Today, sushi is one of Japan's most well-known traditional cuisines, whose combination of vinegar rice and fresh fish has captivated the hearts of foodies worldwide. Many types of sushi are served at a variety of restaurants, at a wide price range from affordable ¥100 plates to artisanal displays of craftsmanship. Among the many types of raw seafood dishes that you can find at a sushi restaurant, among the most recognizable is "nigiri-sushi" - the iconic sushi made from a slice of fish atop a mound of rice. This iconic type of sushi actually originated in Tokyo as "Edomae sushi", taking its name from the city formerly known as Edo. In this article, we will introduce to you the history and characteristics of “Edomae sushi”, as well as places where you can eat it yourself. Let us explore the origin of nigiri sushi, beloved by Japanese and the world alike!
Edomae sushi: The Predecessor To Nigiri-sushi, Born in Ryogoku, Tokyo
When you first hear the word “Sushi”, what kind do you first think of?
Nigiri-sushi, Staple of Japanese Cuisine
Sushi comes in a variety of forms, such as "maki-zushi" whose ingredients are rolled into a cylinder of rice and seaweed, and "oshi-zushi" which is made by pressing down on a contained mound of rice and fish.
Among the many types of sushi, the most well known is “nigiri sushi”. The sushi rice, anointed with a faint amount of sweet vinegar, comes apart in your mouth in perfect harmony with the fresh fish - one could say this is the representative cuisine of Japan.
Nigiri-sushi, which can be found at reasonable prices in conveyor-belt sushi restaurants and supermarket bento box corners, has become an everyday Japanese dish. However, its true origin lies in Tokyo's Sumida Ward during the Edo period.
There Are Many Types and Shapes of Sushi
Yohei Hanaya’s “Yohei Sushi”
The predecessor to modern nigiri-sushi came via the great success of one Yohei Hanaya in 1800.
In the absence of modern refrigeration, it was common in the Edo period to pack fish and vinegar rice together as "hako-zushi" (box sushi) before the fish lost its freshness. Yohei set a new trend from Ryogoku in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, by molding a mound of rice and placing a slice of fish and hint of wasabi in between, thus creating the predecessor to today's common nigiri sushi.
A signboard at 1-Chome, Ryogoku, Sumida ward, marking the birthplace of Yohei Sushi
At the time, nigiri sushi was 2~3 times the size of today's bite-sized nigiri sushi. This large nigiri-sushi, which used fresh fish caught in the waters of Edomae (meaning "Edo's front" - Modern day Tokyo Bay), was called “Edomae sushi” to differentiate itself from the popular oshi-zushi of Kansai (Today's Osaka area). Thus began the history of today's nigiri sushi.
The Two Traits Of Edomae sushi
There are two major differences between modern-day nigiri sushi and the Yohei Hanaya's greatly successful Edomae sushi.
The first difference is in the vinegaro. Instead of using rice vinegar, Edomae sushi uses “akasu” (red vinegar) made from sake lees. The second difference is in the extensive prep work done to accentuate the fish's flavor in Edomae sushi.
Why Use Red Vinegar?
To this day, the usage of red vinegar is a well-known trait of authentic Edomae sushi. The original nigiri sushi made by Yohei, did indeed also use red vinegar. The red "akasu" vinegar in Edomae sushi is characterized by a stronger flavor and fragrance than today's rice vinegar, that is still mellow and not overwhelming. This balances with the flavor of the fish used in Edomae sushi, making it a perfect match.
Sake lees, the main ingredient of red vinegar
The distinctive red color of the red vinegar comes from the nutrients contained in the sake lees. This also gives the sushi rice a slightly red color. It also plays a role in raising how the preservability of the rice, just like normal rice vinegar.
The Distinctive “Work” of Edomae sushi
Modern day nigiri-sushi mainly consists of placing fresh fish as-is on top of the sushi rice and serving it to customers. However, Edomae sushi is put through particular prep work before applying the fish to the rice. Just like how the red vinegar was used to bring out the flavor of the rice, this prep work was done to accentuate the fragrance of the fish.
The prep work of Edomae Sushi is also done on boiled eel
For example, the classic tuna is marinated beforehand in soy sauce. Eel is pre-cooked, and white-meat fish such as flounder are preserved with kelp. Particularly oily fish might be broiled. These extra steps allow the fish to maintain their freshness, while enhancing their flavor.
These fish which have gone through Edomae sushi's particular prep work, often have strong flavors that would be overwhelming to place atop modern sushi rice. It is the stronger flavor of the red vinegar that combines with such materials, that brings out the best of Edomae sushi.
”Edomae sushi” and “Kansai sushi”
Contrasting Edomae sushi, "Kansai sushi" (Osaka Sushi) was a greatly popular type of sushi that spread nationwide from the Kansai region. The two styles of sushi are differentiated by many things, such as the usage of red vinegar and prep work, but two main characteristics set them apart.
Different Settings and Methods
Before Yohei sushi became a great success and came to be known as Edomae sushi, the most typical kind of sushi was the “hako-zushi” from Kansai. Sushi rice preserved with rice vinegar was packed into a wooden box, with large amounts of cheaper types of fish, such as pike, mackerel and horse mackerel, placed on top. One could find hako-zushi either neatly laid out, or made into smaller pieces, somewhat similar to oshi-zushi. The most common way to eat hako-zushi was usually during work breaks and picnics. Gradually, different forms of sushi like bou-sushi and maki-zushi came into being - together, these were collectively called “Kansai-sushi”.
”Hako-Zushi” in a box, filled with rice and toppings
On the other hand, Edomae sushi gained its popularity in a food stand, as an Edo-period equivalent to fast food. One of the greatest draws of this nigiri-zushi was how easily it could be picked up and eaten off-handedly.
Different Toppings For Different Styles
Another large difference between the two styles of sushi is the toppings used. Nowadays, preservation technology has spread throughout the country, allowing all kinds of fish to be kept in a fresh state regardless of where the fish was caught. Without the technology to preserve fish for long, at the time that these two styles of sushi came into the mainstream, it was standard for them to only use fish caught in their local areas.
The fish used in Edomae sushi largely consists of fish caught in the Tokyo Bay, with tuna and eel being mainstays. On the other hand, fish in the Kansai region are caught from the Seto Inland Sea, resulting in the sushi mainly using fresh white flesh such as snapper and flounder. The way in which sushi reflected the marine products of the localities they are much-loved in, must be the reason why sushi takes on so many forms across the nation.
Edomae sushi and Kansai sushi both inherit flavors that have been loved for long in Japan. Consider their many differences when savoring them in restaurants!
Where to eat Edomae Sushi in its Birthplace: Ryogoku, Tokyo
Now that we have learned about Edomae sushi’s history and characteristics, let’s go ahead and give it a taste. This time, we visited “Tsukiji Kagura Sushi”, located in the birthplace of Edomae sushi, Ryogoku, Sumida ward. ”Authentic Edomae sushi” may sound quite expensive, but Tsukiji Kagura Sushi is popular for serving Edomae sushi at a reasonable price.
Two Shops with Direct Access from Ryogoku Station at “Ryogoku - EDO NOREN-”
“Tsukiji Kagura Sushi” is made up of two stores, which are accessible directly from JR Ryogoku Station at “Ryogoku -EDO NOREN-”.
”Ryogoku -EDO NOREN-”, Linked To JR Ryogoku Station
“Ryogoku -EDO NOREN-" is a collection of 12 shops and business establishments, based around the concept of "Experiencing the Refined Cuisine of Edo". Visitors can enjoy Edo gourmet such as Fukagawa-meshi (clam rice), chanko (sumo stew) and Monja-yaki (savory pancake). Appropriately for its location near Ryogoku Sumo Hall, the venue is has a full-sized sumo ring located at its center. The stores of "Ryogoku EDO NOREN" encircle this sumo ring, attracting tourists on all days of the week.
Edo Gourmet Specialty Shops Encircle The Sumo Arena
There is also a tourist information desk set up Inside
One of the stores set up here is the “Tsukiji Kagura Sushi Ryogoku -EDO NOREN- Honten”. Additionally, the “Tsukiji Kagura Sushi Ryogoku -EDO NO REN- Tachikuiten” can be found inside the JR Ryogoku Station, immediately after leaving the train gates.
Taste Authentic Edomae sushi At “Tsukiji Kagura Sushi”
Inside the Ryogoku -EDO NOREN- Honten (Honten means “main shop”), the wooden counters and table seats greet you with their elegant demeanor.
Watch as the chef prepares sushi across the counter
Tables are also prepared for a more relaxed sushi experience
At the counter, you can watch the sushi chef as they use the fresh sushi toppings lined up and mold them into sushi. We asked Toba-san, the shop manager of the Ryogoku Store, about what characteristics the sushi at Tsukiji Kagura Sushi has.
At Tsukiji Kagura Sushi, you can experience authentic Edomae sushi, made with traditional red sushi rice, and fish toppings that have been worked in the traditional style. The red sushi rice uses an original red vinegar that cuts down on some of the sweetness. The appearance of the slightly red sushi rice really gives that Edomae sushi feeling. The red vinegar is fermented for over four years, and has a decidedly mellow taste. The careful addition of red vinegar to the rice results in a dark but mellow flavor that does not contain the harsh smell that is characteristic of normal vinegar.
Molding Sushi With Proficient Technique
Only fresh fish delivered directly from Toyosu Market is used. The sushi chef then works to fish to create a perfect topping for the red sushi rice.
Today, we ordered the “Edomae” set, containing authentic Edomae standard toppings as well as luxury fish like chu-toro. In this set, you can taste over 10 different kinds of fish, including marinated maguro, boiled eel, large shrimp, and shad with vinegar.
After receiving your order, the sushi chef will careful mold each piece of sushi, one by one. Before 10 minutes has passed, our “Edomae” set has arrived. Let’s eat!
“Edomae” Set（3,300 JPY）
When asked about the best way to eat the sushi, Toba-san responded, “There really isn’t a special way to eat Edomae sushi. However, the taste is already quite strong, so you don’t necessarily have to add soy sauce”.
Starting with our first piece of luxurious chu-toro, we ate without using any soy sauce. Toba-san also mentioned that ,”The taste of the red rice is strong, so it goes really well with fish that have a lot of fat.” Just as Toba-san said, the fat of the chu-toro melted in our mouths with the slightly acidic sushi rice, leaving a satisfyingly mild and mellow taste in our mouths. If this rice had used the light-tasting rice vinegar, it would definitely be overpowered by the chu-toro. Even without using soy sauce, no bad smell emanated from the fish, and the taste of the rice left us feeling satisfied.
The next piece of sushi we received was eel so tender, it seemed like it was going to melt.
The “tsume” sauce spread over the eel was created by boiling down ingredients such as dashi, soy sauce, and mirin to keep a sweet and gentle taste that matches perfectly with the acidic sushi rice.
While carefully eating each piece and enjoying the wonderful flavor, time flew by, and just like that, we had eaten all of our sushi. All 10 pieces of sushi were given a unique texture and flavor through their prep work, so we never got tired of eating them.
Have A More Casual Edomae Sushi Experience At A Standing Eatery
Outside of the “Ryogoku EDO NOREN Honten”, you can walk several minutes from the EDO NOREN building to find another “Tsukiji Kagura Sushi” store, directly connected to JR Ryogoku Station: “Ryogoku EDO NOREN Tachikuiten”. (“Tachikuiten” is a restaurant where you stand and eat.) This store consists of a cozy counter, where you can easily enjoy Edomae sushi at a reasonable price.
”Ryogoku EDO NO REN Tachi Kuten” Located RIght Next To Ryogoku Station
Eat Standing Shoulder To Shoulder With A Small Group
Make your order as soon as you enter the doors by purchasing a ticket from the ticket machine, and handing it over to the chef standing at the corner. Serve yourself tea or water while you are waiting.
Using The TIcket Machine Makes It Easy to Order
The main “nigri-set” has the great price of ¥920. You can taste nine different varieties of fish, including standards like marinated mackerel and cooked eel, kohada (shad) and squid. If you are not satisfied with just that, feel free to order other fish you’d like to eat. The establishment purchases fish daily from the Toyosu Fish Market, and these offerings can be tasted too with the purchase of additional tickets.
Come Enjoy Edomae sushi, Long-Beloved by Edo's People
This article was an exploration of the styles, methods, and history of sushi. The common style of nigiri-sushi, known today as one of the representing dishes of Japanese cuisine, only came to be thanks to the success of Yohei-zushi in the Edo period.
The red vinegar rice and prepped raw fish that Edo dwellers loved back in the day, is still known and served nationwide as Edomae sushi. Your new knowledge of Edomae sushi might change your experience of modern sushi too! Visit Ryogoku, Tokyo, to experience the history of Edomae sushi firsthand, from its very roots.