It’s easy to see sushi as a tasty roll of vinegared rice holding a bit of fish or vegetable. But surely there is more to it. What accounts for its 2000-year appeal? Why is it the global phenomenon it is today?
On my last trip to Tokyo, my guide who happened to be the Japanese master chef I mentioned in the last post, took me down the lanes of sushi history. And what better place to start than the historic Tsukiji fish market – the world’s biggest fish market – located in the heart of Tokyo. Over the most delightful platter of nigiri sushi at one of the market’s best sushi restaurants, he told me that sushi captured the spirit of the Edo Period (1603-1868) like no other single dish.
Several centuries ago it was found that fish could be preserved by allowing it to ferment in cooked rice – a process that could last several months, before the rice was removed and the fish consumed. When this process arrived in Japan, it took a distinct turn - by the Edo Period, this fermentation process was accelerated with the addition of vinegar to the rice and soon, sushi was being prepared right before its consumption. The location of Edo was particularly favourable to such instant sushi, because it was a bay area and had easy access to abundant supplies of fresh fish.
Sushi set in as the taste of Tokyo in the 19th Century – and its popularity is often credited to the pioneering efforts of a particular street vendor who served up bite-sized portions of raw fish and rice on the busy streets of Edo. Sushi, crafted like works of art, also captured the imagination of artists and easily wound its way in the art of the time – many ukiyo-e art scenes feature sushi in the context of the floating world of enjoyment that famously characterized Tokyo in the Edo Period. By the next century, sushi had won over the Western palate just as easily as it had captured the imagination of artists.
Sushi is today available in endless varieties and I had the occasion of seeing the widest range at the sushi stalls at Tsukiji fish market, and helping myself to more than a few. This includes the aforementioned nigiri sushi, the nori-rolled maki sushi and the conical temaki sushi. Sushi is traditionally appreciated with soy sauce seasoning and wasabi. It must be pointed out that sushi offers a range of vegetarian options as well – such as inari sushi (made with fried bean curd skin), maki sushi made with kyuri (cucumber), and maki sushi made with shitake (a mushroom).
As for pairings, my gracious guide informed me that sushi connoisseurs would not dream of having sushi with anything other than green tea, in particular sencha, which apart from conferring confirmed health benefits, is also particularly effective in cleansing the palate after a helping of sushi. It’s another matter if you, like a lot of people, would want the memory to linger.
Back home, Edo - ITC Hotels first purely Japanese bar and restaurant at ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru offers a wide spread. I strongly recommend you to enjoy a taste of Japan’s sushi traditions seated at Edo’s live sushi & sashimi bar, where in keeping with tradition, you watch Edo’s chefs prepare your sushi and sashimi right before you.
We invite you to step into ITC Gardenia’s Edo – dedicated to perfecting the art of Japanese after hours.