From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sushi History


After attending the Asian Festival last week, we went to a local favorite for sushi.  (The food at the festival was barely enough to whet the appetite and left us craving more.)  The sheer enjoyment that we all got from the sushi left me to wonder about the origins of sushi and how it managed to gain such a foothold here in the United States.  I have been a fan for years, and I remember meals at local spots in Redwood City and Rohnert Park that always made me want more.

Obviously, sushi does not have Chinese origins.  It is one of the most misunderstood and feared foods in the world, yet it enjoys a near cult-like following from both young and old.  Do the Chinese eat raw fish?
Most would say no. However it is not possible to fully exclude them and say that the Chinese never ate raw fish. What about pickled vegetables, did they always eat them? That answer is yes. Perhaps the question should be: When did Chinese people first eat raw fish? When did they first eat pickled vegetables? Are these two foods Chinese in origin, or do they more correctly rooted from Japan and Korea?

These questions are not designed to make some kind of point. Their purpose is more of an exploration of the origins of sushi. Several of you have asked for answers to this question. Both of these foods are popular in several countries in Asia and there are many misconceptions about them. Your inquiries prompted lots of research, many phone calls, e-mails galore, and more.

When researching ancient Chinese tomes, it is easy to discover that fish does not qualify as the only raw food eaten in China. Records exist about the consumption of long slices of raw fish as early as 500 BCE. Many others indicate that long before the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), people with economic where-with-all ate many raw foods, not only raw fruits and vegetables, but also raw fish and raw meat.

Raw fish was considered a delicacy. It was served with ginger and hot spices, with or without rice. All types of raw food and food mixtures, fish included, were specialities. There is no true reference as to the frequency that such raw foods were eaten.

Culinary historians are not sure if these delicacies were widespread throughout China or if they were localized to the richer class. They say it was popular in earlier times in southeastern regions. Only an occasional reference is made to eating raw fish in China’s north. They do not question that plain raw fish, not raw fish on rice--as current sushi practices dictate, was popular.

Sushi and sashimi consumption was first recorded in Japan after raw fish was eaten in China. In Japan’s Heian Period (794 - 1185 CE) the first written records appear about eating pickled fish. In the 17th century Japanese historians report that they added rice, mixed the rice with vinegar, and put the rice under the sashimi and at that time, they dubbed it sushi.

Others report early pickled raw fish use in both China and Japan. What they are referring to is raw fish layered with salt and rice. Prepared this way, the rice and the salt are removed and then the fish is eaten. This process pickles the fish somewhat. The Cambridge Encyclopedia in Volume Two has an article by Professor N. Ishege, who says that sushi originated as a means of preserving fish to prevent putrefaction. He says that the fish are salted and placed in boiled rice and preserved by lactic acid fermentation. A souring flavor occurs in the process. The fish is eaten only after the sticky decomposed rice has been cleaned off. Ishige refers to this as an older type of sushi that is still produced in Western Japan. There are similar types of fish preservation known in Southwestern China, Korea, and in Southeast Asia.

The evaluation of food history before adequate written records leaves many things questionable. Francois Sabban at the Sorbonne in France, reminds us that this preservation of fish was the way sushi originated but that particular piece of information has yet to be proven. She readily acknowledges that there are many recipes for fish preserved this way and she reminds us that the consumption of plain raw fish was common in ancient China. The dates she gives for that are probably much earlier than the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE (Common Era)), but she can not put her hands on that information yet.

The Chinese called sashimi-type raw fish kuai. They report it beautiful, silver, and probably in use by 300 BCE (Before the Common Era). They also report it cut in thin strips, sort of julienne-like. Sabban does not believe that raw fish was minced, though others do. She says that during Tang Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE), sometimes called 'The Golden Age of Sushi,' raw fish use was very, very popular. She and others agree it pretty much disappeared by the 1600's. Unanimity as to why, does not exist. Current fish preservation as done years ago packed in salt and cooked rice may still be in use in China, but no one can tell us where, so we can not verify that.

Pickled vegetables and other foods may have origins in China, too. At least there are early records that seem to predate the first usage in Korea. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe that pickling of vegetables dates back to 2400 BC, when the ancient Mesopotamians pickled and stored meats and vegetables.  In China, the very earliest can be traced to an old collection of poetry. One poem translated in Chang’s Food in Chinese Culture speaks of sour salad and pickled pork. Another talks of sauces and pickles, and yet another of steeping beef in good wine and then eating it with pickles. What fascinates me the most is the ancient writings that directly reference the process of pickling food, and that people had knowledge about pickling foods more than three thousand years ago. Pickling is also highlighted as to use and beliefs in a section titled: 'Xiao Ya' in a specific poetic stanza that says: "If you slice it up, pickle it, and offer it to your ancestors, your progeny will live long and you will receive the blessings of heaven."

Pickled vegetables seem to have come to Korea some time between the 4th and the 7th centuries of this Common Era. The first record of them appears in an extant item called the Tonggu Gis Anggukship or the History of the Konjo Dynasty; written by Yi Kyu-bo (1164 - 1241 CE). Also, the Korean characters for kimchi are probably derived from two Chinese characters that mean 'salted vegetables.'

Pickling was very common in many cultures. Records of preserving and flavoring foods, in China at least, are quite ancient. Searching old food records is always enlightening, but not always easy to interpret. Material can be controversial because they need to be understood in the larger picture of the times, and not by themselves alone.

One error filled argument about sushi came from a fellow who touted it as one hundred percent Japanese. He was unwilling to share sources, and when pushed about the issue, said that the word 'sushi' was one hundred percent Japanese. We were able to agree with the origins of the word, but do not agree about sushi’s origins. Our best information to date is that sushi--by its Chinese name--is pre-second century and from southern China.  I could only get this guy to concede that the Japanese added vinegar to rice then put raw fish on it in the 1640's. His point was that sashimi was an appetizer, sushi a main course. Again, he refused to divulge his sources. Facts from such folk can be a giggle, and unfortunately they often contort the real issues. He did say that during the Song and Tang Dynasties, the Chinese ate both raw fish and pickled vegetables, but that their Mongol rulers taught them to love meat more. Wonder if he ever consulted a chronology to know that the Mongol leaders ruled China during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 - 1368 CE). That was long after both the Tang and the Song Dynasties.

Early food history has more holes than Swiss cheese, and these holes create huge misconceptions, his included. More food research about raw fish, pickled vegetables, and other foods is needed. As writings and artifacts are unearthed in China, more historical facts and fewer opinions will prevail. Then with an adequate supply of corroborating data, clear indisputable information can prevail. In the meantime, sort out what is known and keep exploring newer data as soon as it is uncovered. Should you have some on these topics, do expand on them and keep us posted.

Now that you have more food to ponder, I hope that when you enjoy your next wasabi induced headache, you remember that sushi is a food with a colorful and storied past.  Enjoy it as you can, and savor the history that it came from.

Until then, Good Eating, Friends…

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