I was never passionate about sushi-eating. I would have packaged sushi from ShopRite, or the dining hall on my college campus every once in a while, when there was nothing else to choose from. I just wouldn't be the one to text my friends saying, "Hey, you know what? Let's go out for sushi," and I never quite understood those who go crazy for sushi, which to me, is no more than fish over rice.

Am I missing something? I asked myself dozens of times. So here I am, looking into the history of sushi, and how it managed to establish its own culture all across the world.

The Rise of American Sushi

Ariella Kuhl

"Sushi has essentially become an American meal now," Trevor Corson, an actual sushi scholar, told First We Feast. As sushi seems to have become the icon of Japanese cuisine in the US, he does have a point. Nowadays, sushi is offered not only at Japanese restaurants, but also at a vast majority of Chinese or Asian-fusion places, as well as convenience stores.

Unavoidably, the quality of sushi has also suffered. It's no longer about the freshness of fish, the delicate proportions of ingredients and sauces, or the skill of the cooks which often take years of practice. Sadly, we're enjoying sushi the era of mass production.

When I tell my friends that I don't like sushi, they always regard me with an expression that screams disbelief. "How can you not like sushi?" "I just find it very plain." "Well, it's only because you've never had good sushi." Unfortunately, this last statement is quite true. Among my friends, there are also those who like sushi because of the accompanying wasabi, which is not how it was ever meant to be.

I've seen stories of Japanese chefs who spent decades perfecting their sushi-making skills. To me, the sushi culture is more than intriguing, which is what drew me to this subject.

How It All Began

sushi, sauce
Laura Hu

Because sushi's history goes back so far, there is no agreed-upon account of how it all started. The overall consensus is that the history of sushi can be traced back to at least 2,000 years ago in Southeast Asia, most likely China. At the time, sushi neither looked like it does today, nor had the same name. In fact, the creation of sushi was largely due to coincidence–fermented rice seemed to do a good job of preserving fish.

By the fourth century, documentation of this fermentation process could be found in the Chinese dictionary. People put salted fish in cooked rice, so when rice fermented and produced lactic acid, it slowed down bacterial growth in fish. The process is known as "pickling," and is believed to have given sushi kitchens the name of tsukeba, or "pickling place." This allowed fish to last several months longer than being cured alone. 


goody, meat, shrimp, wasabi, tuna, rice, sashimi, fish, seafood, salmon, sushi
Jocelyn Hsu

The idea gradually spread throughout China, and then to Japan, where the food staple was fish. Thus, as people began preparing fish and rice as a combined dish, the first "real" sushi developed, and was given the name narezushi.

Nowadays, there's still narezushi offered in Japanese restaurants. Narezushi refers to a broad category of "matured or aged sushi," and one example would be funa zushi.

In the 15th century, Japan underwent a civil war. The special needs and supply shortages of wartime provided cooks with new opportunities for innovation. As a result, more weight was added to the rice and fish in order to reduce the fermentation period, and the mama-narezushi was born–essentially just narezushi that had not completed fermentation. 

Edo Period

fish, seafood, shellfish, meat, shrimp, sushi
Daniel Felberg

The post-civil war period in Japan was known as the Edo period, and was a great time in Japanese history because of its political stability, economic growth, and–of course–further sushi innovation.

Sushi-making benefited from a new fermentation process, which used rice vinegar to aid the fermentation. Sushi no longer took months to prepare, but as little time as two hours.

Then Hanaya Yohei came along, and revolutionized the sushi industry once again. In fact, his contribution to modern-day sushi was so incredible that he was named the "father of nigiri." 

In 1824, Hanaya Yohei opened his first sushi stall in Edo, or what we know today as Tokyo. He used fresh ingredients and reduced the sushi-making process to a matter of a few minutes, which meant that the fermentation of the old days was no longer necessary. This new type of sushi became known as nigiri sushi, and the trend soon swiped across Edo. Nigiri sushi was made with slices of raw fish, rice, rice vinegar, and salt.

Bringing It In

Chloe He

Hundreds of copycat sushi stalls opened up in the following years. Then a tragedy hit. The Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo, and particularly the sushi vendor business. Falling land prices allowed sushi vendors to start operating indoors, and these new indoor restaurants (specializing in sushi) were referred to as sushi-ya.

Thanks to Noritoshi Kanai, the sushi trend spread to the US and later became a Japanese food staple. It is in large part thanks to Noritoshi that we are so familiar and so appreciative of this unique and ancient cuisine. 

Chloe He

Are you ready to get your sushi fix now that you know the history of sushi? There are definitely great sushi restaurants out there, but ShopRite sushi? Nope, try again.