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History on a Plate: The Story of Sushi

Sushi is one of the most popular Japanese dishes that people eat not only in restaurants but also in their own homes. It is considered by many as one of the most significant dishes that represent the ever delectable, healthful, fascinating, and multifaceted Japanese cuisine and for good reason. This is because sushi has one of the most interesting histories in Japanese cuisine.

Below is an overview of the origin of sushi:

3500 B.C.

Although sushi is known as a Japanese cuisine staple, the dish did not actually originate in Japan. It is believed that the first version of sushi was invented along the Mekong River in Thailand. Immigrants, possibly from Thailand or another Southeast Asian country, then took the dish to China.

It was first mentioned in a Chinese dictionary created sometime in the second century A.D. In this dictionary, sushi was depicted as a character that translates into pickled fish with salt and rice.

In China, rice was used in the pickling process. This is because the fermentation in the rice prevents the fish from spoiling. However, unlike today, the fish and rice weren’t eaten together. It was only the fish that would be eaten; the rice was thrown away.

Muromachi Period

By this time, this method of food preservation made its way to Japan from China. Sometime between 1336 and 1573 or the Muromachi period, a specific type of sushi known as namanare became popular.

Under this food preservation or sushi type, partially raw fish was wrapped in rice and fermented for days. Both rice and fish had to be consumed fresh before they changed flavor.

With this type of sushi, preserving fish was no longer the priority. It was now about enjoying a new dish.

Eighteenth Century

During the Edo period, another kind of sushi was invented: haya-zushi. Like namanare, the locals ate the fish and rice at the same time.

The creation of this dish also brought forth the concept of adding flavor to the rice. This is because, with this type of sushi, rice was marinated in vinegar. Raw fish, vegetables, spices, and other ingredients were placed on a bed of this vinegared rice the size of a rice ball.

The haya-zushi sparked the modern concept of sushi, the one which is known and eaten around the world today.

Nineteenth Century

During the early nineteenth century, Hanaya Yohei, while in Edo (now known as Tokyo), came up with the idea of placing a piece of fish on top of an oblong-shaped piece of rice. This innovation paved the way for nigiri sushi.

Yohei is often credited as the creator of modern nigiri sushi. He was also its first vendor. He opened the first sushi stall in the Ryogoku district of Edo in 1824. Yohei used a more modern “speed fermentation” process to create his sushi.

He added rice vinegar and salt to newly-cooked rice and let it sit for a few minutes. He then made hand-pressed small balls of rice and placed a thin slice of raw fish on top. Since the fish was fresh, Yohei did not see the need to ferment or preserve it.

Because making sushi was now faster, Yohei could also serve more customers with his creation. It soon became a popular dish in Edo. Other street vendors began to copy his recipe; as such, other nigiri sushi stalls opened as well.

The 1920s

In 1923, a devastating earthquake destroyed part of Edo. Because of this, many of the first nigiri sushi chefs left the city and moved to other parts of the country. Their migration led to the further popularity of nigiri sushi across Japan.

And instead of setting up food stalls, many of these sushi chefs chose to rent or build brick and mortar sushi restaurants or bars. Some of the most popular original sushi restaurants and bars were Kenukizushi, Matsunozushi, and Yoheizushi.

The 1960s

After the Japanese economy recovered from the effects of World War II, many Japanese moved to the United States, which started in the 1960s.

Many Japanese chefs started opening sushi restaurants to serve the needs of their fellow countrymen who were living in the U.S. or in transit. At this time, many Japanese chefs tried to introduce sushi to the Americans. However, the dish didn’t become a hit back then.

The 1970s

A number of Japanese chefs decided to open their sushi restaurants in Los Angeles. To entice the Americans to try this dish, a few chefs decided to substitute some ingredients of their traditional sushi. This paved the way for now-famous California roll.

In place of raw bluefin tuna, a slice of avocado was added in the maki sushi roll. The combination delighted the Americans.

From that moment on, more Westerners became open to trying out different types of sushi. And the popularity of this dish also spread out to other parts of the world, including the UAE where both locals and tourists can enjoy world-class Japanese dining experience with us at Koi Restaurant, one of the well-known Japanese and sushi restaurants here in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.

After knowing the history of sushi, we hope you will have a brand new appreciation for this beloved Japanese dish.

To sample our array of traditional and contemporary sushi, reserve your table via the Koi Restaurant homepage now.