For the Japanese, sushi is a staple of their culinary identity. Sushi isn’t just a food for them, it’s a medium of artistic expression, but it wasn’t always like this.

The Sushi we enjoy today is absolutely a Japanese creation and you’d think you were safe assuming it originated there. However, that is not the case! The story of sushi actually begins almost 2000 years ago in China, where they began experimenting with methods to preserve fish.  

Professor Eric Rath is a Japanese Food Historian and Author of ‘the History of Sushi’, he discussed one of the ancient recipes he came across during research: “One of the oldest recipes I found dated back to the 6th century (AD) and consisted of fermented river fish, covered in salt and then packed into a barrel full of rice and left for several months.”

This is obviously very different to the sushi we know and love today but how exactly did it taste? 

Prof. Rath explained: “The rice undergoes lactic acid fermentation therefore fermenting the fish in turn breaking down the rice into a paste creating an incredibly sour and salty flavour.”

In the 6th century (AD) this method travelled over the pacific to Japan where they altered the process and opted to discard the rice, only eating the fish. 

By the 14th century, the Japanese innovated the process once again, ageing it for longer periods of time. This created a more intense flavour, they still didn’t fancy eating the rice though!

Early Sushi – Rice Fermented Fish

They didn’t stop striving for innovation there! During the late 17th century they added vinegar and salt to the rice, speeding up the fermenting process, making it more practical to consume. 

You’ll notice this is still a fair way off the Sushi we know and love today and a key ingredient is yet to be introduced; seaweed!

Seaweed sheets
How were Seaweed sheets invented?

Flat sheet Seaweed (Nori) was conceived in the mid 16th Century in a place called Asakusa in Edo (now Tokyo). Innovative paper makers discovered you could create flat sheets of Nori with similar techniques to the ones they used to create paper. This ingenious creation gained popularity rapidly. Soon enough people began experimenting with these flat sheets, crumbling them on top of dishes and even rolling things up inside them. By the 18th century they were filled with fish or vegetables along with white rice creating a match made in heaven. Sushi rolls were born!

By the 18th century people in Edo began experimenting with the idea of Nori wrapped Sushi. The rolls were very simple and often only contained one simple filling. This is known as the Hosomaki roll that is still highly popular today.

Pro. Rath: ‘The rolls were really simple which is a real contrast to today’s supermarket sushi which comes with a range of complex toppings and fillings.’

Back then Sushi was very much perceived as a street food that was accessible and inexpensive. Gourmet sushi joints were a long way away.

He added: “A typical 18th century Hosomaki roll consisted of single fillings like cucumber. It was available as a street food in the same way as a hot dog, nothing like the gourmet sushi we see today.”

The 20th century saw massive advancements made to travel and communication. Soon Sushi began to spread around the globe and with that more and more high end restaurants began popping. This directly led to the creation of the beloved California roll in 1960’s LA. 

Since then innovation has never really stopped. Food fusion has a huge role in cuisine and Sushi has received the gourmet treatment as a result. We’ve seen the addition of dishes require intense preparation to prevent poisoning like Fugu, precisely crafted artisan items such as the spider roll and the relentless flurry of toppings being added in our gourmet Sushi outlets.

Nowadays it doesn’t matter where you are, if you fancy sushi you can get sushi. Whether it be delivered to your doorstep or made fresh right in front of your eyes there’s no denying it’s gone global. With that innovation in the Sushi industry doesn’t look like it’s going to stop any time soon. So just sit back, grab a pair of chopsticks and enjoy the ride!