What if we told you that the sushi you eat today isn’t the sushi of ancient Japan? We go back in time to explore the prototypical sushi, in search of clues to how funa-zushi was made.

Japanese cuisine was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. Japanese cuisine hails from the mountains and the sea with fresh ingredients that provide superb nutritional balance. Harmony might be a better word as the traditional food culture of the Japanese skillfully manifests the beauty of nature and the changing of seasons. Foodies around the globe are passionate about Japanese food culture. And, among all Japan’s ambrosial delights, one stands out on the global theater, sushi. Nigiri-zushi is fresh raw fish such as tuna, snapper or salmon roe atop a wedge of vinegar seasoned rice. This is the sushi most of the world knows and loves.

However, this isn’t the sushi of ancient Japan.

Early nigiri-zushi came about nearly 200 years ago in Edo (contemporary Tokyo). Nigiri means hand-pressed and zushi is a variant of sushi. At the time, sushi from fish caught in the Edomae (Tokyo Bay) was sold in booths around the city under the moniker Edomae nigiri-zushi. This impromptu fast food soon gained popularity, and the style of eating sushi at the booths fit well with the hustle and bustle of Edo Japan, leading to another name haya-zushi (fast sushi). It could be made quickly and eaten on the go.

Before nigiri-zushi, nare-zushi was what the Japanese considered sushi. The word sushi comes from san meaning acidic or sour. However, unlike haya-zushi vinegar was not used for flavoring. Nare-zushi comprised three simple ingredients: fish, salt, and rice. The fish was fermented using natural lactic acids, which contributed to the sour taste.

Nare-zushi has a long history and pops up in texts such as Yoro-ryo from the early eighth century and the Engi-shiki from the early tenth century. Nare-zushi boasts a history that extends back over 1,000 years.

One can find a variety of sushi under the nare-zushi umbrella. One in particular, funa-zushi, is made from a type of carp known in Japan as funa and is said to show vestiges of the oldest sushis in Japan. The traditional methods for making funa-zushi are still alive at Tokuyamazushi. Surrounded by mountains to the north of Lake Biwa is Lake Yogo, which is also known as Lake Kagami (mirror) because its calm surface reflects the mountains and clouds. Here, chefs from all over the world come to visit and eat at Tokuyamazushi.

Tokuyamazushi’s owner, Hiroaki Tokuyama, is from Shiga, and funa-zushi has been a part of his life since he was a small boy. Funa-zushi’s strong odor and sour taste have caused it to decline in popularity, and chefs capable of making funa-zushi have all but disappeared.

After completing his culinary training in Kyoto, Tokuyama became a chef in his hometown. Twenty-two years ago he had a chance encounter with Dr.Takeo Koizumi, an authority in the field of fermentation. At that time, Koizumi served as the director of the Japanese Foundation for Fermentation Research at Yogo. He explained interesting information about microbes and fermentation to Tokuyama, strongly recommending the restoration of funazushi and the traditional food culture that was falling out of fashion.

“Now fermentation is booming, but this wasn’t true 20 years ago—even in Kyoto where I was training. I learned that our local ingredients and seasonings are delicious, but there were no authorities on the subject of fermentation. It was an area unknown to chefs,” recollects Tokuyama.

He continues, “All Japanese food has a connection to fermentation. In the soup stock made from bonito, and even the flavoring for soy sauce and miso. Japanese sake and even the afterdinner pickles we eat are all products of fermentation.”

And then in 2004, Tokuyama, who had become fascinated with how fermentation had created the world of Japanese food, finally established Tokuyamazushi. Not only does he continue the tradition of creating funa-zushi, which has a history spanning over 1,000 years and is one of the original forms of the sushi eaten today, but Tokuyama also continues to research funa-zushi so everyone can experience its deliciousness.

On a clear day in July, the salted carp are dried in a well-ventilated place. This is an important step for adjusting the flavor later on.

On a clear day in July, the salted carp are dried in a well-ventilated place. This is an important step for adjusting the flavor later on.

Preparation for pickling: Draining the water after the lid is closed to prevent air and unwanted bacteria from contaminating the steamed rice and fish, which are stacked in alternating layers. Rice is even stuffed into the eyes of the carp.

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