Is it uncivilized to use soy sauce? Should extra wasabi be added? Recently, travel agent and food enthusiast Roxana Lewis led a “sushi graze” edition of our Edible Adventures walking tour series in Little Tokyo, this time starting with a “Sushi 101 class.” Lewis explained that adding wasabi or soy sauce depends on the restaurant and the chef. However, she stressed that when using soy sauce, one should lightly dip only the fish to avoid having the rice ball fall apart. Attendees also learned some surprising sushi history. Enthusiasts may find it hard to imagine sushi ever existing without rice. However, beginning in the fourth century in many parts of Asia, salted raw fish was wrapped in rice and held in storage for months. When the rice fermented, it acted as a preservative but was discarded before the fish was eaten.
Sushi was introduced to Japan in the ninth century. It became popular as Buddhism spread throughout the country; the Buddhist practice of refraining from eating meat meant that many Japanese began eating fish as a dietary staple. Vinegar was eventually used as a preservative instead of rice and this change led to the uniquely Japanese version of sushi that is eaten today. A rice ball and a small portion of raw fish (known as nigiri sushi) need very little preparation, so by the 1800s, it was a popular choice with roadside vendors and a big hit with busy workers who didn’t have time to sit down for a meal.
After the short history lesson, attendees enjoyed a small feast at the restaurant Sushi Go 55. The sushi served at this restaurant reflects the same style that emerged as a favorite fast-food option in nineteenth century Japan. Made to order piece by piece, attendees watched as the chef’s hands moved in perfect rhythm as he assembled balls of rice and affixed fish to them with the exact amount of wasabi. In the past few centuries, not much has changed in the making of this style of food. While enjoying sushi at this restaurant, one could close their eyes and feel a direct connection to Japan and the past.
While sushi is a pillar of Japanese cuisine, the history of the delicacy in the United States is an ever-evolving one. When first introduced, Americans had a difficult time warming up to the idea that raw fish could be something tasty. The creation of the California roll in the late 1960s helped change American perceptions. First created by a Japanese chef in Los Angeles (according to some), the California roll features crab, avocado, and cucumber, making it more suitable to the American palate. It’s often then rolled “inside out,” meaning the rice is on the outside. The next stop on the tour exemplified this American take on sushi. At the Ebisu Tavern, “caterpillar” and “spider” rolls which featured ingredients like battered soft-shell crab and spicy mayonnaise were served to showcase the evolution of westernized sushi.
The Edible Adventure offered more than just learning about sushi. Between stops Lewis recounted tidbits touching on the history of Little Tokyo. She pointed out Buddhist temples and explained their architecture, showed participants the former sites of trailblazing restaurants now gone and noted how the area has changed through the generations. The tour ended back at JANM. Museum admission was included with the tour and attendees then spent time taking in the current exhibitions. Don’t miss the next Edible Adventure—you can stay up to date on all of JANM’s events by visiting janm.org/events. You can also sign up to receive our monthly Exhibitions & Events email with all the latest information.