One ingredient has been a staple in sushi for over a thousand years—but it began in southeast Asia as a fish preservation method. Farmers would catch fish in rice paddies during the monsoon season. The caught fish were then pickled by salting the entire fish, packing it with cooked rice and weights, and sealing it in a barrel. This method helped prevent the fish from spoiling and gave the fish umami, the savory flavor. It wasn’t until this preservation method made its way to Japan, during the 8th century, did the rice began to be eaten with the fish.

Sushi is everywhere nowadays: since the 1980s, it has been ubiquitous in American cuisine. But how did it become what it is today? We take a look back at the history of sushi, from China thousands of years ago, to 7/11 today. 

The word sushi actually refers not to the fish, but to the rice that was used to preserve it. One of the earliest records of sushi is from China many thousands of years ago, and it originated when fish swam into rice paddies during floods. The farmers would catch the fish, salt them, and leave them in barrels under cooked rice to ferment. Months later, bacteria in the rice had converted sugars into lactic acid, which preserved the fish; the fish was eaten, and the rice was thrown away. 

Later, this method spread to Japan, where people began to eat the sour rice that accompanied the fish. The 17th century saw the advent of rice wine vinegar, which was used to create the sour flavour instead of fermenting the fish. Then, sometime before the 19th century, nori was invented, allowing the creation of maki, or sushi rolls. 

In the 18th century, sushi was approximately 3-4 times bigger than it is today, and was served as street food in Japan. But as it began to move indoors, restaurants wanted to distinguish their sushi and make it seem more refined. And so they made it smaller. 

Fresh fish sushi did not become widespread until the advent of refrigeration, and after that, the popularity of sushi rose exponentially. As they say, the rest is fishtory. 

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