“Sushi Before Sushi, Umami Before Umami: The Hidden (Fermented) History of Japanese Food” by Eric C. Rath
Sushi’s appearance in US grocery stores, usually coated in sauces and fried toppings, demonstrates how the once simple dish evolves as it globalizes. But sushi was a much different recipe 1,200 years ago when it was first mentioned in Japanese records. The likely derivation of “sushi” is “something sour” indicating that it was a fermented food, one that took months if not years to prepare. Sushi’s history is measured by the various attempts to hasten its fermentation to the point that fresh fish is synonymous with sushi today. Yet, in our culinary world where everyone now craves umami, “ancient” fermented sushi holds new possibilities of flavor to enrich our understanding of the culinary past and offer new taste profiles for the future beyond what we might think possible for Japanese food.
Eric C. Rath is a professor of history at the University of Kansas where he teaches courses on food history and premodern Japan. A specialist in Japanese food, his books include Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (2010), Japan’s Cuisines: Food, Place and Identity (2016), and Oishii: The History of Sushi (Reaktion Books, 2021). He is also a member of the editorial collective of Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies.