Even if you’re not particularly crazy about Japanese food, chances are, you’ve tried sushi and loved it. Judging by the steady spread of sushi restaurants and its availability on many grocery and convenience store shelves, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that the world loves sushi.
If you’re reading this, I’m sure you love sushi, too. And you’ll probably love it even more after reading the following sushi facts.
Sushi, and Japanese cuisine in general, is so well-loved not just for its taste but for the unique experience it provides. Get to know the story behind this famous Japanese food, plus some surprising trivia, customs surrounding it, and more. 寿司を食べよう!
Historical facts about sushi
These sushi facts will take you through centuries past – that’s how old this yummy dish is!
1. Sushi isn’t originally Japanese.
“Is sushi Japanese?” is one of the common sushi-related questions often asked online. And before you roll your eyes and say duh, let me quickly say that unlike what most of us think, Japan is not the birthplace of sushi.
While Japan is no doubt the sushi capital of the world, we have Southeast Asia and China to thank for inspiring modern sushi. The practice of making sushi is estimated to have started as early as 500 B.C. in the rice-growing region of Southeast Asia, somewhere along the Mekong River.
The technique of fermenting fish in rice reached China and the Chinese eventually introduced it to Japan in the 8th century.
2. Traditional sushi has always been associated with Tokyo.
If you’re wondering where sushi was invented, at least the traditional sushi we know, the answer is Tokyo.
There are many types of sushi, the most popular being nigiri-zushi, or hand-pressed sushi. This type of sushi originated from what was called Edomae-zushi. Edo is the old name of Tokyo. Edomae means ‘in front of Edo’ and referred to fish caught in front of the Edo castle and later, the fish and shellfish in the Tokyo bay.
Much later, edomae sushi became synonymous with sushi that used fish caught in Tokyo or sushi that’s made using the technique popular in Tokyo at the time, to differentiate it from oshi-zushi of Kansai (present-day Osaka).
3. Hanaya Yohei invented nigiri sushi.
We can thank Hanaya Yohei, the man who invented sushi, for the nigiri sushi we know and love. Or edomae sushi, to be precise.
Sushi was originally a way to preserve raw fish and narezushi required long preparation times. Wanting to serve sushi quickly, Hanaya Yohei set a new trend in Tokyo by developing the edomae sushi method, which eventually led to today’s nigiri sushi. Since then, he was credited as the inventor of sushi.
Sliced fish (raw, slightly cooked, or marinated in salt, soy sauce, or vinegar) is placed directly on top of vinegared rice, and then hand-molded and squeezed together at one. This revelatory method, while still preventing spoilage, didn’t require long fermentation and meant that sushi can be served fast.
4. Sushi rice was once considered trash.
Narezushi, the original Japanese sushi, consisted of fermented rice and aged fish. The long fermentation time gave it a distinct flavor and prevented the growth of bacteria and microorganisms.
After the fermentation period has passed, the fish is eaten… and the rice is thrown away. Latter variants, including vinegared rice, were introduced and the Japanese soon started eating the rice along with the fish.
5. The oldest type of sushi in Japan is the stinkiest sushi in the world.
Near Lake Biwa (Japan’s largest lake), a kind of narezushi is still being served. This fermented local delicacy is known as funazushi, which is said to taste similar to pungent cheese.
Unlike modern sushi, narezushi was made with freshwater fish, loach, and eel. Funazushi, a type of narezushi is much rarer though and uses funa (carp), the king of freshwater fish in Japan.
The process follows the old-school, pre-refrigeration method of sushi making. The filleted fish is packed with salt, layered in a wooden tub, weighed down with 30kg stones, and left to cure for two years. Then the fish is thoroughly rinsed, dried in the sun for a day, then fermented in vinegared rice for another year before it is eaten.
Three years of fermentation results in a funky-smelling but umami-laden sushi.
6. Sushi spread throughout Japan because of the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923.
One of the most interesting sushi facts is this: sushi used to be street food.
It may be hard to believe that something so prized today used to be a cheap street-side delicacy but that’s sushi’s background. Sushi was sold at street-side stalls to provide quick lunch to people who did not have time to sit down and eat.
But in 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake struck and killed more than 100,000 Japanese and left many more homeless. Many people were displaced, including sushi chefs. Many opted to leave Tokyo. In addition, real estate prices also declined, making purchasing storefronts also more possible.
Many sushi chefs decided to open up restaurants across the country, bringing sushi to brick-and-mortars. And this eventually led to sushi become more popular in Japan.
7. Plastic grass in takeout sushi has historical roots.
You know those fake, plastic grass that comes with your takeout sushi? Nope, that’s not for décor.
Placing leaves in between foods like fish and rice is a centuries-old practice in Japanese cuisine. This is called haran (ha for leaf and ran for orchid or lily) and it’s done to preserve the natural flavors of the ingredients and to prevent scents from transferring and co-mingling.
These days, Japanese chefs use baran or bamboo leaves. Not only do these leaves stop the spread of scents but also slow down bacteria growth, helping fish stay fresh longer. In other countries, plastic is used.
Interesting and fun facts about sushi
Think you know your sushi? Well, here are more sushi facts to make you fall even deeper for this dish – from the types of sushi to its nutritional facts and some stunning stats!
8. There are six types of sushi.
You’ll be surprised at the diversity of sushi. While each type is distinct and doesn’t necessarily require fish, there is one thing that all sushi have: vinegar rice. If it doesn’t have rice, then it isn’t sushi. This is exactly why sashimi is not considered sushi.
Sushi falls within any of the following types:
Known as the oldest sushi, this involves fermenting the fish and rice, and then discarding the rice before eating.
Nigirizushi or hand-pressed sushi is the traditional sushi born in Tokyo and is one of the most popular sushi in modern times.
It consists of an oblong mound of sushi rice, hand-pressed, with a topping placed over it. Sometimes, a thin strip of nori (seaweed) is used to bound the rice with the neta (topping).
While the most famous topping is tuna, a myriad of different ingredients can also be used and this isn’t necessarily limited to fish. It can be any fish, prosciutto, tofu, egg, or even vegetables. It is usually served with a bit of wasabi.
Makizushi or rolled sushi is another common type of sushi. It’s a cylindrical piece formed with the help of a bamboo mat known as a makisu. This sushi is generally wrapped in nori but can also be wrapped in a thin omelet, soy paper, cucumber, or shiso (perilla) leaves.
Makizushi can be thin and have only one filling (hosomaki) or be thick and have up to seven fillings (futomaki). The filling can be diverse, too – fish, scallions, cucumber, carrot, avocado, fermented soybeans, gourd, egg, and so much more.
Another type of maki is the uramaki, which is maki turned inside out. It is said that Mashita Ichiro, a chef in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, invented this in the late 60s, putting the nori inside to “hide” it since some Americans disliked the texture and smell of nori.
Chirashizushi or scattered sushi is basically a bed of sushi rice in a bowl topped with different ingredients, commonly seafood, and some garnishes.
Oshizushi or pressed sushi, also known as hakozushi or boxed sushi, is a type of sushi from the Kansai region. It is made by layering toppings into a wooden mold, covering them with sushi rice, and then pressing the lid of the mold to create compact blocks.
The block is then removed from the mold and then cut into bite-sized rectangles, triangles, or small squares.
Inarizushi is named after the Shinto god Inari. It’s made of a pouch of deep-fried tofu filled with sushi rice. The pouch is usually simmered in mirin, soy sauce, dashi, and sugar, giving it a salty-sweet flavor that makes it different from other types of sushi.
Sometimes, the pouches are made not out of tofu but thin omelets.
9. Sushi has plenty of health benefits.
Is sushi healthy? A solid yes!
If you’re curious about sushi’s nutrition facts, you’ll be happy to know that sushi is literally swimming in health benefits. The most obvious nutrient is omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy fat, that most fish and seafood have.
Sushi is also mostly low in fat and high in protein. Nori, which is found in many sushi, is rich in vitamins A, B-6, and C, as well as iodine.
10. Grocery store sushi will always taste sour.
Even the best quality store-bought sushi can’t match sushi that is freshly cut and served by a sushi chef, especially if it’s sushi that uses fish.
Once meat or fish is cut and exposed to air, it oxidizes and turns sour. As a sushi chef cuts and forms the fish over rice, the fish also gets slightly warmed. Sushi rice is also ideally served closed to body temperature and kept slightly warm until serve.
This personal touch doesn’t happen with grocery store sushi so it’s not as flavorful as sushi served in restaurants.
11. It takes 10 years to become a sushi chef.
The reason why sushi chefs are so respected is that it takes 10 years of training for them to achieve their status as masters.
An aspiring chef or apprentice starts his training by working with a master or itamae. The first few years are spent learning how to hold a sushi knife correctly. After spending five years working with an itamae, the apprentice is given the chance to prepare sushi rice, mastering the restaurant’s recipe of rice, salt, and vinegar.
When the itamae is satisfied with the consistency of the sushi rice made daily by the apprentice, the apprentice may then move on to the next stage – wakiita.
This new position, wakiita, literally means “near the cutting board” and involves the preparation of fresh ingredients like fish, ginger, and scallions. During this stage, the wakiita may begin preparing sushi for takeaway orders and observe how the senior itamae interacts with the customers.
After more years of training, the wakiita may be appointed as itamae and can now stand in front of the cutting board and serve customers.
12. Women were forbidden to work as sushi chefs.
Not only is the sushi master title hard to reach; it used to be virtually impossible if you’re a woman.
Until recently, women were forbidden to take their place behind the counter at a sushi restaurant for a number of reasons. First, it is believed that women’s hair oil and makeup would alter the taste and smell of sushi. Second, women menstruate. To be a master, you need a steady, consistent taste in your food. Because of menstruation, women may have higher body temperature and imbalance in their taste.
In addition, this outdated outlook stems from the patriarchal society of Japan and women’s role as a homemaker. Women traditionally stay home and take care of the family. Sushi chefs work long, grueling hours so it’s also physically tough for women who have to take care of their household.
These long-held beliefs are now being challenged by aspiring chefs and senior chefs who are willing to give women chefs a chance. Some upscale restaurants in Tokyo now train women to be sushi masters.
13. Almost 80% of the world’s bluefin tuna catch is used for sushi.
Japan is the world’s biggest consumer of Pacific bluefin tuna, a tuna species that are facing commercial extinction. About 80% of the global catch is consumed in Japan, where it is served raw as sashimi or sushi.
In Japan, some foods made available for the first time of the year are considered auspicious. During New Year auctions, bluefin tuna can demand astounding prices.
On January 5, 2013, a 489-pound Pacific bluefin tuna was sold in Tokyo for 155.4 million yen or almost 1.8 million USD. On January 5, 2019, a 618-pound Pacific bluefin tuna was sold for 333.6 million yen or 3.1 million USD.
14. There’s a holiday for sushi.
The first International Sushi Day was celebrated on June 18, 2009. This holiday was created for one simple reason: to encourage people around the world to eat more sushi!
I don’t think we need a holiday for that, but we’d take any excuse to indulge in this amazing delicacy, yes?
Sushi etiquette and customs
The Japanese are known for being polite people. Etiquette in eating and food preparation are real. Let’s dive into some sushi facts related to these rules and customs. Take notes so you’re better equipped the next time you eat at a Japanese restaurant.
15. Sushi is prepared with the right temperature and weight.
Sushi rice is kept and used at room temperature. Sushi is also traditionally served at room temperature. While cold sushi is still good, the flavors come out better when it’s room temperature or about 20–22 C (68–72 F).
For nigiri sushi, the shari (the rice ball) should be around 20-25 grams.
16. Sushi follows seasonality.
Washoku or Japanese cuisine evokes a strong sense of the seasons. The Japanese use ingredients that are in their prime quality to bring out the best flavor and colors. And this is true for sushi.
Sushi chefs traditionally steer clear of out-of-season fish. Fish that are in season are the tastiest and fattiest.
For instance, sea bass, abalone, and sea squirts are typically served in the summer. Chutoro (fatty bluefin tuna) and otoro (medium fatty bluefin tuna) are both ideal during winter.
17. Sushi meals don’t always begin with miso soup.
If you’re not Japanese and/or you’ve eaten Japanese meals outside Japan, including sushi, you’ve probably been served miso soup as an appetizer. This is something you wouldn’t see in Japan.
Miso is considered more of a breakfast food in Japan. It certainly isn’t an appetizer, unlike in the U.S. and other countries. The Japanese usually eat the soup at the end because of its strong flavor and as a way to help settle the food.
Instead, in sushi course meals, tamago, a Japanese-style omelet, is served as an appetizer.
18. Eat with your hands, not chopsticks.
One of the sushi facts that’s great for those who struggle with chopsticks: you’re not supposed to eat sushi with chopsticks anyway.
While this one is not a hard and fast rule (no one has been ejected out of a sushi restaurant for using chopsticks), sushi, especially nigirizushi and oshizushi, are traditionally eaten by hand. This is so you don’t ruin the perfect form of the sushi. Just be sure to clean your hands first.
19. Soy sauce rules apply.
Sushi is typically served with soy sauce. But before you soak your nigiri into that saucer, make sure you’re only dipping the fish side lightly. Don’t dip the sushi rice because it will ruin the vinegar flavor and the form and texture of the sushi.
It’s also not recommended to take off the fish from the rice and dip it in the soy sauce. Sushi chefs go through rigorous training to perfect the assembly of sushi and rice and to detach them is considered offensive.
20. And there are rules on wasabi, too.
Wasabi is added to sushi to soften any fish odors and draw out the flavor of fish. A sushi chef adds wasabi between the rice and the fish so you don’t really need to add more wasabi.
But if you insist, place only the smallest amount needed on the top of the fish. Again, not on the rice. And do not add wasabi on your soy sauce unless you want a mucky mess.
21. Eat nigiri in one bite…
Don’t eat nigiri in more than one bite.
Nigiri is traditionally eaten whole to keep it from falling apart. This is also why it should be eaten by hand, so you can hold everything together.
22. …and upside down.
For the best dining experience, nigiri is meant to be eaten upside down. It should be placed on your tongue face-down so that the fish is against your tongue. This lets you taste the full flavors and freshness of the fish.
23. Ginger is a palate cleanser.
Aside from soy sauce and wasabi, sushi also usually comes with pickled ginger. This serves as a palate cleanser. It’s not meant to be topped on your sushi. Rather, you should consume it in between bites of sushi to cleanse your palate.
24. Sushi should be eaten from light to dark.
Begin by eating lighter-colored fish before moving on to darker, fattier varieties. Dark sushi tends to have heavier, stronger flavors which can linger on the tongue and overwhelm the taste of the lighter, milder fish.
25. Offer your sushi chef a drink.
This one’s neither customary nor expected of you. This depends more on your relationship with the chef and the restaurant.
If you’re a regular at the restaurant and you want to show your appreciation for the good meal and service, offering your sushi chef a drink, like beer, wine, or sake, would not be out of place.
If they accept, take one with them. Don’t get them drunk though. A couple of glasses is fine.
26. Sushi chefs use one-sided knives.
Remember how we said the initial years of a sushi chef’s training start with holding and using a knife properly? That’s because sushi knives are not your ordinary kitchen knife.
Sushi chefs typically use a yanagi ba or an usuba.
A yanagi ba is a long-bladed knife with a one-sided edge, sharp tip, and a slightly concave back to ensure the food being sliced doesn’t stick to the knife.
An usuba is a single-edge flat knife that is used to cut and peel vegetables and garnishes. They are particularly good at chopping or slicing without cracking the vegetables.
These knives are sharpened at the end of each workday. Unlike other knives, these Japanese knives are sharpened only on one side.
Sushi around the world
There’s no denying that sushi is a global dish, as you’ll see in the following sushi facts. But truth be told, the best place to experience “authentic” sushi is still Japan.
From the freshness of ingredients to the centuries-old techniques, you can be sure that the sushi in Japan is of the highest standard.
But that’s not to say that you can’t find great sushi in other countries. There are “creative” takes on this Japanese specialty that provide unique and tasty experiences, too.
27. Norway introduced the use of salmon as a sushi ingredient.
Salmon, despite being one of the most popular sushi toppings today, wasn’t widely accepted and consumed in Japan until the 1990s. And we have the Norwegians to thank for that.
While salmon was already part of the Japanese diet for centuries, it was mainly for frying or grilling, never raw consumption. Because of the Pacific salmon’s propensity for infection by parasites, it was considered unsafe to eat raw.
In the 60s and 70s, the Norwegians started experimenting with aquaculture, raising salmons in net pens in the sea. Being farm-raised, the salmons were fatty and parasite-free. But because Norway had a small population and limited market, they looked to other countries for export.
It took several delegations and a decades-long campaign for the Japanese to finally embrace salmon as a sushi ingredient. By 1995, the dish became more commonplace in Japan.
28. Los Angeles was the first U.S. state to embrace sushi.
There are over 28,000 Japanese restaurants in the United States. But would you believe that some 50 years ago, the Americans were resistant to Japanese food and culture?
Not surprisingly, the idea of eating Japanese food, the food of “the enemy” wasn’t appealing to the Americans who lived through World War II. But in 1963, two Japanese restaurants opened in New York. Sushi wasn’t an instant hit though.
In 1966, Japanese businessman Noritoshi Kanai brought a sushi chef and his wife from Japan and opened a nigiri sushi bar with them inside a Japanese restaurant known as Kawafuku in LA’s Little Tokyo. It was the first place to offer traditional nigiri sushi to the Americans.
The restaurant was popular among Japanese immigrants but word soon got around and more Americans liked sushi as more Japanese restaurants popped up in L.A.
29. The California roll was also born in L.A.
Uramaki, also known as the California roll or inside-out roll, was the first American-born type of sushi. Los Angeles-based chef Mashita Ichiro is credited as the man who invented this famous sushi variant.
Mashita Ichiro, like most chefs at the time, served the regular makizushi or rolled sushi that uses nori as wrapping. Some Americans disliked the taste of the nori or thought it was inedible and removed the nori before eating the rest of the sushi. Others also find raw fish unappealing.
Ichiro replaced tuna with avocado and added crab to give the dish a seafood flavor. He also turned the maki inside-out, placing the nori inside, and turned the rice part outside to appeal to American customers. This worked and the rest is history.
30. The most expensive sushi is worth over $1,900.
And it’s made by Manila-based “Karat Chef” Angelito Araneta, Jr. The Filipino chef currently holds a Guinness World Record for the world’s most expensive sushi that’s worth 1,978.15 US dollars. The secret behind this high-ticket dish? Diamonds, pearls, and gold.
Chef Angelito’s five-piece nigiri includes pink salmon from Norway and foie gras. Instead of seaweed, he used 24-karat edible gold leaves as wrapping. As if that isn’t fabulous (and expensive) enough, it also includes three Palawan pearls and 20-karat African diamonds.
And that’s a (drool-worthy) wrap! I’m sure these sushi facts left you in awe and craving fresh nigiri!