If you want to find out more about sushi beyond the Maguro Sake Avocado comfort zone, you should stick to Eric C. Rath.

The American food historian teaches at the University of Kansas, specializes in researching Japanese food culture and has presented a vividly illustrated history of sushi with "Oishii" (in English: delicious).

Using notes from Chinese and Japanese chefs as well as centuries-old collections of recipes, Rath explains the origins of a dish that is now primarily associated with raw fish, but was once prepared from all possible combinations of grain and fish, and sometimes even meat.

Axel Weidemann

Editor in the Feuilleton.

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Sushi is a thousand-year-old ongoing experiment, the earliest results of which in sixth-century China consisted of seasoning fish and rice with orange peel and rice wine.

The Japanese name "sushi" is derived from the term "sui" and refers to the taste: sour.

The modern interpretation of sushi only has a slightly sour note.

Proto-sushi, however, is described in ancient records as "sour-tasting," sometimes even smelling acrid: before vinegar was used for flavoring from the seventeenth century, sushi was a fermented food.

Not a purely Japanese invention

The titles of the sources from which Rath draws his knowledge are already great fun: the "Collection of instructions for cooking and seasoning dishes" ("Ryori Anbaishu", from 1668), the "Collection of everyday culinary art writings" ("Gorui Nichiyo Ryorisho", from 1689) or the "Collection of Recorded Grain Dishes" ("Meihan Burui", from 1802).

The "Ryori Anbaishu", for example, mentions a recipe for funazushi, the basis of which is the crucian carp (Japanese: funa) stored in a fermentation tank.

What Rath describes as one of the “oldest forms” of sushi is still considered a delicacy in Shiga Prefecture.

It proves difficult to present the history of this multifaceted dish in its entirety.

According to Rath, there is no consensus as to how sushi became a hit in America about fifty years ago.

"Recipes cannot tell the whole story of sushi, and the words for different types of sushi in Japan appear centuries before the first recipes are recorded."

tribute to princes

Rath focuses on Japanese idiosyncrasies of sushi, but emphasizes that the dish "is not a purely Japanese invention."

While it may be a food representative of Japan today, it has never been commonplace throughout the country.

There is no evidence that the Japanese natives, the Ainu, prepared sushi in northern Hokkaido before 1868 (beginning of the Meiji Restoration), nor is it a traditional dish in southern Okinawa to this day.

Sushi is not strictly ascribed to any nation or region, rather it stands for the "most famous anonymous cuisine in the world".

Rath happily devotes himself to curious preparation methods, for example the osprey sushi that was once famous in Kishiwada.

According to the story, the bird of prey is not filleted.

He becomes a sushi master himself.

The "Collection of Recorded Cereal Dishes" states that ospreys, which find nothing left to eat in winter, catch small fish in order to store them on the seashore in the sand or between pebbles and then distribute their own urine over the catch.

With the final measure, conspecifics should be kept away.

After that, the fish ferments through salt water and weather.

According to the story, osprey sushi was often given as a tribute to high-ranking officials or princes.

Preparation with complicated cutting demonstrations

Rath cites another incident as evidence that sushi used to be sold primarily by itinerant traders and peddlers.

Source is the "Story Collection of Now and Then" ("Konjaku Monogatarishū", created in the first half of the twelfth century): A man visits his friend and sees in a nearby doorway a fish seller standing next to a barrel with sweet sushi (Amazushi , made with yeast) sleeps off her intoxication.

When he leaves his friend's house again, he witnesses the woman vomit into the barrel.

As soon as she realizes she is being watched, she reaches into the container and mixes the contents.

The narrator reports that the man never ate sushi again, "not even if it was made in his own house".

He sums it up: "Everything

To this day, the production of sushi in front of the eyes of the consumer is important.

In feudal Japan, the so-called "masters of the kitchen knife" entertained the nobility with complicated cutting demonstrations, which were a sign of professionalism on the one hand, but also referred to the ranking among the guests: "Even a single fin could, depending on its placement on the plate, enormous have an impact.”

But what is important when preparing sushi?

Rath has the reporter Tenmin Matsuzaki (1878 to 1934) answer: "Good or bad ingredients, rice of high or low quality, the cooking point of the rice, the hardness or softness with which the sushi is pressed together and the seasoning with vinegar - everything affects the taste.” Incidentally, rice wine goes very well with sushi.

Its history is being researched by Eric C. Rath.

Eric C. Rath: "Oishii".

The History of Sushi.

Reaction Books, London 2021. 223 pp., ills., hardcover, €22.40.