Sushi: Japan's Most Recognizable Dish

Discover the history and culture of Edomae sushi, one of Japan's best known culinary traditions

By NHK Educational

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【Edomae sushi】prologueOriginal Source: Sushi Sho

Hands pressing sushiOriginal Source: Sushi Sho

Sushi: a smart innovation

Sushi is made from vinegared rice that is usually combined with raw seafood, vegetables, or other foods to prevent them from spoiling. Long before the age of refrigerators, sushi became a smart preservation method.

(Shimazoroi Onna Benkei Ataka no Matsu) "Women in Benkei-checkered kimono Pine Trees at Ataka" Tokyo Metropolitan Library Special Archives by Utagawa KuniyoshiOriginal Source: Tokyo Metropolitan Library Special Archives

Shopping for sushi

This work depicts a child reaching out for sushi in Matsugasushi, the most renowned and luxurious sushi shop in Edo (the former name for Tokyo). Hand-formed nigiri zushi (sushi) was developed in the early 19th century around the Bunsei era (1818-1830 CE). The sushi made by Sakaiya Matsugoro, whose shop is depicted in this image, was very popular at the time.

Toto meisho Takanawa nijuroku ya machi yugyo no zu (Amusements While Waiting for the Moon on the Night of the Twenty-sixth in Takanawa, a Famous Place in the Eastern Capital) Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of History Archives by Utagawa Hiroshige ⅠOriginal Source: Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of History Archives

Sushi on demand

Nigiri zushi (sushi) incorporated seafood caught from the oceans around Edo, and was thus called Edomae (“Edo-style”). It could be made on demand for customers at food stands, which served the needs of those who wanted to eat quickly, aligning perfectly with the mentality of Edoites.

Zuke tuna Chiai, dark red meat (left), Oo-toro, fatty tuna (right)Original Source: Sushi Sho

The preparation process

A special tuna preparation called zuke is indispensable to Edomae sushi. Hot water is poured on the raw fish, which is then marinated in soy sauce, removed, and left to marinate some more until it becomes an attractive ruby color.

【Edomae sushi】Zuke tunaOriginal Source: Sushi Sho

Red sushi rice (left), White sushi rice (right)Original Source: Sushi Sho

What would we do without shari?

There are two types of shari (the name for sushi rice) in Edomae sushi. Shiro shari (white vinegared rice) is made from clear rice vinegar, while aka shari (red vinegared rice) is made from red vinegar, a sweeter vinegar made from sake lees. These two varieties of shari form the fundamental flavor of sushi.

【Edomae sushi】sushi riceOriginal Source: Sushi Sho

Hands painting on nikirisauceOriginal Source: Sushi Sho

The finishing touches

A brushing of nikiri sauce provides the finishing touch to Edomae sushi. Nikiri sauce — made from soy sauce, sake, and mirin — covers the sushi toppings, giving them a more glossy sheen.

Hands painting on tsume sauceOriginal Source: Sushi Sho

Squid (ika), conger eel (anago), and other seafood are usually coated with a sweeter, thicker glaze called tsume. At first it has almost no viscosity, but after reduction it becomes a gleaming thick sauce like honey. The sauce gets its name for the Japanese word for reduction, nitsume.

Conger eelOriginal Source: Sushi Sho

Tsume is traditionally made by reducing previously made broth. Many sushi shops continuously add freshly made sauce into their existing tsume for richer flavor. Some shops have built continuously on the same sauce since their founding.

Credits: Story

Sushi Sho
Tokyo Metropolitan Library Special Archives
Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of History Archives

Photography by Tadayuki Minamoto

Music by Ryu (Ryu Matsuyama)

Supervised by
Maezaki Shinya, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University
M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Produced by NHK Educational Corporation


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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