make their appearance, called ryotei. Businessmen and politicians met there and ate sushi, with geisha for company, until the end of the twentieth century. Today, any well-connected citizen can access such restaurants, which are sometimes even Michelin-starred.
It was chef Jiro and his restaurant in Ginza, immortalized in the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" which led the way: it was the first sushi restaurant to receive three stars from the famous Michelin Guide. Of course, not everyone can afford to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but don't panic: you can find sushi everywhere in Japan, at prices suitable for all wallets. Even kaitenzushi restaurants have been developed here, where sushi travels around the restaurant on a conveyor belt. It's very popular because of the fun aspect of the service, these restaurants are also very affordable, from 100 yen per plate! While the quality obviously isn't the same as that of more upscale restaurants, the sushi is still great value for money.
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Sushi, adapted to infinity
If the upscale restaurants focus exclusively on sushi in its most traditional form, a rice ball topped with fish or raw shrimp, or even an omelet, this hasn't stopped sushi from being adapted in many other forms: makizushi, fish surrounded by rice and a sheet of nori seaweed, temakizushi, a nori cone filled with vinegar rice and fish, chirashizushi, a shallow bowl of sushi rice topped with a variety of fish, egg and vegetables inarizushi, a fried tofu pouch filled with sushi rice... So, depending on the region and season, you can find local specialties all over Japan.
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But the adaptation of sushi doesn't stop there: from the 1980s, sushi began to be exported outside Japan. Indeed, it's now possible to eat sushi all over the world, and of course different countries have adapted sushi in different ways. The best-known adaptation is probably the California roll, by which sushi managed to conquer the Americas. It is almost impossible to find in Japan. Similarly, avocado, a very popular sushi filling in the west, is rarely seen in traditional Japanese sushi.
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In the west, Japanese restaurants often offer menus combining sushi with yakitori, kara-age, or gyoza, which would be unthinkable in Japan. The nori seaweed might also be replaced by cucumber or lettuce. The Koreans have developed kimbap, greatly inspired by Japanese maki. There are also countless variations from so-called fusion cuisine, which means that today, sushi is found in all sorts of previously unimaginable forms, with or without fish, savory or sweet.