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For the Japanese, “Nigiri” comes to mind when you say sushi
Aug 4, 2022
Team TREHA® @trehalose_sensei
Let us explain how sushi developed in different regions for different purposes. Your next sushi restaurant visit will be more enjoyable and insightful.
  • What picture comes to you when you hear "sushi"?

  • Sour or vinegared rice has been part of sushi history for 1200 years

  • Differences between Edomae sushi and Kansai sushi

In this blog, we touch on diverse topics about Japanese food cultures, practices together with the culinary secret, TREHA®, and its important role in the Japanese food industry. We hope our blog helps you obtain in-depth knowledge of the secrets and science behind Japanese cuisine, shared from our kitchen, to yours.

Sushi means "nigiri” for the Japanese

"SUSHI" often might refer to sushi rolls like California rolls for those who live outside of Japan, but most Japanese think of hand-shaped sushi, "nigiri (にぎり),” a small ball of vinegared rice topped with a slice of raw fish such as tuna.

Besides “nigiri,” Japan offers many other sushi variations, including famous sushi rolls (maki, 巻き), battleship rolls (gunkan-maki, 軍艦巻き) for the toppings like salmon roe and sea urchin, and scattered sushi (chirashizushi, ちらし寿司), which hits the dining table on March 3rd to celebrate the Dolls' Festival (Hinamatsuri, ひなまつり). In the end, what exactly defines "sushi"? Although a combination of vinegared rice and raw fish or shellfish is typical, I think "vinegared rice" plays the most significant role in defining sushi since some sushi varieties do not include raw fish. A good example is Inari zushi (いなりずし), which is sushi rice packed into seasoned deep-fried tofu.

The long history of sushi: Why is vinegared rice used?

You may be surprised to learn that the history of nigiri (hand-shaped) sushi is relatively short in the long history of sushi. Nigiri sushi emerged in Edo (former Tokyo) in the early 1800s.

Sushi has been eaten for more than 1,200 years. In its earliest form, vinegar was not at all used. Instead, fermented rice was used to preserve toppings, making them taste sour. This original form of sushi has its root in Southeast Asian preserved food items for fish or meat. The fermented rice was discarded since it was too acidic and smelly.

In the Muromachi period (around the 15th century), rice finally became one of the elements of sushi due to the shortened fermenting period. In the 18th century, vinegar became an additional seasoning to fermented rice, which eventually evolved into today’s sushi rice in the first half of the 19th century.

It is mesmerizing to see the nigiri-making technique of a seasoned chef.
It is mesmerizing to see the nigiri-making technique of a seasoned chef.

Two most distinctive sushi styles: “Edomae” and “Kansai

The typical sushi concept can be easily deceived by its wide variety and styles, representing regional flavors. Two significant types, "Edomae (Tokyo Style) Sushi" and "Kansai (Osaka Style) Sushi, are often compared.

Originally, "Edomae sushi," meaning “bay front sushi in Edo (current Tokyo),” refers to sushi made with fresh fish caught in Tokyo Bay. When nigiri (hand-shaped) sushi first appeared in the 18th century, refrigerators and efficient transportation were not yet developed. For these reasons, various preserving techniques were used to extend the shelf life of raw fish, including boiling, curing, and pickling. In addition, the sushi stands were serving fish pieces placed on the rice to quickly ease the hunger of the Edo people, who were infamously impatient and hasty. This was the beginning of Edomae sushi. Edomae sushi evolved into today’s mainstream sushi, where sushi chefs use their skills and techniques after hard, extended training to serve customers the best product. The methods vary from pickling and soy sauce marinade (Zuke) to brushing secret seasoning sauces on the surface. Unique technical expressions support Edomae sushi restaurants in standing out in the competitive arena.

On the other hand, in the Kansai (Greater Osaka) region, the aforementioned fermented sushi, supposedly the origin of sushi, developed 1,200 years ago. In some areas, fermented sushi called "Nare-zushi” (なれ寿司) remains. Typical toppings in Greater Osaka were mackerels and sauries (Saba and Aji). Later beautifully decorated sushi in wooden boxes emerged. This sushi is pressed with the toppings like thick omelets and regional fish, including eels and shrimp caught in the regional Setouchi inland ocean. This was how Kansai (or Osaka) sushi began. Pressed sushi was the ancestor of today’s common sushi varieties such as rolls (maki), pressed sushi with mackerel and seaweed (Battera), and rod-shaped sushi (Bo-zushi), which are collectively named Osaka sushi. Osaka sushi is not consumed indoors like nigiri sushi in Edomae style but is often taken out for leisure such as theater viewing and field trips.

There is a distinct difference between the Kanto (Greater Tokyo) style and the Kansai (Greater Osaka) style for nigiri. In the Kanto (Greater Tokyo) area, many sushi restaurants and chefs are particular about tuna. In contrast, Kansai (Greater Osaka) area, chefs like to use white fish such as sea bream and flatfish caught in the nearest ocean. The chefs focused on using their skills and techniques to maximize the freshness of the local fish rather than over-modifying them.

The difference is also evident in rice (shari). The rice in Osaka style is sweeter than in the Kansai style to prevent the cooked rice from drying with higher sugar content. This was necessary because the typical Osaka-style pressed sushi is often consumed after a while. Moreover, extra seasoning makes sushi rice enjoyable to the last bite because pressed sushi is served with a higher rice ratio than the toppings. In contrast, Edomae-style sushi, which often requires extra effort in preparing toppings, features lighter-seasoned rice to enhance the flavor of elaborately crafted toppings.

However, there seems to be no distinction in such styles at the reasonably priced rotating sushi restaurants beloved by the Japanese. Hope to share more about the rotating sushi restaurant, also known as gourmet Wonderland another time!

Visiting a rotating sushi restaurant is so much fun, but OMAKASE served at an authentic sushi restaurant truly indulges.
Visiting a rotating sushi restaurant is so much fun, but OMAKASE served at an authentic sushi restaurant truly indulges.

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