Sushi Uncovered: 20 Facts Behind its History and Tradition

Sushi has a long and fascinating history, from its simple beginnings by the Mekong River to being served with 24-karat gold. With well over a thousand years of enjoyment, sushi is still far from being outdated. 

The history of sushi is rich and full of fascinating facts. For example, sushi isn’t even from Japan, rice wasn’t always consumed with sushi, and sushi was even used as a valid tax payment in the 7th century. 

Let’s go through some of the most intriguing highlights from the story of sushi.

These are 20 historical facts about Sushi.

1. The Famous Japanese Dish isn’t Originally From Japan.

Sushi has roots as far back as the 3rd century when new methods of preserving fish were developing in a region of Southeast Asia near the Mekong River. Japan later adopted these methods of preserving cleaned fish between rice and salt, and eventually evolved it into what we now know as sushi.

2. The First Mention of Sushi Is From A Chinese Dictionary.

As explained in the book “Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body, and the Soul”, an ancient Chinese dictionary from the 4th century mentions salted fish being placed in cooked rice. This is thought to be the first time the concept of sushi was ever recorded in print.

3. Rice Wasn’t Always Eaten With Sushi.

Rice was originally used as a means of fermenting fish with the help of vinegar and salt, and for hundreds of years, it was thrown out before the sushi was eaten. During the Muromachi period in Japan, eating sushi with rice started becoming more common, and is now almost inseparable from the image of sushi people have worldwide.

4. Sushi Gained Its Popularity Quickly, Partly Because of Buddhism.

As Buddhism spread across Japan in the 9th century, the dietary practices it came with led people to look for alternative sources of meat. Fish quickly became a dietary staple for people, since it was in keeping with Buddhist dietary practices. As a result, sushi grew into even more of a favored dish.

5. The Original Version of Sushi Can Still Be Enjoyed in Shiga, Japan.

Narezushi, the closest sushi to the original version that came out of Southeast Asia in the 3rd century, is still being served as a local specialty in Shiga Prefecture.

6. Back in Japan, Sushi Used to Be Fast Food.

A new style of serving sushi began in 1824 when Hanaya Yohei started what we now know as “nigiri sushi” (finger sushi). His new way of preparing sushi to be eaten on the go led to a whole new culture of enjoying sushi as a snack.

7. Dirty Curtains Meant a Sushi Restaurant Was Popular

A “Noren” is a curtain at the entrance of a restaurant, hung for customers to wipe their hands clean as they enter and exit. If a Noren was dirty, it was a sign a restaurant was good since it offered proof that it could attract many customers. 

8. Sushi Was Mostly Sold From Carts Until an Earthquake Struck.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake hit Tokyo in 1923, land prices dropped drastically. Sushi vendors who could previously only afford to sell from outdoor carts and stalls were now able to buy their own storerooms.

9. Sushi Wasn’t Always Eaten Raw.

Early versions of nigiri sushi were prepared differently to the kinds known today. Not only was the fish meat marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, and salt to help the meat last longer, it was also sometimes cooked for the same reason.

10. The Refrigerator Helped Make Sushi Popular Around the World.

When refrigerator technology became more advanced in the 1970s, sushi could be shipped farther and fresher than ever before. Immediately, a demand for sushi grew worldwide, as did the reputation of Japanese cuisine. 

11. The First Written Record of Sushi in the West Appeared in 1873.

The first time sushi was ever mentioned in Western writing was in James Hepburn’s 1873 Japanese-English dictionary. It is described as “A kind of food made of rice and fish seasoned with vinegar.” Later, in 1893, a book called “A Japanese Interior” would reference sushi again, mentioning that “Domestics served us with tea and sushi or rice sandwiches.”

12. Sushi Was Once a Valid Tax Payment.

According to the book “Rice: A Global History”, in the 7th century, sushi was such a transferable good that people were allowed to use it to pay taxes. Sushi and many other consumable goods were viewed as a valid currency in the eyes of the authorities for many years.

13. One Type of Sushi Takes Half a Year to Prepare.

A kind of aged sushi called Funazushi was made near Lake Biwa over a thousand years ago. The process (which is still used) involved catching a kind of golden carp called funa and packing it in salted rice pressed by weights. After half a year, the fermentation process would be complete, and the Funazushi would finally be ready to enjoy.

14. In the 1820s, a New Method Made It Possible to Prepare Sushi in Minutes.

In the 1820s, preparing sushi went from a process that could take days to prepare to being ready to serve in minutes. Credited as the creator of what we know as modern nigiri sushi, Hanaya Yohei opened a sushi stall by the banks of the Sumida River. He could catch fish right from the bay to serve as fresh sushi minutes later.

15. Many Sauces and Seasonings Enjoyed With Sushi Were Originally Intended as Preservatives.

While salt, wasabi, and soy sauce go great with sushi, their original intent was to help keep fish fresher for longer. Before refrigeration, sushi vendors had to be creative about keeping their meat fresh.

16. Conveyor Belts Have Been Used in Sushi Restaurants Since 1958.

The first conveyor belt sushi (called kaitenzushi) appeared in Osaka. It was invented by Yoshiaki Shiraishi, who got the idea after seeing conveyor belts in an Asahi brewery for beer bottles. Kaitenzushi has since become one of the most popular ways of enjoying the dish.

17. Plastic Grass Helps Separate Items in a Sushi Box.

Until the last few decades, it was a tradition to use a real leaf (often bamboo) to divide the ingredients of a bento box. This would keep the flavors and scents of fish and rice, for instance, from mixing too much. Instead of bamboo leaves, most takeout sushi nowadays makes use of plastic grass, since it serves as a far more cost-effective option.

18. The California Roll Was the First American-Born Style of Sushi.

Ichiro Mashitan made the first California roll in his Los Angeles restaurant, Tokyo Kaikan, in the 1960s. The first California roll didn’t have all the ingredients it’s known by today, like mayonnaise, cucumber, and sesame seeds. Avocado, crab meat, scallions, rice, and a nori wrapper was all it had in the beginning. It would eventually become notable for its “inside-out” arrangement, with seaweed on the inside of the roll, and the rice on the outside. 

19. Most Sushi Rolls Are Bite-sized, One Was Over 8,000 Feet Long.

One of the longest sushi rolls ever created measured 9,332 ft 8 in (2,844.61 m) and was constructed at Tamana City Labor Athletic Center in Japan on November 20th, 2016.

20. One of the Most Expensive Sushi Was Wrapped in Gold.

In 2010, Angelito Araneta, Jr. of the Philippines made nigiri sushi wrapped in 24-karat gold leaf and served with a garnish of diamonds. The asking price for this sushi was nearly $2,000.

These are 20 Intriguing facts from the history of sushi, but there are many, many more over the past thousand years. What is clear, though, is that sushi has been a favorite food of many cultures, and it is only showing signs of continuing that trend into the future.

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This article was co-authored by our team of writers and editors who share one thing in common: their passion for food and drinks!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco works as a New York-based editor at Foodrinke, driven by his lifelong love for food. His culinary journey began in childhood, as he eagerly assisted his mother with her local sandwich and bakery business, relishing every opportunity to sample her creations. Known among family and friends as an easy eater, JC has a particular affinity for Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Peruvian cuisine. At Foodrinke, he channels his passion for food into his work, sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge with readers.