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The Origins of Sushi: From Southeast Asian to a Global Sensation

Maki. Sashimi. Nigiri. People around the world love to savor the usually raw artform that is sushi. From delicately mastered sushi to rapidly distributed grocery-store variety packs, sushi is being gobbled up in whopping numbers, and the demand for it continues to increase. Despite how many people consume the Japanese-credited dish, few are aware that the sushi we know and love today is a relatively new form of the of food. The true origins of sushi remain inconsistent and full of mystery, likely because its origins go back more than 2,000 years.

The concept of the dish began as something far from the sushi we know. Its first mention in print describes nare-sushi, a way to preserve fish by wrapping it in cooked, fermented rice. The acid produced, along with the salt, slowed down bacteria growth on the fish. When the time came to serve it, diners discarded the rice and ate the fish.

From there, han-nare sushi became a staple in ninth-century Japan. As Buddhism expanded, so did the practice of not eating meat, making fish a chief food source. Similar to nare-sushi, han-nare was fermented, but for a much shorter time. Instead of being left for a year, people would begin eating it after only one to four weeks of fermentation, sometimes eating the pickled rice along with the fish.

Into 14th- to 18th-century Japan, haya-nare sushi became a way to eat sushi even more quickly by packing fish and rice into wooden boxes and waiting a few days for the desired effect. Adding seasoning and vinegar (to emulate the sourness of fermentation) made the sushi a much faster food to consume and enjoy. However, there was an increasing demand for getting sushi made even quicker.

By the 1820s, a Japanese entrepreneur by the name of Hanaya Yohei would make his mark by creating a faster and more efficient way of producing sushi–edo-mae. Considered the father of modern nigiri sushi, Yohei mastered a faster fermentation process of combining vinegar, freshly cooked rice, and salt for only a few minutes. The rice was then balled up and served with a slice of fresh fish.

This fast food technique would adapt into the modern sushi we know and love.

Today, sushi can come with countless combinations of fish, vegetables, and more. It has spread to and been embraced by the Western world, and it has been adapted by cultures who put their own spin on the traditional dish. The humble food began with a human necessity for preservation and grew into a sophisticated meal eaten around the world.

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