The History of Sushi

When we call something “sushi,” we’re usually describing the trendy Japanese dish of vinegared rice, raw fish, seaweed, and additional culturally-specific embellishments (cream cheese, avocado, tempura flakes) rolled and sliced into neat cylindrical forms. But technically, the term “sushi” refers specifically to the rice that coats the raw fish as an outer layer. Paddy farmers in Japan used to ferment raw fish in salted or vinegared rice; the rice would prevent it from spoiling. From there, sushi was born. Waves of Japanese immigration in the early 20th century after the Meiji Restoration supposedly inspired “Japanophilia” amongst the American cultural elite, and Japanese cuisine became a status symbol in America. A Foreign Affairs article titled “How Sushi Went Global” notes that the New York Times covered the opening of a sushi bar at the Harvard Club of New York in 1972. Certainly, initial squeamishness to raw fish meant that more palatable alternative with avocado and imitation crab, like the California roll, had to be developed. But soon American palettes adapted. Sushi aligns with a clean, minimalist aesthetic. It’s unfussy and unintrusive, and all of the ingredients are easily discernible. I wonder how American tastes for sushi correspond with certain cultural assumptions about East Asian cultures (perhaps Marie Kondo’s new organizing show is a cultural reference point?)

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