Sushi is deceptively simple. It’s a compact morsel of vinegared rice and fish taking only one or two bites. Perhaps the most well known style of sushi is nigiri-zushi, or hand-pressed sushi, also known as Edomae-zushi. But what exactly is Edomae-zushi, and what does it mean now that Edo, the old name for the capital, has become Tokyo?
The idea of fermented rice and fish is an old one, coming over from the Asian continent centuries ago. Fish was packed in rice and salt to keep it from spoiling. Having developed a taste for fermented rice, an entrepreneur in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Edo decided to try a newly developed vinegar. “Hanaya Yohei is said to have mixed in the vinegar after steaming (the rice),” says Shinkichi Mitsugi of Mitsugi Sushi. That was about 200 years ago.
“’Edomae’ means ‘in front of Edo,’ so it originally meant using fish caught in front of Edo castle. In the past, Tokyo had larger sea zone,” says Masaki Kawakami, sushi chef and manager of Sushi Kenzan at the ANA InterContinental Tokyo. At the time, enterprising street hawkers would sell sushi using fish caught in Tokyo Bay out of tachi-ura, or street stalls. Food like sushi and soba were a kind of fast food, explained Yoshiki Tsuji in a lecture at the Tsuji Culinary Institute, where he is chairman and headmaster. “Back then, sushi was originally the size of an iPhone, but grew smaller over time,” says Tsuji. That’s right, says Mitsugi. “Now, sushi rice is about 15 grams, but in the old days there were sushi rice balls which were about 50 grams.”
Centuries on, the term “Edomae-zushi” is still used. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the fish is caught in Tokyo, or that it must be eaten here. Now, it refers to nigiri-zushi, which consists of a portion of hand-formed vinegared rice, or shari, covered with a topping, usually fish, called neta. The term ‘shari,’ says Kawakami, “comes originally from the word ‘Busshari’ which means the bones of Buddha, because the ‘shari’ looks like bones after cremation.” And Edomae-zushi sometimes “means that some additional cooking process is added, like filtered with vinegar, grilled or boiled, etc.”
Edomae-zushi can be contrasted with hakozushi, an Osaka style that is pressed into a bamboo box and then sliced, and “in northern areas like Hokkaido for example, sushi is made with raw fish only,” that is, without anything grilled or cooked in any way, “because they have a lot of fresh fish,” says Kawakami.
Mitsugi, who has been honing his craft for 48 years, adds that since you are dealing with raw food, preparation and cleanliness is crucial. “Preparation refers to washing and cleaning the fish. It’s not just carelessly rinsing, but rather washing meticulously,” says Mitsugi. “Now, as in the past, it is really important that the raw fish doesn’t give off a fishy smell. Proper preparation is learned by training, and it’s learned from the master.”
Edomae-zushi has evolved in other ways, too. For example, says Mitsugi, maguro used to be considered an inferior fish. “Maguro is a large fish so it decayed quickly. Toro (tuna belly) decayed especially quickly so it was thrown out,“ he says. “That all changed when refrigeration technology was developed in the Showa 30s.” (the 1950s.) Now, toro is probably the most prized part of the most prized sushi fish. What was poor man’s fare is now fashionable. “And in the old days too, sugar and vinegar were expensive, so they were used much less. Now, these ingredients are abundant. So sushi is sweeter than it used to be,” says Mitsugi.
And with the advent of ever-better refrigeration technology has come globalisation. Sushi fish can be quickly shipped all over the world, and competition can be fierce. Now people can make Edomae-zushi in Tokyo or Toronto, if they know what they’re doing.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “Japanese cuisine was created by thousands and thousands of years of influence from abroad and outside civilizations, and it was refined to establish our own individuality,” says Tsuji. “After 1974, when nouveau cuisine was established, Japanese cuisine in turn began to influence the world’s gastronomy for the next 50 years. However, in order to propel tradition and innovation within Japanese cuisine, we must again be humbled, or modest enough to learn again from foreign influences.”