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The original type of sushi was the so called nare-sushi. Fish was salted and wrapped in fermented rice, a traditional lacto-fermented rice dish. Nare-sushi was made of this gutted fish stored in fermented rice for preservation. Nare-sushi was stored for fermentation for a few months then removed. The fermented rice was discarded and the fish was the only part consumed. This early sushi became a great source of protein.
The consumption of Nare-sushi began to expand throughout China, and sometime around the 8th century AD it reached Japan. The Japanese preferred to eat the fish with the rice, called seisei-sushi. During the Muromachi period seisei-sushi was the most popular type of sushi. Seisei-sushi was partly raw fish wrapped
in rice, consumed fresh, before it lost its flavor. This new way of consuming fish was no longer a form of
The earliest reference to sushi in Japan appeared in 718 in the set of laws called Yororitsuryo (養老律令). As an example of tax paid by actual items, it is written down as "雑鮨五斗 (about 64 liters of zakonosushi or zatsunosushi?)". However, there is no way to know what this "sushi" was or even how it was pronounced. By the 9th and 10th century "鮨" and "鮓" are read as "sushi". This "sushi" was similar to today's Narezushi.
became popular in Edo period.
There were three famous sushi restaurants in Edo, Matsunozushi (松之鮨), Yoheizushi (興兵衛鮓), and Kenukizushi (けぬき寿し) but there were thousands more sushi restaurants. They were established in a span of barely twenty years at the start of the 19th century. Nigirizushi was an instant hit and it spread through Edo like wildfire. In the book Morisadamanko (守貞謾稿) published in 1852, the author writes that for a cho (100 meters by 100 meters or 10,000 square meters) section of Edo there were one or two sushi restaurants, but that only one soba
restaurant could be found in 1 or 2 cho. This means that there were nearly 2 sushi restaurants for every soba
These early nigirizushi were not identical to today's varieties. Fish meat was marinated in soy sauce or vinegar or heavily salted so there was no need to dip into soy sauce. Some fish was cooked before it was put onto a sushi. This was partly out of necessity as there were no refrigerators. Each piece was also larger, almost the size of two pieces of today's sushi.
The advent of modern refrigeration allowed sushi made of raw fish to reach more consumers than ever before. The late 20th century saw sushi gaining in popularity all over the world.
The Japanese name "sushi" is written with kanji (Chinese characters) for ancient Chinese dishes which bear little resemblance to today's sushi. One of these, might have been a salt pickled fish. The first use of "鮨" appeared in the face and hand, the oldest Chinese dictionary believed to be written around the 3rd century BC. It is explained as literally "Those made with fish (are called) 鮨, those made with meat (are called) 醢". "醢" is a fermented meat made from salt and minced pork and "鮨" is a fermented fish made from salt and minced fish. The Chinese character "鮨" is believed to have a much earlier origin, but this is the earliest recorded instance of that character being associated with food. "鮨" was not associated with rice.
In 2nd century AD, another character used to write "sushi", "鮓" , appeared in another Chinese dictionary:
"鮓滓也 以塩米醸之加葅 熟而食之也", which translates as "鮓滓 is a food where fish is pickled by rice and salt, which is eaten when it is ready". This food is believed to be similar to Narezushi, i.e. that the fish was fermented for long times in conjunction with rice and was then eaten after removing the rice.
A century later, the meaning of the two characters had become confused and by the time these two characters arrived in Japan, the Chinese themselves did not distinguish between them. The Chinese had stopped using rice as a part of the fermentation process, and then
stopped eating pickled fish altogether. By the Ming dynasty, "鮨" and "鮓" had disappeared from Chinese cuisine.