Think of Japan and chances are one of the first things that springs to mind or mouth will probably be sushi.
Sushi is often just a slice of raw seafood or other topping (neta) on a bed of plain white rice (shari) with a dab of wasabi (horse radish).
Sushi can be enjoyed on a number of different levels according to price ranging from sushi for the masses at kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi restaurants found just about everywhere in Japan to 500 USD lunches at a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Tokyo such as the acclaimed Sukiyabashi Jiro.
But have the Japanese always eaten sushi and raw fish (sashimi)? When did the habit begin and how did sushi spread all over Japan and to many parts of the world?
Early sushi probably appeared in the Muromachi Period (14th-16th centuries) and was not raw fish but fermented fish flavored with vinegar to help preserve it. The raw fish sushi we recognize today originated in the Edo Period (1603-1867) in Edo (present-day Tokyo) as a quick snack sold at the road-side and outside public places of entertainment. The whole thing was much bigger than the bite-sized morsels seen nowadays and was eaten with the hands.
The period of Japan's industrialization in the Meiji Period (1867-1912) lead to better domestic communications and transport links with the coming of the railways and many local habits and tastes went national, including sushi. The formation of a national army with men conscripted from all over the country helped to spread a national "diet."
Sushi really began hitting an international audience in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the "Bubble Economy" was at its peak and Japanese restaurants began following its cars and TVs to the streets of New York, LA and London. The movie Rising Sun, based on the Michael Crichton's novel and starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes introduced viewers to the obscure practice of nyotaimori - eating sushi off the body of a naked woman.
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