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Apr 1, 2014

Rolling With Sushi Masters

With the increasing popularity of sushi joints here, it’s no news that Singaporeans are a sushi-eating bunch. But what is it about sushi that makes it an islandwide favourite? And how do you tell a good sushi from a bad one?

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Contrary to popular belief, sushi did not originate from Japan. Said to have its beginnings in Southeast Asia then spread to south China between 3rd and 4th century BC, it was only introduced to Japan during the 8th century. But as with some of the Japanese delicacies we are so familiar with today, even though sushi isn’t an indigenous Japanese dish, what the locals improvised and reinvented centuries ago made sushi a creation the country can proudly call its own.

The original form of sushi, nare-zushi, was created as a method to preserve fish using fermented rice. Fish was – and still is – an important source of protein, and it was left to ferment along with rice for three months to a year before it was consumed. The rice, however, was discarded. This method of preserving fish later spread throughout South China, before it was finally introduced to Japan during the Heian period. Then, the dish underwent its first improvisation – rather than discarding the rice and fully preserving the fish, the Japanese ate the rice along with the partly raw fish (preserved for between one week to one month) so as to maintain its freshness. By the end of the Muromachi period, this dish had had a new name: namanare-zushi.

It was during the Edo period that the Japanese once more reinvented the dish for one that has since become unique to Japanese culture: haya-zushi. Rice was no longer used for fermentation purposes; it was mixed with vinegar and served with fish, vegetables and other dried preserved foods. Later in the early 19th century, when mobile food stalls peppered the streets of Edo (now Tokyo), nigiri-zushi was a popular fast food of choice among the locals. Like the basic form of sushi we see today, nigiri-zushi was made up of a slice of fish placed atop a bite-sized portion of rice. This dish gained nation-wide recognition after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923.

In Singapore, the uptake of Japanese cuisine among the locals was slow at first, but it quickly gained a foothold in the late 1980s. According to Chef Shiraishi Shinji, owner of Shiraishi, there were only 36 Japanese restaurants when he first came to Singapore in 1982. When he returned in 1990, the number rose to 150. Today, there are over 800 of them, including more than 100 sushi joints. While sushi is enjoyed as an occasional meal in Japan, the burgeoning demand of sushi in Singapore is a clear indication that many locals here regard the dish as part of their everyday meal.

But would the fine art of preparing sushi become lost among the bevy of sushi joints popping up across the island? We speak to three sushi masters to find out more.

(photography Charles Chua/A Thousand Words Text Tan Lili)

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