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GOOGLE TRANSLATE RENDERS the Japanese word おまかせ, omakase, as the English “random.” In the sushi world, though, it’s asking the sushi master to orchestrate a selection of his own choice. It may include specialities of the house, of the season, or of something that looked particularly appealing at the fish market that morning. Whichever the case, ask for omakase and you’re in for a real treat.
And so it was with a recent pair of BBC podcasts on this Japanese cuisine of fish served with vinegared rice and accompaniments. On September 27, 2021, the BBC feature “Eat This Podcast” was devoted to “Sushi: From Necessity to Ubiquity.” Host Jeremy Cherfas chats with Eric C. Rath, Professor of Premodern Japanese History at the University of Kansas. Rath has a new book, Oishii: The History of Sushi. (It’s appropriately titled, as oishii, 美味し is the Japanese word for “delicious,” one of the first things I learned after “これ わ なん です か, kore wa nan desu ka?, what is this?” (a great vocabulary builder).
Then, on September 30, 2021, the BBC feature “The Forum” had “Sushi: The Japanese Dish with an Ancient Tradition.” This one was hosted by Rajan Datar chatting with Professor Rath and two others: James Farrar, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Graduate Programme in Global Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo; and (Michelin-starred) Japanese sushi master Endo Kazutoshi.
Both podcasts are fascinating. Here are tidbits gleaned from them.
Sushi Origin: Necessity. Before refrigeration, and long before giant ships were equipped for instant freezing, preservation of fish depended upon salting it. Rath notes that the earliest record of this dates from around 3 B.C. It was in China, not Japan, and this protosushi had no rice, vinegared or otherwise.
Records from 3 A.D. show that rice was included. And by 6 A.D., a combination of fish, salt, rice, and sake was left to ferment, typically for weeks, months, or years until a lactic acid pickling took place.
Rath notes that the nearest modern equivalent is funazushi, a speciality prepared near Kyoto, along Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture. It has been described as incredibly sour, yet with a savory finish resembling sausage.
Two millannia ago, rice was a luxury grain, even used as currency. And in medieval times, sushi was a food for the well-to-do.
Add Vinegar. Means of preservation evolved into methods of quicker production. During the 18th century, the addition of vinegar to the rice enhanced this process. As rice became a more common grain, sushi became a street food of Edo (early Tokyo).
Making Paper, Making Maki. Familiar to us today is sushi maki, combinations of fish, vinegared rice, and other accompaniments wrapped in nori, pressed and dried seaweed. A confluence of technologies encouraged this sushi variation back in the 18th century: As noted by Wikipedia, nori is “made by a shredding and rack-drying process that resembles paper making.”
Soy Sauce and Wasabi. Condiments were added to street food sushi in the 19th century. These are to be used sparingly, the interviewees note. Indeed, though many like wasabi’s sharpness, connoisseurs say the sushi master’s dab of it should suffice.
Western Adaptation. Immigration, especially to California in the late 1800s, introduced Japanese cuisine to the U.S., though sushi remained something of a speciality only within ethnic communities. By the 1920s, sukiyaki and tempura had grown popular with western tastes.
California Cuisine. As sushi culture evolved, and the preferred fatty tuna became a luxury item, innovated sushi masters in California turned to a local product, the avocado, as offering a substitute with smooth, fatty character. Imitation crabmeat (typically less expensive Alaskan pollack) provided the fish component. And bits of cucumber offered crunchiness.
Ecce, the California Roll.
Check out both podcasts to learn more about sushi, including the advent of the Philadelphia Roll and the Sushi Burrito, and sushi “becoming the fast food for rich people.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021