Before you order your Train Wreck roll with extra spicy sauce to celebrate International Sushi Day (June 18), we invite you to dig in to the origins of this centuries-old food.
According to an ancient Japanese wives’ tale, you can thank an unnamed elderly woman for discovering the delights of raw fish and rice. She had set pots of rice in osprey nests to deter thieves from stealing the food. Over time, the rice fermented and bits of fish fell from birds’ mouths into the pots.
Not one to waste food, she gave the fermented rice and fish mixture a spin and found it to be delicious.
Ken Albala, professor of history and chairman of the food studies department at the University of the Pacific’s San Francisco campus, can neither confirm nor deny that story.
But as Albala prepared for a trip to Japan (he’s doing research there for an upcoming book on ramen), he shared some insight into the facts and fictions surrounding sushi.
Q: There are many stories and myths about the origins of sushi. What’s the real story?
A: Well as far as I can tell, it was originally a way to ferment and preserve (fish) with salt and rice. They would add vinegar and later realized they didn’t need to throw the rice away. They could eat it. It was kind of an elite food. … There’s not really a lot of farmland (in Japan) and the bulk of their proteins come from fish.
Q: That first person who put raw fish on rice? Genius, or crazy?
A: I’d say genius. It tastes great. Most fish tastes great raw. Cook (fish) and the flavor diminishes. You find people in the Netherlands eating raw herring, but it’s usually marinated. The idea of keeping the completely natural flavor of fish … that’s not something Westerners would eat until a few decades ago.
Q: When did sushi culture enter the United States?
A: (It entered) New York and San Francisco in the ’70s and ’80s. In the ’90s, it really caught on and moved to middle America, like (California’s) Central Valley. We have a restaurant culture but it’s not the same as bigger cities.
Q: Is it just California that deep-fries sushi and adds spicy sauces?
A: They do that in Japan nowadays. There are no rules about what you can do or not. Purists prefer sashimi. Mayo, chili pepper … those long “spider rolls,” you’ll find them in Japan. There is mutual influence.
Q: Any tips for those looking for a great sushi restaurant?
A: It should be busy because there’s nothing worse than raw seafood that’s not absolutely fresh. It should be a place that’s proximate to water. I live in Stockton and it’s a port. (But) we really don’t get a great selection.
Nothing fishy about these numbers
14.6 pounds: The average amount of fish consumed per person in the United States in 2014
1,100 pounds: The weight of a white sturgeon caught in 2012
500 A.D: The year chopsticks made their way into Japanese homes
Sources: National Marine Fisheries Service, Total Pro Sports, The Smithsonian