30 years ago not many people outside of Japan have tried one of its most delicate foods: sushi. However, these days chances are that you have had Edomae style sushi at least once before. What is Edomae style sushi exactly? And how did they come up with it?
The Japanese word ‘Edomae’ has several meanings. Literally it means ‘in front of (mae) Tokyo Bay’ (Edo is the old name of Tokyo). This bay is said to be teeming with fish and other sea life in the early days. Locals eventually started referring to delicacies such as prawns, shellfish, eel and octopus caught in Tokyo bay with the word Edomae. Another meaning of the word is ‘hard work’, in a sense that sushi chefs during the early days in old Edo were limited in their work because of the lack of advanced transportation and refrigeration technologies. Because of that, they had to labor painstakingly with whichever ingredients they had on hand in order to increase the shelf life of the fish, and bring out the best flavors of the food.
According to historical records, it was Hanaya Yohei (a sushi chef from Edo) who pioneered the Edomae tradition in the 1800s. This is even inscribed on the plaque found at the monument dedicated to the chef in the Ryogoku district of Sumida, the ‘Birthplace of Yohei-zushi’. It is also described on the plaque how the chef was able to create a new style of sushi: he used shari (sushi rice, which is sticky and slightly sour) as a base, and then he made a topping pressed together by hand to make individual bite-sized pieces based on the following ingredients: vinegar, rice, and neta (seafood toppings). Chef Yohei has developed techniques that include simmering the neta in dashi (fish broth) or marinating them with salt and vinegar to bring out the flavor of the food. The food that chef Yohei created was difficult to market at first, and he would go around and look for customers to sell his wares to. However, when he built a kiosk in which he could prepare his sushi right in front of his customers this eventually became a big success, and born was the first Edomae sushi, the fast food of the 19th century!
During the Edo Period, maguro (bluefin tuna) was not as popular as a sushi topping as it is today. While today it is the quality of the tuna they serve that determines the rank of a sushi shop in Japan, tuna actually used to be classified as a ‘lower fish’. Tuna was in fact considered as inferior to other varieties that were commonly eaten in the Edo Period because the fish quickly loses its freshness. Because of the lack of refrigeration technology tuna coming from other parts of Japan usually started to spoil before it reached Edo, and the lean red cut of tuna that is known as ‘akami’ is always eaten with a huge amount of soy sauce (because of its lack of flavor). However, as technology has improved tremendously, people are now able to enjoy fattier (and tastier!) cuts of tuna from the belly, such as o-toro (fatty) and chu-toro (medium fatty).
Now you know more about the history of the type of sushi that became a favorite all over the world, did you already start to feel hungry? Head over to your nearest sushi restaurant, or even better, come to Tokyo where it all began, and taste the freshest sushi in the Tsukiji area!