Wednesday, January 26, 2005


I love sushi, definite favorite food (if I was a richer woman, I would eat sushi every day), and was enchanted by this wonderful TLS piece by Murray Sayle about a book called Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore C. Bestor. I do have a TLS subscription, but haven't got around to sorting out the on-line password and stuff, so it was good to see that Powell's has posted it as their review of the day. Here's the meat of the matter, so to speak:

Like bacon, brawn and biltong, sushi began as a means of delaying the putrefaction of all perishable foodstuffs. Japan is washed by some of the world's richest fishing waters, and rice is the only abundant cereal. Perhaps a millennium ago (or the idea may have come from South China) someone discovered that a raw fish buried in cooked rice set up a fermentation which preserved the fish, although it turned the rice into vinegary slush. This unappetizing (even to most modern Japanese) mess is available as a souvenir in various parts of Japan, which is now, like Victorian Britain, seeing a revival of traditions, often spurious, as talismans against rapid changes no one can see the end of. The infrastructure, however, only came into being in 1603 when Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa set up his new capital in swampy ground behind the village of Edo, at the head of Tokyo Bay, itself in those pre-pollution days a very fishy body of water. Shogun Tokugawa laid out as his future residence the biggest castle in the world, named Edo after the original fishing village, defended by a system of moats and canals leading from the bay and the seas beyond. His grandson Iemitsu Tokugawa improved security by compelling regional dignitaries to reside in his new capital, under the eyes of the shoguns' police. Partial, like all Japanese, to a nice piece of fish, he had inadvertently created a system which put his successors and their conscript courtiers within a short barge delivery run from a deep-water fishing fleet ready to satisfy their every yen -- at a price.

With an eye to maximizing taxes, the shoguns ordered all fish to be sold through the central market they set up at Nihonbashi, 'Japan Bridge', where their new road network crossed the main canal leading to Edo Castle. Nihonbashi Market was soon surrounded by restaurants (the first in Japan not devoted to the needs of travellers) and it was in one of these that sushi, as we know it, was perfected in the late 1820s. The name of the culinary Columbus, Yohei Hanaya, deserves to be remembered, and it is, in the many Tokyo sushi shops that work Yohei into their signs to suggest spiritual descent from the master. Hanaya called his invention "squeezed sushi": the familiar pat of vinegared rice spiked with horseradish (originally intended to mask fish going off, retained as a sharp seasoning) topped with a slice of raw tuna, some other fish, or shellfish in colourful variety. As most of his customers were either samurai or merchants aping samurai ways, Hanaya's shop adopted military manners, bright lights, brisk service and shouted orders, and laid down the rule also observed to this day (and supported by no medical evidence whatever): women's hands are supposedly warmer than men's, and might taint the pristine freshness of raw fish if allowed to perform the critical squeezing or shaping, although sushi waitresses and female cashiers are decorative and do not pollute ready money.

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