Jan 7, 2023

CULTUREThe Long, Fermented History of Sushi

While the flavor is subtle, sushi rice is carefully seasoned before use. The main ingredient is rice vinegar – but why is it used, and what does it add? A close look at different types of sushi in Japan, and why adding vinegar is a must.

Jan 7, 2023

Sushi throughout history

Sushi’s origins date back to The Yayoi Period of Japan, roughly 300 BC to 300 AD. Japan’s local equivalent to the bronze age, what would eventually be called sushi looked and certainly tasted different. In this historic era where society struggled to preserve food, to be able to store it longer before it would rot, pickling and fermentation became commonplace. 

Japanese Cooking still utilizes both culinary techniques today, and both play a key part in sushi’s history: Raw fish would be mixed with rice and vinegar, and consumed after a lengthy fermentation process. Originally the rice was discarded, then,  but the introduction of rice vinegar allowed for much shorter fermentation times, and the removal of salt from the process altogether. Over the centuries, Osaka would eventually master the art of raw fish and vinegar rice, exporting it to Edo, now Tokyo, in the 1700s.

The many types of Japanese sushi

Japan utilizes raw seafood, rice, and vinegar in myriad different ways, each delicious permutation unique to the tongue.

Narezushi: Not eaten anymore, the aforementioned “fish fermented with rice, salt and vinegar” would be referred to as narezushi in historical Japan. Its pungency was rather intense. 

Nigiri: Across Japan, when a person salivates over sushi, nigiri sushi first and foremost comes to mind: a simple but revolutionary pairing of (usually) raw fish over a bed of vinegar rice.

Maki: A helping of fish or maybe some vegetables, cushioned in rice and wrapped up tight in seaweed, maki sushi tends to be the most popular internationally.

Temaki:  Similar to an ice cream cone in shape but instead of a sweet treat inside, this seaweed cone’s contents consist of raw fish and vinegar rice.

Plenty of other varieties exist, like inarizushi which combines sushi rice and tofu skins, or chirashizushi; a raw fish and sushi-rice bowl!

How vinegar is used in sushi

As explained, vinegar’s origin with fish was less about the flavor and integrated as a preservation measure. Eventually as both preservation technique advanced over the years, and access to fresh fish was widened across Japan, the need fish flesh itself to be vinegared dissipated and the amount used in rice was reduced to an amount that, above all else, pairing well with tender fish flavor and the slight-sweetness inherent to starch in rice.

You’ll occasionally find some fish being vinegared for flavor’s sake alone, most commonly shime saba or pickled mackerel which most find a preferable flavor and texture than the overly “fishy” mackerel. Please note not just any kitchen vinegar gets used with sushi: In the modern era, the perfect formula for sushi vinegar can be made anywhere!

Make sushi rice at home

Making restaurant quality sushi rice from the comfort of your own kitchen is incredibly simple! All you need is white rice, preferably Japanese short-grain, rice vinegar which can be ordered online if you don’t have a supermarket that sells it nearby, salt, and sugar! Of course you’ll need water and a couple kitchen burners, or a rice-cooker as well.

Step 1: Two cups of rice, two cups of water, in either a pan or your cooker.

Step 2: As your rice boils, bring a half cup of rice-vinegar to a low boil, and add a quarter-cup of sugar and just half a teaspoon of salt. Stir these in and boil till the sugar and salt disintegrate. 

Step 3: Mix your now completed sushi vinegar into your rice and viola! Now you’re ready to make sushi at home, provided you have access to quality fish too!