It’s hard to believe that as recently as 25 years ago, sushi was still considered by many Americans to be an exotic delicacy, one too strange and outside-the-box to pay much attention to. The seemingly simple pairing of raw fish and rice was the domain of the adventurous and the very rich, the ones who were looking to impress. Today, however, there are sushi restaurants of just about every stripe across America, from hole-in-the-wall places turning out serviceable California rolls and tuna sashimi to sprawling emporiums run by internationally renowned chefs, from corner neighborhood favorites to upscale counters that might as well be temples to fish and rice. But even if you’re a sushi fanatic, we bet that there are some things you didn’t know about this deceptively simple food.
Even though sushi had been popular in Japan since the nineteenth century, it only made its way across the Pacific in 1966, when Noritoshi Kanai and business partner Harry Wolff opened Kawafuku in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. It was a huge success with Japanese businessmen, who introduced sushi to their American colleagues. Four years later, Osho opened in Hollywood and became popular with celebrities and other movers and shakers. The trend caught on in New York and Chicago, and it took its first major strides toward becoming mainstream when the California roll, the cuisine’s first attempt at “Americanization,” was invented — most likely in 1973 at a Los Angeles restaurant called Tokyo Kaikan by a chef named Ichiro Mashita. Obviously, LA's contribution to sushi culture in America can’t be overstated.
As with most of the finer things in life, the more you look into sushi, the more you realize how much there is to learn. For many, the boundaries of sushi don’t extend far beyond a slice of fish on a small slab of rice, or rolled up with rice and seaweed, best complemented by some soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger. And that’s perfectly fine; at the vast majority of America’s sushi restaurants, that’s all that’s available, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the deeper you delve into sushi, the more you uncover. Words like sashimi, nigiri, maki, chirashi, and omakase become part of your culinary vocabulary, and before you know it you’re realizing that you prefer yellowtail to fluke. From that moment on, you’re hooked.
We’re certainly living in a golden age of sushi, when high-quality examples can be found at corner drug stores in New York City and at some of America’s most expensive restaurants alike. Sushi masters can spend decades serving sushi and still feel as though they haven’t perfected it, and diners will spend hundreds of dollars to sample perfectly prepared specimens. There’s really nothing else like it. Read on for 10 things you most likely didn’t know about sushi.
The Rice Was Originally Not Eaten, and Helped Ferment the Fish
In the eighth century, a new way of preserving fish was developed in Southeast Asia: a process in which whole fish were salted and wrapped in fermented rice. The primary purpose of the rice was to prevent the fish from spoiling (it was thrown away before the fish was eaten), but over the years, fermentation time decreased and people began eating the rice along with the fish.
It Was an Early Form of Fast Food
By the early 1800s, sushi had become something of a fast food in Tokyo. Chef Hanaya Yohei is generally regarded as having invented “modern-style” sushi at this time, although his fish was generally marinated in soy sauce or lightly cooked to prevent spoilage. Inexpensive sushi stands proliferated, but when they were outlawed by the government due to food standards, the chefs took to opening their own restaurants instead.