Do you know that Sushi is from Tokyo?

Do you know that Sushi is from Tokyo?

(Tiempos y ritmos de la alimentación,el patrimonio en la historia)


Do you know that Sushi is from Tokyo? – You may answer, “Of course. It is typical food of Japan.”- Yes, of course, but it is not enough. Did you know that actual Sushi is called originally Edomae Zushi (江戸前寿司, Edo is the ancient name given to Tokyo in the 17th – 19th centuries and Zushi is the conjugated foam of Sushi) and it was born exactly at Tokyo in the 19th century? In this article, I would like to present the story of Sushi starting from its original foam, which was completely different from today, and I would like to show how it has transformed into the actual style, which is now famous in the world as one of the emblems of Japanese cuisine. 

Origin of Sushi, Narezushi and Namanare

The first appearance of the word Sushi () is seen in the ancient Japanese law registration Taiho-ryo (大宝令, Taiho Code) enforced in A.D. 702. In the list of tribute to the Emperor’s court in this regstraion, some Sushi made of abalone were registered. However, it seems that it was the shellfish under the salt, without any rice [1] . One of the successive series of registrations Engi-shiki (延喜式)issued in A.D. 930 shows that several kind of Sushi arrived to the court from different regions of Japan. They were not only Sushi of fish as of sweetfish, crusian carp orabalone but also Sushi of meat like those of wild boar and deer, which are rarely seen today. It is not clear how was Sushi of those days but some rice and salt were presumably used.

These primitiveSushi are now distinguished as Narezushi (なれずし). It was a way to preserve fish or meat using some rice or millet, which fermented and caused the effect of lactic acid that avoided fish or meat from putrid [2] . River fish like sweetfish and crusian carp was dominant in the use of Narezushi at least in the documents until the 14th century. Sijyoryu-Hotyosyo (四条流包丁書) written in 1489, the first cooking manual among those exist in Japan, describes that the true Sushi should be made of sweetfish [3] .

Some areas maintain this kind of Narezushi making until today and it is especially famous that of crusian carp from Lake Biwa at Shiga prefecture, the largest lake in the country. The preparation begins to take off the internal of fish and to put the fish in the wooden container with 10 – 40 % of salt, usually for 10 days up to 1 month. When this pretreatment is done and the fish is washed with water, rice, that is cooked with salt and cooled, is put in the fish stomach. Fish is left again in the wooden container covered with the same rice from six months to a year. The exterior rice might be removed since it becomes sour andfish is sliced to eat (Fig. 1) [4] . The look-alike recipe is recognized among the countries of Southeast Asia like Philippine or Thailand and it is considered that they were the origins of Japanese Narezushi [5] . 

Fig. 1 Primitive Sushi, Narezushi of crusian carp [6]

Sushi entered in the second phase called Namanare (生なれ) in the 15th – 16th centuries. It was the era when Japanese lifestyle was dramatically changed [7]. For example, the rice became cooked by stewing and not by vaporing, the meals became three times a day instead of twice. It was also the period that the Japanese had the first contact with the Occident, which left an important impact on Japanese cuisine. In 1549, San Francisco de Xavier arrived for the first time in Japan with his missionary of the Society of Jesus and subsequently the merchantships from Portugal reached there. They introduced many new products, for instance, spices like Cayenne pepper, pumpkin, sweet potato, common bean, peanut or tobacco. In this context, it is not strange that Sushi was influenced and modified by these elements. The ingredients were diversified with sweetfish, crusian carp, eel, congridae, sea bream, bamboo shoot, eggplant and so on. The procedure to make Sushi was same to former Narezushi but people began to eat it in shorter time compared to the precedent Sushi; it was ready to eat after four - seven days instead of months. This kind of Sushi was called Namanare; Nama means raw and Nare is from Narezushi of above mentioned [8]. It should be occured in the condition that the productivity was improved and the need to conserve the fish was diminished. Today, Namanare is still found inseveral regions in Japan, for instance, Namanare with mackerel in Wakayama prefecture in the central Japan. 

Both Narezushi and Namanare had developed in the western Japan especially around Kyoto, the city where the Emperor lived in those days. Though the shogunate Tokugawa set the new capital at Tokyo in the early 17th century and the political center moved there, the western Japan remained as the cultural capital and the traditional Sushi was maintained for a long while. The comic short stories of Seisuisyo (醒睡笑) written by a Buddhist monk from Kyoto in 1628 describes some metaphors of Namanare and we can understand how it was popular among the culture of western Japan. For instance, when a man walked along the river, he asked his friend if the fish in the river was sweetfish. This friend answered “it is strange because if it was a sweetfish, it should contain the rice inside ”. Actually, the fish that was swimming in the river had no rice [9].     

Toward the contemporary style, Edomae Zushi

The turning point toward the actual Sushi was arrived in the beginning of the 19th century at Edo (江戸) city, actual Tokyo. The capital had been moved from Kyoto to Edo in 1603 when the shogunate Tokugawa (徳川幕府) occupied almostthe whole territory. Edo had an active atmosphere as metropolitan city and it was in this atmosphere that the new type of Sushi was born.

Fig. 2 Variety of Edomae Zushi illustrated by G. Kawabata in 1877 [10]

The innovation in Sushi story was made by introducing rice vinegar to make Sushi rice in the early 17th century despite of waiting the natural process of lactic acid. Then, the new trend of Sushi was spread at Edo in the beginning of the 19th century and it was the first appearance of Sushi that is familiar with us; a piece of rice seasoned with vinegar, sugar and salt and raw fish on top of the rice (Fig. 2). They were called Edomae Zushi (江戸前寿司) and they are actually the ancestor of actual Sushi[11]. The term Edomae (江戸前) means “made in Edo (Tokyo)” and originally it was used to express the way of cooking the eel, which was another specialty of the capital. A Japanese agronomist Koizumi proposes five causes for which Edomae Zushi was accepted rapidly among Edo people; it was ready to eat at the place and it was much quickly compared to former Narezushi or Namanare, the new type of Sushi smelled less than the traditional ones, it always permitted to eat fresh fish or other ingredients, it became staple food rather than the side dish as it had been before, it could arrange the decoration or gradation of the color and it was more beautiful visually[12]. Sushi was sold mainly at the stand on the street as the snack and people asked two pieces on average to stop the hunger (Fig.3). It was bigger than actual size and contained more rice. This style of street stall was popular until 1923 when the tragic earthquake hit Tokyo and the city was damaged with the fire. In the reconstruction of the city, the delivery service or take away style took the place. On the other hand, there were always some expensive Sushi restaurants in those days.

Fig.3 Sushi shop on the street of Edo city [13]

The author of Sushitsu (すし通) G. Nagase who wrote the book originally in 1930 argues that Sushi is similar to Sandwich since the both are snacks. He says that Sushi that is made of rice, fish, wasabi, ginger and accompanied by green tea is comparable to Sandwich made of bread, meat, mustard, parsley and accompanied by tea or coffee. He also cites a story of critic and scholar of English literature S. Togawa in the early 20th century when he was on the foreign ship. Togawa saw someone bring the sandwich for the afternoon tea and he thought that it was Sushi thinking cheese for egg, hum for tuna and sardine for medium sized gizzard shad [14].

The Second World War was definitive element for the diffusion of Sushi to all over Japan. The law to control the rice distribution against the lack of the food was taken in 1941 and it continued after the war finished in 1945. Sushi association that negotiated with the Metropolitan Police Department constructed the system of process on commission for Sushi making. People could exchange with 10 pieces of Edomae Zushi bringing 1 Go () of rice, which was the ancient unit of measure and was equal to 180 grams of rice. Since this system permitted to offer exclusively Edomae Zushi, other kind of Sushi maker, for example Narezushi makers that were seen often in western Japan, were forced to make Tokyo-style Sushi [15]. A Japanese journalist Shigekane narrows that his family had received the rice illegally from his relatives and when he went to the Sushi processor with this rice and went back to the home with Sushi, his father complied that his good rice changed to the less quality since the processor have cooked rice with those of other people. Shigekane says that it was already lucky that they could eat Sushi at that time.


Some variation

The use of rice vinegar for preparing the Sushi permitted to promote a variety of Sushi and I would like to present some of them, which are known until today. This rice is prepared with rice vinegar, sugar and a bit of salt and it is described Sushi rice in the following.

Chirashi Zushi (ちらし寿司) is Sushi rice with several fish or vegetables in a dish. It is made frequently in a family for the festivity and the ingredients are cut and mixed with rice (Fig. 4). On the other hand, when it is made in a Sushi restaurant, the ingredients are put on the rice to make it more beautiful. Since it is cooled rice with cooked ingredients, it may compare with the rice salad in foreign cuisines.Inari Zushi(いなり寿司) is Sushi rice put in the fried product of soybean that is cooked with soy sauce and sugar(Fig. 5). It is thought that the origin of Aichi prefecture, central Japan, and the first document dates bask to the Morisadamanko (守貞謾稿) published in 1853 [16]. Inari Zushi is rather familiar as Sushi and it is rare to see it in an expensive Sushi restaurant.Maki Zushi (巻き寿司) is a general term for rolled Sushi. The most popular as roll paper is seaweed Nori but it is used also another kind of seaweed Konbu or fried egg (F ig. 6). Chirasi Zushi, Inari Zushi and Maki Zushi are very popular and they can be made in a Japanese family. Hako Zushi (箱寿司)is made in wooden box as Hako means the box in Japanese. It is popular at Osaka and it can be for the guest as it takes time to prepare (Fig. 7).Sushi is usually eaten at room temperature but Nuku Zushi (温寿司) is lightly heated. It is not very popular but it is interesting to see the difference of taste and flavors. Nuku Zushi is popular in the western Japan and it is eaten during the winter [17].


Fig.4 Chirasi Zushi [18]

Fig.5 Inari Zushi [19]


Fig.6 Hako Zushi [20]                                   Fig.6 Maki Zushi [21]     



The origin of Sushi goes back to the 8th century but rice was used supplementary to cook fish and it wasn’t eaten. We should have wait for the appearance of contemporary Sushi until the 19th century, which was remained strictly the regional food of Tokyo. And the Second World War fixed Tokyo-styled as standard of Sushi. It may be transformed again in the future but it is the story of what is known as Sushi all over the world in this moment. 

On the other hand, the story of Sushi reminds me that of Italian Pasta, which seemed to be even from 9th century but it had waited until 17th century at Naples to become the actual foam and then became popular in the whole country in the 19th century. Nagase that I mentioned above compared Sushi with Sandwich but I would like to compare it with Italian Pasta, which became one of the emblematic food of Italy and diffused all over the world today, just like Japanese Sushi.



-        Ishige, N., (2013). Food of the world (Sekai no tabemono), Tokyo, Kodansya.

-        Koizumi, T., (2002). Food and wise of Japanese (Shoku to nihonjin no chie), Tokyo, Iwanami Syoten.

-        Nagase, G., (1986). Series Japanese curinary culture N.13, Sushitsu (Nihon no syokubunka taikei N.13, Sushitsu),Tokyo Syobosya.

-        Shigekane, A., (2009). Common sense and no-common sense in a Sushi restaurant (Sushiya no Jyosiki, Hijyosiki), Tokyo, Asahi Sensyo.

-        Shinoda, O., (1970). Book of Sushi (Sushi no hon), Tokyo, Shibata Syoten



-        Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

-        Kabukiza

-        National Association of Sushi Merchants and Hygiene (全国すし商生活衛生同業協同組合)

-        Sakamoto-Ya

- (白ご飯.com)

-        Sushi Encyclopedism


[1]Nagase, G., (1986). Series Japanese curinary culture N.13, Sushitsu (Nihon no syokubunka taikei N.13, Sushitsu),Tokyo Syobosya., P30-31

[2]Ibid., P23

[3]Ibid., P203

[4]Shinoda, O., (1970). Book of Sushi (Sushi no hon), Tokyo, Shibata Syoten., P30-39

[5]Ishige, N., (2013). Food of the world (Sekai no tabemono), Tokyo, Kodansya., P218-224

[6]Site from Sakamoto-ya

[7]Nagase, G., (1986). Series Japanese curinary culture N.13 Sushitsu (Nihon no syokubunka taikei N.13, Sushitsu),Tokyo Syobosya., P206-207

[8]Shinoda, O., (1970). Book of Sushi (Sushi no hon), Tokyo, Shibata Syoten., P197-207

[9]Ibid., P209

[10]Site from Sushi Encyclopedism

[11]Ibid., P91-98

[12]Koizumi, T., (2002). Food and wise of Japanese (Shoku to nihonjin no chie), Tokyo, Iwanami Syoten., P168

[13]Site from Kabukiza

[14]Nagase, G., (1986). Series Japanese curinary culture N.13 Sushitsu (Nihon no syokubunka taikei N.13, Sushitsu),Tokyo Syobosya., P116-117

[15]Shigekane, A., (2009). Common sense and Not common sense in a Sushi restaurant (Sushiya no Jyosiki, Hijyosiki), Tokyo, Asahi Sensyo., P38-39

[16]Site from Kabukiza

[17]Shinoda, O., (1970). Book of Sushi (Sushi no hon), Tokyo, Shibata Syoten., P108-109

[18]Site from

[19]Site from National Association of Sushi Merchants and Hygiene (全国すし商生活衛生同業協同組合)