Are you a fan of Japanese cuisine? Perhaps I should be more specific: Are you a fan of sushi and sashimi?
I know I am, and I’m not ashamed of it. My parents introduced me to sushi one day but back then, I was only interested in eating the raw salmon. There was a certain freshness to it especially when it is consumed immediately after the chef prepared it. Each thick slice of salmon slid down my throat, icy cold.
During my dating years, I would drag my boyfriend (who is my husband now) to all the Japanese restaurants so I could have my fill of the exotic raw fish cuisine. From rolls of rice wrapped in seaweed to platters of a variety of raw fish neatly arranged in a small pile and served with a dollop of wasabi and a few strips of pickled ginger. Those were the days.
I have since slowed down on my sushi consumption more likely because of the food price hike and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which caused mayhem in the food and beverage industry. Although, I have always wondered who was the genius inventor of sushi and what was the story behind these delectable pieces of paradise?
What is Sushi?
First, we have to get this out of the way. Many people have the common misconception that sushi means raw fish. No, it doesn’t. Sashimi is the raw fish which is eaten with wasabi and soy sauce. Sushi actually refers to cold rice that has been mixed with vinegar, molded into a circular shape, and garnished with a piece of seafood or vegetable. What we know as sushi (rice roll wrapped in dried seaweed) is known as makisushi, and it is one of the many types of sushi, while inarizushi is a piece of fried tofu stuffed with vinegared rice.
Hence, sushi is not sashimi but sashimi is a meal that is incorporated into sushi.
Hanaya Yohei was his name and the sushi creation was his game. No doubt there are many types of sushi, but for Hanaya, his specialty was nigiri-zushi or hand-pressed sushi. Hanaya may be the genius inventor of sushi but sushi did not originate from Japan. Nope. I thought so myself too, but it actually originated in ancient China!
Before the fish was imported from China, it was salted and wrapped with fermented rice to prevent it from going bad. The result was that the fish could be kept and preserved for months and when eaten, the fermented rice was thrown away. However, during the Edo (the old name for Tokyo) Period from 1603-1868, Japan had designed its own special spin on the meal by creating a type of sushi known as haya-zushi which meant that both the fish and rice could be eaten at the same time.
Edo (present day Tokyo) had experienced a boom in food stalls in the 18th century which were similar to our modern fast food restaurants. As part of the takeout menu, the nigiri-zushi was invented. Hanaya received credit for being its inventor and was known as the Father of Sushi. He eventually started his own restaurant known as Yohei’s Sushi and specialised in making hand-pressed sushi. What struck me as odd was that during the early 19th century, the Japanese had little regard for tuna. However, as the fish was plentiful and once Hanaya began serving them up with soy sauce, his efforts kicked off a tuna craze in Edo and now the fish is one of the most important fishes found in sushi.
Hanaya’s sushi became so popular that soon other sushi chefs began to “borrow” his creation. While Hanaya was credited with being the brains behind one of Japan’s most iconic meals, the government didn’t initially recognize him or his creation. A famine occurred in Edoin 1833 which led to the Tempo Reforms (1841-1843) that cracked down on luxury items. Hanaya and hundreds of other sushi chefs were arrested as sushi violated the sumptuary laws during that time. The reforms failed, however, and the sumptuary laws were no longer enforced, which allowed sushi to resume its spread across Japan. Today, Hanaya Yohei lives on through the nigiri-zushi, Japan’s most famous raw fish dish.
And I have just mopped up a bento box of assorted sushi and sashimi for lunch today.