The history of sushi began in antiquity, when rice cultivation came to Japan 2,000 years ago. The original type of sushi was first developed in Nara as a means of preserving fish in fermented rice. In the Muromachi period, people began to eat the rice as well as the fish. During the Edo period, vinegar rather than fermented rice began to be used. In pre-modern times and modern times, it is has become a form of fast food strongly associated with Japanese culture.
The original form of sushi first came to Japan from Southeast Asia around 2000 years ago. The form of Sushi we know today came into being around the 8th century. Fish was salted and wrapped in fermented rice, a traditional lacto-fermented rice dish. Narezushi was made of this gutted fish which was stored in fermented rice for months at a time for preservation. The fermentation of the rice prevented the fish from spoiling. The fermented rice was discarded and fish was the only part consumed. This early type of sushi became an important source of protein for the Japanese.
The Japanese preferred to eat fish with rice, known as namanare or namanari (生成, なまなれ, なまなり, semi-fermented). During the Muromachi period namanare was the most popular type of sushi. Namanare was partly raw fish wrapped in rice, consumed fresh, before it changed flavor. This new way of consuming fish was no longer a form of preservation but rather a new dish in Japanese cuisine.
During the Edo period, a third type of sushi was introduced, haya-zushi (早寿司, 早ずし, fast sushi). Haya-zushi was assembled so that both rice and fish could be consumed at the same time, and the dish became unique to Japanese culture. It was the first time that rice was not being used for fermentation. Rice was now mixed with vinegar, with fish, vegetables and dried food stuff added. This type of sushi is still very popular today. Each region utilizes local flavors to produce a variety of sushi that has been passed down for many generations.
When Tokyo was still known as Edo in the early 19th century, mobile food stalls run by street vendors became popular. During this period nigiri sushi (握り寿司) was introduced, consisting of an oblong mound of rice with a slice of fish draped over it. After the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, nigiri sushi chefs were displaced from Edo throughout Japan, popularizing the dish throughout the country.
Today the sushi dish internationally known as "sushi" (nigiri zushi; Kantō variety) is a fast food invented by Hanaya Yohei (華屋与兵衛; 1799–1858) in today's Tokyo (Edo). People in Tokyo were living in haste even a hundred years ago. The nigiri zushi invented by Hanaya was not fermented and could be eaten using the fingers or chopsticks. It was an early form of fast food that could be eaten in public or in the theater.
The earliest reference to sushi in Japan appeared in 718 in the Yōrō Code (養老律令 Yōrō-ritsuryō). As an example of tax paid by actual items, it is written down as "雑鮨五斗 (about 64 liters of zakonosushi or zatsunosushi?)". However, there is no way to know what this "sushi" was or even how it was pronounced. By the 9th and 10th century "鮨" and "鮓" are read as "sushi". This "sushi" was similar to today's Narezushi.
For almost the next 800 years, until the early 19th century, sushi slowly changed and the Japanese cuisine changed as well. The Japanese started eating three meals a day, rice was boiled instead of steamed, and of large importance, was the development of rice vinegar. While sushi continued to be produced by fermentation of fish with rice, the addition of rice vinegar greatly reduced the time of fermentation and the rice used began to be eaten along with the fish. In the Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573), the process of producing Oshizushi was gradually developed where in the fermentation process was abandoned and vinegar was used. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1603), namanare was invented. A 1603 Japanese-Portuguese dictionary has an entry for namanrina sushi, literally half-made sushi. The namanare was fermented for a shorter period than the narezushi and possibly marinated with rice vinegar. It still had the distinctive smell of narezushi.
The smell of narezushi was likely one of the reasons for shortening and eventually skipping the fermentation process. It is commonly described as "a cross between blue cheese, fish, and rice vinegar". A story from Konjaku Monogatarishū written in early 12th century makes it clear that it was not an attractive smell, even if it tasted good: In the early 18th century, oshizushi was perfected in Osaka and it came to Edo by the middle of 18th century. These sushi were sold to customers, but because they still required a little fermentation time, stores hung a notice and posters to customers on when to come for a sushi. Sushi was also sold near a park during a hanami period and a theater as a type of Bento. Inarizushi was sold along oshizushi. Makizushi and Chirashiz