Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sushi-A Brief Tour

I’m Sushi and I Know It

10,000 years ago in Japan, people had to find a replacement for the meat of large land mammals that disappeared along with the Ice Age. Archaeologists think that they may have been eating acorns.  Not exactly my idea of a great meal.  Maybe that is what drove them to learn to make canoes so that they could reach the better fish further from the coast.  Of course, they didn’t have refrigerators, so they dried the fish.  This first version of sushi was not raw at all, and there was no rice in sight. 
 Inuit Men Drying Fish

And what about the rice?  Rice wasn’t readily cultivated in Japan until 400 BC.  The hull around the rice grain was difficult to remove, and so a system using mallets was created.  This also removed most of the bran, which makes rice brown.  The early Japanese people probably ate a kind of beige colored rice, not really brown, not really white. 

In Southeast Asia, another piece of the sushi puzzle was coming together.  Along the Mekong River in Thailand, Laos, and southern China, the people ate freshwater fish.  The fish weren’t always around though, and the people found a way to preserve fish for the seasons when the fish were gone.  They would pack them in jars full of salt and let it ferment.  Viola, fish sauce, which usually makes first timers want to vomit.  And speaking of vomit, some people couldn’t get the salt to make fish sauce, and others wanted fish, not mush.  Experimentation led to packing a cleaned fish in cooked rice.  The sugar would turn to alcohol, preserving the fish.  However, the liquid was disgusting.  One 12th century Japanese source describes it as, “no different from the vomit of a drunkard.” Hence the suggestion that the word sushi actually means something like sour fish.  Even so, by 718 AD, sushi could be used to pay taxes.
Villagers Making Fish Sauce

Making Sour Fish

Around 900 AD. the wealthy people of Japan  began to feel that they were too refined to eat miso, another result of fermented rice, but this time mixed with the mold Aspergillus oryzae and soy beans.  At the same time, Buddhism was spreading the idea of veganism, and people were trying to enhance the taste of meat free meals.  The solution was a brown liquid that was a by-product of the miso making process.  This liquid became known as soy sauce, and it could be used to make rice and vegetables taste better.  Later, it could also be used to make fish taste better.  Sometime around 1500, a slight modification in the process of making soy sauce led to the discovery of rice vinegar, which is another step closer to modern sushi.
 Making Miso

In Japan, there was a growing wealthy class by 1600.  This group of people owed their status to a powerful warlord who united Japan. It was during this time that several different things happened that led to sushi as we know it today.  The warlord banned the Samurai from carrying swords, and so craftsmen turned to making kitchen implements, including knives that are still among the sharpest in the world.  So much money flowing made it more profitable for fishermen to bring their fish in from the ocean, and people began to eat sushi earlier and earlier in the fermentation process.  Eventually they were eating fresh fish and fresh rice. 

Sushi in the late 1600s and early 1700s was a kind of fast food.  It was sold from street stalls.  Chefs pressed cooked rice into bamboo baskets and topped it with sliced fish.  They would cut pieces out, like cutting a cake, and serve them to people who would eat them with their fingers while standing in the street.  In Kyoto, people liked their rice sweet, while in Tokyo, they liked their rice tangy.  So two distinct types of sushi developed.  It was in Tokyo, then called Edo, that sushi rolls were first served.  In 1818, a chef named Yohei Hanaya wanted to make and serve sushi even more quickly.  He started rolling the rice and fish by hand.  He called the pieces nigiri.  There is even a poem from the time.

                          Crowded together, weary with waiting
                          Customers squeeze their hands
                         As Yohei squeezes sushi.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California, and Japanese men began to flock there along with everyone else.  They began as laborers, first on the railroads, and then in the produce fields that began to supply the country with fruits and vegetables.  By 1910, more than 40,000 Japanese lived along the west coast.  In Los Angeles, Little Tokyo was still growing.  Discrimination was high, and jobs were limited to mostly low paying labor.  Few people had the money for sushi.  Field workers subsisted on discarded fruits and water from irrigation ditches, with flour dumplings as a treat.  Railroad workers lived on canned fish and rice.  However, these immigrants were resourceful, and began to open produce shops and small shops selling imported Japanese foods.  They also opened restaurants, though most of the customers were white.

Through careful planning, the Mutual Trading Company was formed.  Originally it was intended to provide affordable Japanese food for those who were homesick.  WWII put a hold on the business, but the kindness of some Catholic nuns kept the business from going under.  When the war ended, Noritoshi Kanai joined and decided that the company needed to appeal to Americans to be able to continue.  He traveled Japan trying to find the right products.  On one trip in the 1960s, he brought along an American businessman named Harry Wolf (insert snicker here).  Harry went with Kanai to a sushi bar and fell in love.   The two men decided America needed sushi. 
  Noritoshi Kanai

In 1966, Kanai brought a sushi chef to L.A., and installed a sushi bar in a restaurant called Kawafuku.  The place was a hit, but with Japanese businessmen, not Americans.  Sushi bars did begin to open in Little Tokyo, and the Japanese businessmen began to take their American colleagues.  When that first sushi chef went back to Japan, he told his friends about the money to be made in L.A.  There was a rush to America to open sushi bars.  It was 1970 when things really began to change.  A sushi bar was opened near Beverly Hills, and the stars came out.  Celebrities jumped on the exotic meal and it became trendy.  Then restaurants opened in New York and Chicago.  Sushi was on the rise, and the timing was perfect.  Congress announced the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, and the harmful effects of red meat.  Americans began to look at sushi in a whole new way. 
From fish jerky with acorns, to vomit inducing fermented fish, sushi has changed dramatically to become the elegant meal we know today.  It is mass produced by robots and packed into tidy plastic packages now.  In larger cities, you pick your preference from a conveyor belt.  Since 1999, women have been able to go to sushi bars, which were formerly the realm of men.  Women are also crossing to the other side of the bar as chefs, despite the attitude that real sushi chefs are almost like the Samurai of the past.  The training is rigorous, and often involves a lot of yelling, slapping, and stress.  Traditional sushi chefs expect perfection, and there are tons of hidden rules to follow.  And just like with everything else, Americans have changed sushi too.  Wasabi is meant to be eaten only with plain raw fish.  Ginger is meant to clean the palate between different types of nigiri.  We eat our sushi with a lot of sugar added to the rice. And to most Japanese sushi aficionados, American sushi is inside out.  Still, sushi is a food that has always rolled with the punches.  If you haven’t tried it yet, why not take a chance!

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