history of sushi, authentic sushi, sushi evolution

Sushi has evolved and is still evolving over time, but there is an underlying essence to this food that cannot and does not transcend national borders or cultural boundaries. In this paper I will look at the history of sushi and why it will always taste better in; be a symbol of; and always belong to; Japan.

nare-zushi, origins of sushiThe actual word Sushi is derived from the Japanese word ‘Su’ (meaning vinegar) and the term ‘Meshi’ (meaning rice.) Sushi is basically vinegared rice and fish (or other topping) and sometimes nori (dried seaweed) with added soy sauce and wasabi. (Nagayama 2011)

There are conflicting reports on the actual origin of sushi, some say it originated in SE Asia while others state that it was developed in China in the 4th century but either way it is agreed that originally sushi was a way to preserve fish by fermenting it. (Mouritsen 2009)

This process was introduced to Japan in around the 9th century. During this time eating meat and drinking milk were still common practices but as Buddhism slowly made its way through the country the eating of meat became prohibited and people turned towards fish. This new way of keeping fish became popular and over time a variety of different styles of sushi emerged.

In the 15th and 16th centuries fermentation techniques became faster. Preservation that used to take 6 months or more, now only took one month and rancid rice that once was discarded, could now be eaten. These sushi styles were basically for the preservation of fish and were very different to the style of sushi that we are familiar with today. Currently in Japan there is a similar style of this fermented sushi that still exists, known as Nare-zushi, it is basically fish that has been fermented by wrapping it in fermenting sour rice, hence to say it is somewhat of an acquired taste.

Today the most well known types of sushi are ‘maki (rolled) sushi’ and ‘nigiri’ (pressed) sushi. (Mouritsen 2009)

futomaki, temaki-zushioshi-zushi, food historyThe food itself does also have a Nordic cousin. In some areas of Finland a dish called ‘kalkukko’ or fish that is baked in bread dough is still prepared. This custom dates back to the Middle Ages when people used to conserve salmon and other fishes by salting and flouring, then wrapping them in birch bark before burring them under the ground. (Mouritsen 2009)

At the beginning of the Edo period (1603 -1867) the production of rice vinegar in Japan increased significantly. During this period the Shogunate moved from the old capital of Kyoto to Tokyo (then known as Edo) and it was at this time sushi really started to evolve.

In the 17th and 18th century rice vinegar was added to the cooked rice and shortened the fermentation time down to about 24 hours. This style was termed haya-zushi and was apparently discovered by Matsumoto Yoshiichi, (a medical doctor) who found that rice vinegar made the fish more tender and also added to the flavor of the rice. (Hsin–I Feng 2012)

It was not until he 1820’s that the sushi we know today as Nigiri sushi came to be. Hanaya Yohei (1799-1858) found that the ‘Eddoko’ (people of Edo -Tokyo) were looking for something they could eat ‘on the go’ or as a quick meal and it was then that sushi became the world’s first fast food. The rice was salted and vinegared after cooking, and the fish was applied fresh. Sushi was made for the masses and served in outdoor kiosks all over Tokyo. (Hsin –I Feng 2012)

In 1923 just after the great Kanto earthquake many of these outside kiosks moved indoors and sushi began to transform again. Domestic refrigeration made it possible to keep larger fish and it was also at this point in time that the toro (belly) of the tuna was first eaten without the fear of becoming ill. Chu-toro was also the cheapest part of the fish in the 1930’s a little different to now where wholesale prices fetch more than $100 a kilogram. Sushi preparation and the art of eating also changed – they took on certain rules and sushi became an art form to the Japanese. (Mouritsen 2009)

In 1958, in the small city of Hiagshi in Osaka, something was developed that would turn the world of sushi upside down.  After observing beer bottles on a conveyor belt at the Asahi beer factory, Yoshiaki Shiraisha, developed the first Kaitenzushi or conveyor belt sushi (also known in other countries as a sushi train.) (Hsin –I Feng 2012)

At first the Kaitenzushi restaurant was designed with all of the customers facing the conveyor belt but after noticing that this was not good for social interaction booths were formed at 90 degree angles to the belt and allowed as many as six people to sit at one time. This change in seating style along with a conveyor belt sushi installation at the Osaka World Expo in 1970 took Kaitenzushi to a whole new level. People were excited with this new technological way of eating and Kaitenzushi became increasingly popular with restaurants popping up in cities all over Japan. (Hsin –I Feng 2012)

In the 1980’s Japan’s economy exploded and a new social phenomenon emerged as families and the middle class started eating out on a regular basis. Kaitenzushi restaurants turned family friendly and eating sushi was now a game the whole family could play. (De Silva & Yamao 2006)

The collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in the early 1990`s further fueled the sushi explosion as inexpensive restaurants became increasingly popular for young working professionals and the middle class. (De Silva & Yamao 2006)

In Japan today sushi caters to a wide range of socio economic groups. It is sold in convenience stores, at supermarkets, in train stations, from vending machines, and at a variety of restaurants both very affordable and extremely expensive.

Sushi and Globalisation

Companies like Starbucks, Coca Cola and McDonalds dominate the global food scene they are the superpowers of globalization, but there is one smaller player that has quite a substantial market share without the corporate investment. It seems to have just slipped in under everyone’s noses.

Sushi started to creep around the world in the 1950s and 60s due to the large Japanese immigrant communities of locations like Australia, Western and South America and also Brazil, but it was not until the early 1970’s and the invention of the Uramaki (a Maki sushi that is rolled backwards) that it really took off. (Hsin –I Feng 2012)

uramaki, inside-out rollsThe first Uramaki was what is known as the California roll and was invented by Ichiro Manashita from Tokyo Kaikan Restaurant in Los Angeles. The popularity of the California roll grew dramatically due to its lack of raw fish and seaweed – two things that ‘Western’ taste buds were not ready for at the time. (Hsin –I Feng 2012)

Today sushi can be found all over the world from bars in Mexico to Airport cafés and it has become somewhat of a cult obsession. It is the party food for the elite, the hip food for the fish eating vegetarians or the quick lunch for students and office workers on the go. It is a Japanese fix for those of us with a fish and ‘foreign’ culture infatuation and despite its global presence sushi will always been seen as Japanese.

Globalization doesn’t necessarily homogenize cultural differences nor erase the salience of cultural labels. Quite the contrary, it grows the franchise. In the global economy of consumption, the brand equity of sushi as a Japanese cultural property adds to the cachet of both country and the cuisine. (Bestor 2000 p.18)

Even though it can be found and eaten around the world sushi is often misrepresented and misinterpreted by many. Of course it is seen as Japanese but often on its unintentional international quest of consumerism, imaginary truths are applied to make sushi ‘even more Japanese.’

Just having an Asian face in many places is enough to warrant someone more than capable of being a sushi chef. A Texan- Chinese restaurateur converted all of his restaurants from Chinese to Japanese so that he could charge a higher price for a more prestigious product. It did not matter to his customers if his staff were Chinese or Japanese (or sometimes even Latino) as his clients could seldom tell the difference. (Bestor 2000)

Despite being a global phenomenon there are some parts of sushi, which will never be able to travel. There is a mysteriousness surrounding sushi, the chef, the way it is made and the way it is eaten.

A sushi chef often spends ten years or more in training. In the film ‘Jiro dreams of sushi’ – the sushi chef Jiro is said to be a living national treasure. He is the only Sushi chef in the world to have a 3 Michelin starred restaurant and he has given his life to his work. At 85 years old he believes he is still trying to perfect the art of sushi.

“You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.”Jiro states, “That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)

Sushi chefs must shave daily – their faces and their arms. It is a male dominated industry as it is said that females have a higher body temperature and a women’s hands are too warm for the handling of raw fish.  (Hsin –I Feng 2012)
In the high-end sushi restaurants only fish in season are used. The cold waters that surround japan act as their own terrior for fish species, there are seasons that fish are the tastiest and the fattest, and there are seasons when the fish are at high volume. Seasons (and rules) are observed strictly in Japan, not only in the world of sushi and cooking, but in all of Japanese culture.Chefs dedicate their whole working lives to it and the talent does not just stop at the food preparation. (Ritchie 93)

A true sushi chef must also know his customers – he must be able to build a rapport, advise them on what is what is best but at the same time not make them feel like they are out of their depth.

In the intimacy of its connections between people. i.e. the combination of the chef’s individuality and human qualities, and the match between customer and chef, the world of sushi strikes an unorthodox note that sets it apart from other cuisines. (Nagayama 2011)

In 1982 in his book Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes spoke of Japanese food to fulfill the definition of a painting, and indeed this is true for in Japan the aesthetics of food are just as, if not more, important as the taste.

There is an art of Zen to sushi in that it can be very sophisticated in the simplest of ways. The food itself carries an aesthetic – philosophical approach found in much of Japanese culture and cuisine. It is about finding beauty and meaning in nature and is termed Wabi Sabi. (Mouritsen 2009)

Wabi is the inner quality that signifies a natural state. It can be found in all objects living or inanimate. Sabi is the beauty of something that has become worn over time. It is the old teacup, the falling dead cherry blossom. Sabi is anything that is perceived as insignificant or imperfect due to overuse or the passing of time. (Mouritsen 2009)

Wabi Sabi is found throughout Japanese culture in everything from Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and Ikebana (flower arranging) to Haiku (Japanese poetry) and of course sushi. (Mouritsen 2009)

Sushi is unusual in the world of food in that its flavour can be transformed by the attitude and ability of the individual diner (Nagayama 2011) It is impossible to experience any food in its full authentic state unless you are deeply immersed in the culture and also the location of where that food came from.

Someone who lives abroad and reproduces their own cuisine is in fact searching for their identity and a reminder of their home. It can be termed as naturalizing in that it is a representation of their ideology. (Althusser in Evans/Hall 1999)

It is this force of naturalizing that contributes to the globalization of food. Space is often mimicked to try and achieve authenticity but it is the one factor that is always truly missing from the recreation of a food or cultural situation abroad. We are just temporary visitors in an unknown cheap imitation, cardboard cutout situation.

For Japanese (or any other culture) sushi will always taste better in Japan as it is not just about the food and the ingredients but also about the cultural setting, the pattern of thought and the space in which it is experienced.


•    Althusser L (1969) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (notes towards an investigation) in Evans, Jessica & Hall, Stuart (ed.) (1999) Visual Culture: a reader, Sage, London.

•    Barthes. R (1982) Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang.

•    Bestor, T. C. (2000). How sushi went global. Foreign Policy 121:54-63.

•    De Silva. D. & Yamao. M. (2006) A yen for sushi: an analysis of demographic and behavioural patterns of sushi consumption in Japan. Blackwell Publishing Journal of Foodservice, 17, pp. 63-76

•    Hsin –I Feng C (2012) The tale of Sushi* History and Regulations, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety Vol 11.

•    Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012) Documentary, Preferred Content in association with Sundial Pictures, Directed by David Gelb.

•    Mouritsen. Ole. G (2009) Sushi for the Eye, the Body & the Soul. Springer USA

•    Nagayama. (2011) Sushi. Pie International. Japan

•    Richie. D (1993) A taste of Japan. Kodansha International Japan

Credit for images – Sushi for the Eye, the Body and The Soul – Ole G Mouritsen.

Writers Note

To have authentic sushi do you need to go to Japan? What do you think? Let us know your thoughts or comment below.


Peter's path through the culinary world has taken a number of unexpected turns. After starting out as a waiter at the age of 16, he was inspired to go to culinary school and learn the tricks of the trade. As he delved deeper, however, his career took a sudden turn when a family friend needed someone to help manage his business. Peter now scratches his culinary itch on the internet by blogging, sharing recipes, and socializing with food enthusiasts worldwide.


  1. Brandon San Reply

    Most people will never make it to Japan. Thankfully this will not prohibit them from ever enjoying authentic sushi. While it’s true there is no substitute for cultural immersion in the land of any cuisine’s origin, our global barriers have shrunk and immigrants from exotic locales now call nearly every corner of our planet home. I am grateful for the truth seekers who forge ahead in the frontier of authentic food experiences and share a glimpse of who they are through the the preparation and presentation of their (sometimes quasi-) native cuisine. I just enjoyed a particularly memorable sushi meal and an accompanying lesson prepared by a Korean man in a strip mall in the suburbs.

  2. Thomas Conner Reply

    Awesome read! I’ve been a chef for a while now and took on the challenge of sushi. It didn’t take long for me to develop a style. So I’m three months into sushi and newly promoted head sushi chef. It is my art and passion now. Searching for information on origins of sushi have been far to littoral. Thank you for having the same passion as I do for your craft. Great article!

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