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Although sushi is a staple in Japanese restaurants everywhere, its earliest origins lie elsewhere – along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Admittedly, that early dish had little in common with the nigiri and maki eaten in Japan today, since the rice (along with salt) was originally used to preserve fish, rather than being eaten with it.
"The people who lived around the river would catch a lot of fish, and because the climate is so hot they had to find a way to keep the fish [from rotting]," said sushi chef Kazunari Araki. "People in the area were also making rice, so they found a way to keep the fish [fresh] by using a rice and salt [mixture]."
It wasn't until the 12th century that the dish moved to China and then on to Japan. This early incarnation of sushi is similar to narezushi, a fermented dish still eaten in Japan's Shiga Prefecture. Eventually, though, vinegar replaced salt as a preserving agent, freeing rice to be enjoyed along with the fish. For the record, sushi doesn't have to involve fish – raw or otherwise. The term sushi actually refers to the vinegared rice, which can be served with other ingredients, such as vegetables or egg.
Fish and more in Japan:
- Over 80% of the world's catch of fresh tuna is consumed in Japan.
- Slurping noodle dishes such as soba and ramen is considered good manners in Japan.
- Although popularly served in American Chinese restaurants, the fortune cookie originated in Japan, before being brought to California by Japanese immigrants, where it developed into the treat we know today.