Oishii: The History of Sushi by Eric C. Rath is a surprisingly slim volume given the long history and global popularity of this dish. However, these pages are packed with information, photos, and recipes that leave even those with a passing interest (such as myself, I confess) informed and fascinated. A historian specializing in pre-modern Japan and traditional Japanese food culture, Rath offers a microhistory (think Salt: A World History or Rice: A Savor the South Cookbook) grounded in academia but conversational in tone. Readers will find themselves torn between attempting to try some of the 22 recipes included and continuing to read.
Rath begins with an explanation of sushi’s origins in China as a fermented food that took upwards of two to three years to make. It arrived in Japan along with Buddhism in the 8th century. In this early version, rice served as the medium in which fish or other animal proteins fermented. The focus for these early sushi chefs was on preserving the meat and all of its nutrients for the long and often famine-filled haul. The resulting food had a distinctly sour or ‘sui’ taste, which researchers theorize is part of the origin for the word ‘sushi’.
Sushi’s gradual evolution to a popular street food in Edo (Tokyo’s former name) and its changing recipe and shape are also linked to other forces at play at the time. For example, when fishing in Edo Bay was encouraged by the shogunate, seafood edged out the previously popular freshwater fish, such as carp, that had been the norm. The printing revolution that occurred in Japan in the 17th century fueled a rise in literacy rates and access to information. Cookbooks began including recipes for sushi and magazines offered articles about the best places to eat it. As big cities encountered the threat of bombing in World War II, sushi chefs headed to rural areas and took their Edo-style sushi with them, effectively spreading this single style around the country.
The final chapters bring readers up to our modern moment and beyond to see where sushi might go. Rath is frank about the pitfalls of pollution, overfishing, and human trafficking that are part and parcel of getting that thin slice of fish atop the rice on the plate. He also speculates on possible futures for sushi, including renewed interest in the fermented variety as an ingredient in modern dishes, and as a way to help eradicate invasive fish species such as bluegills in Japan and Asian carp in the US.
As Rath weaves together the elements of sushi’s history and possible future, he illustrates that the food we eat reflects more than just seasons or trends. From ancient to medieval to modern, the history of this deceptively simple dish illustrates the complex weave of politics, economics, environment, religion, and culture that surrounds food as it makes its way to plate, glass, or bowl.
By Eric C. Rath