Lecture Note – History of Sushi and Kaiseki

The Nibei Foundation held the July lecture of the Japan Study Club on July 12, 2011.

The theme and the speaker are following:

History of Sushi and kaiseki

Ms. Yoko Issasi

The summary of the lecture is following:

Nibei 2011 July Sushi Issai hannare sushi

Hon-nare-sushi, primitive sushi

Ms. Yoko Issasi was formally trained in Japanese architecture in Japan and later got an architectural degree from Columbia University.  Last year she founded the website “Food Story” and has expanded her passion for Japanese food through personal lectures the last few years.

Ms. Issasi gave her presentation on the history of sushi from over 2,000 years ago to its present-day evolution.  The main four periods of sushi are:  1) 200 A.D. in China~naresushi , 2) 14th century Japan, 3) 14th through 18th century Japan~hayanaresushi (use of vinegar),  4) 19th century Japan~Edo’s nigirisushi (fast food street food).

Ms. Issasi traced the history of sushi to as far back as 2,000 years ago in China.  In 823 B.C. , there are records of thinly sliced fresh-water carp.  In 300 through 500 B.C. , there is a record of pickled fish in Northern China and in 200 A.D. a record of fermented fish in Southern China.  There was a time in China where fish was actually picked for a year and then packed with rice for one to three years.

Kaiseki was the dining style of 15th and 16th century Japan.  The Honzen style was a style created by the samurai class that ended around 1850.  Chaseki style is a style unique to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  In the tea ceremony, the guest has something special to eat before drinking the tea.  This food was influenced by the Honzen style that was unique to the vegetarian diet of the Zen Buddhists.

Traditional Japanese set lunches were dictated not only by the food that was served, but also in the order in which it was served.  The four-course dinner was as follows:  1) honzen, 2) ninozen, 3) sannozen, 4) yonnnozen.

The Honzen style of food basically consisted of soup and the following three dishes:  1) sashimi~raw or marinated fish,  2) Wanmono or minomo~simmered dishes,  3) yakimono~grilled fish or meat.

The order and the placement of the food being served came with set and strict rules of etiquette.  Therefore, the Honzen dinner was ritualistic in form.

The Kaiseki style was influenced by this style.  For example, even the soup being served depended on the season as to what ingredients would be incorporated into the soup.  The wan or nimono was the highlight of the meal.

Becoming a chef in the Kaiseki tradition took many years.  A sushi chef needed two to three years of training and the nimono  simmering chef needed as many as fifteen years of training.  Also, Ms. Issasi added that the green tea powder that originated in China was brought over to Japan by the Chinese Buddhist monks.

Ms. Issasi also noted that present day food containers and their placement on the table is much influenced by 16th century rituals.  The hakozen is a set of boxes in a dining room setting and the chabudai is food set on a round or square table.

Today’s kaiseki-ryori or kaiseki food, is a kind of banquet meal that can be traced back to the tea ceremony.  This style ends with rice and soup.

A question and answer session followed.

Q: What kind of hashi or chopsticks are used for the kaiseki style?

A: It’s wider at one end and slimmer at the other.  There are actually five kinds of hashi.  In kaiseki, bamboo is popular, yet the type of hashi depends on the occasion.

Q: In the kaiseki style, is sake served in any type of special cups?

A: Yes, special cups are used; sometimes in sets of three or five.

Everyone truly enjoyed hearing about the history of sushi and was even treated to some hand-made sushi at the end of the presentation.