RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity.
Sushi was first conceived during the 2nd century in the Mekong basin, where parts of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam stand at present1, before travelling upstream through China to Japan, to finally become the global dish it is today.2 Interestingly, the sushi that we commonly associate with vinegared rice today has its roots in neither rice nor in vinegar but rather in fish fermentation. Narezushi, fermented fish wrapped with salt and cooked carbohydrates, arose in the 3rd century in the Mekong Basin due to the cyclical seasons of fish abundance and deficiency, as well as the availability of salt and rice.3
The need to preserve quickly-rotting fish for scarce periods gave rise to the development of narezushi. In fact, linguistic evidence supports this theory of origin: the Khmer term, phaak, which means narezushi, is derived from the Khmer word prahoc, which refers to fermented fish products.4 Narezushi then arrived in China during the Han migration down the Yangtze River in the 4th century, when the Han Chinese adopted it into their cuisine.5
Later, narezushi was introduced to Japan in the 9th century from Chinese culture. Its emergence in Japanese society was closely tied to the spread of Buddhism. In the mid 6th century, monks from Baekje, a Korean kingdom, brought Buddhism to Japan, which was subsequently popularised by Empress Suiko7 towards the end of the 6th century during her reign.8 This resulted in the banning of meat consumption. However, fish was not included in the meat taboo. Hence, fish consumption increased and new methods of preserving fish had to be quickly developed to meet societal needs. Moreover, Japan’s natural geography made fishing conducive, as it is made up of islands surrounded by seas that are rich in seafood.9
Despite its non-Japanese beginnings, sushi only became mainstream and refined in Japan.10 Vinegar began to be added to the preparation of narezushi in the 16th century for the sake of enhancing both taste and preservation, effectively reducing the time required for fish fermentation from six months to a few days.11 The characteristic vinegared rice that we often associate with sushi only came about in the mid 17th century from Matsumoto Yoshichi.12 The development of modern sushi, in the 1820s is credited to Hanaya Yohei, a cook of Edo.13 It was not until this period that fresh fish was served over vinegared rice and nori, dried seaweed sheets made from red algae.14
In addition to changing the preparation method of sushi, Hanaya also began marketing sushi as a type of fast food, selling his nigiri-zushi in portable sushi stalls that busy workers could easily pick up in the middle of their work day.15 The shift away from using fermented fish to fresh fish in sushi was then cemented by the invention of the ice machine during the 20th century in the United States of America.16
Although narezushi has faded into the background amidst increasing popularity of sushi, it is still being prepared today in the Shiga prefecture as funazushi.17 Similarly, analogues of sushi in Southeast Asian countries, near its birthplace, include Burong isda of the Philippines, Ikan pekasam from Malaysia and Thailand’s Pla ra.18 Outside of Asia, we find parallels in the Nordic world with regards to its preparation methods – an ancient, Nordic tradition of preserving fish by combining them with carbohydrate-rich food. An example of this is kalakukko, fish baked in bread dough, still prepared in some rural districts of Finland.19
Click below for an interactive map tracing narezushi through history and geography.
Asiedu, M., & Sanni, A. I. (2002). Chemical composition and microbiological changes during spontaneous and starter culture fermentation of Enam Ne–Setaakye, a West African fermented fish-carbohydrate product. European Food Research and Technology, 215(1), 8-12.
The authors, from the University of Ghana and the University of Ibadan respectively, study chemical and microbiological changes during the fermentation of Enam Ne-Setaakye, a West African meal consisting of fish fermented with salt and yam. Due to endemic protein-energy malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, Asiedu and Sanni explore the possibility of introducing fish fermentation with carbohydrates, borrowing from Southeast Asian culinary techniques, as an affordable and accessible source of protein there.
Ishige, N. (1993). Cultural aspects of fermented fish products in Asia. Fish Fermentation Technology. United Nations University Press, Tokyo, 13-32.
The author, Ishige, who specialises in Japanese food history, reviews and compares various fermented fish products in Asia based on a field survey conducted by Ishige and Ruddle. He distinguishes between narezushi (fish fermented with salt and cooked carbohydrates) and shiokara (products of fish fermented with salt) and traces the origins of narezushi to the Mekong basin. Ishige further claims that narezushi spread to China when the Han Chinese people started consuming narezushi during their migration south of the Yangtze River and that the use of koji, a fermentation starter, began in China.
Lee, J. O., & Kim, J. Y. (2013). Development of cultural context indicator of fermented food. International Journal of Bio-Science and Bio-Technology, 5(4), 45.
Lee and Kim, of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, categorise various fermented fish food products from Asia based on factors such as geography, local way of life, food production process and cultural elements of fermented food. They conclude that despite differing fermentation techniques, most countries share the common use of salt and rice or vegetables. The authors also highlight that geographical factors have strongly determined locations where fermented fish products have surfaced – these dishes tend to come from hot and humid coastal areas with rice as a staple.
Mouritsen, O. G. (2009). What is sushi?. In SUSHI Food for the eye, the body & the soul (pp. 14-23). Springer, Boston, MA.
In this chapter, the author, physicist and professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation at the University of Copenhagen, defines sushi and its ingredients, as well as its development in Japan over the past few centuries. Mouritsen explains that the Japanese character for sushi, ‘鮨’ is translated as ‘fermented fish in rice and salt’. Additionally, he claims that despite its non-Japanese origins, sushi only became refined in Japan, for instance through the addition of vinegar in the fermentation process in the Muromachi period.
Written by Kay Lee.
1 Mekong River | Facts, Definition, Map, History, & Location. 2019. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mekong-River.
2Ishige, Naomichi. “Cultural aspects of fermented fish products in Asia.” Fish Fermentation Technology. United Nations University Press, Tokyo (1993): 13-32. 3Ibid. 4Ruddle, Kenneth, and Naomichi Ishige. “On the origins, diffusion and cultural context of fermented fish products in Southeast Asia.” Globalization, Food and Social Identities in the Asia Pacific Region (2010): 1-17.
5Yi, Chʻŏr-ho. Fish fermentation technology. United Nations University Press, 1993.
6Hsin‐I Feng, Cindy. “The tale of sushi: History and regulations.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 11, no. 2 (2012): 205-220.
7“Japanese Buddhism”. 2019. Japan-Guide.Com. https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2055.html.
8Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2019. “All About Empress Suiko Of Japan, The First Japanese Woman Ruler”. Thoughtco. https://www.thoughtco.com/empress-suiko-of-japan-biography-3528831.
9Hsin‐I Feng, Cindy. “The tale of sushi: History and regulations.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 11, no. 2 (2012): 205-220.
10Mouritsen, Ole G. “What is sushi?.” In SUSHI Food for the eye, the body & the soul, pp. 14-23. Springer, Boston, MA, 2009.
11 Chan, Bernice, and Alkira Reinfrank. 2019. “How Sushi Took Over The World (And It’S Not From Japan)”. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/food-drink/article/3016361/sushi-not-japan-how-raw-fish-and-rice-became-world-favourite.
12Hsin‐I Feng, Cindy. “The tale of sushi: History and regulations.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 11, no. 2 (2012): 205-220.
13Mouritsen, Ole G. “What is sushi?.” In SUSHI Food for the eye, the body & the soul, pp. 14-23. Springer, Boston, MA, 2009.
14“What Is Nori And What Are Seaweed Health Benefits?”. 2019. All About Sushi Guide. Accessed November 12. https://www.allaboutsushiguide.com/nori.html.
15Mouritsen, Ole G. “What is sushi?.” In SUSHI Food for the eye, the body & the soul, pp. 14-23. Springer, Boston, MA, 2009.
16Morris, Elli. 2010. “Making Ice In Mississippi | Mississippi History Now”. Mshistorynow.Mdah.State.Ms.Us. http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/343/making-ice-in-mississippi.
17Springer, Kate. 2018. “Narezushi: Japan’s Original Sushi”. CNN Travel. https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/narezushi-sushi-japan/index.html.
18“Fermented Fish”. 2019. En.Wikipedia.Org. Accessed November 12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermented_fish.
19Mouritsen, Ole G. “What is sushi?.” In SUSHI Food for the eye, the body & the soul, pp. 14-23. Springer, Boston, MA, 2009.