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Origins of Sushi and Kimchi

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Fish and Seafood

Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 29 and 35

Do the Chinese eat raw fish? Most would say no. They would be wrong if they believe they never ate raw fish. What about pickled vegetables, did they always eat them? That answer is yes. Perhaps the question should be: When did Chinese people first eat raw fish? When did they first eat pickled vegetables? Are these two foods Chinese or from Japan and Korea?

These questions are not to win some sort of race. Their purpose is an exploration of the origins of sushi and kimchi. Several readers asked for answers to this question. Both of these foods are popular in several countries in Asia and there are many misconceptions about them. They prompted lots of research, many phone calls, e-mails galore, and more.

When searching ancient Chinese tomes, it is easy to discover that fish was not the only raw food eaten in China. Records exist about the consumption of long slices of raw fish as early as 500 BCE. Many others indicate that long before the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), people with economic where-with-all ate many raw foods, not only raw fruits and vegetables, but also raw fish and raw meat.

Raw fish was considered a delicacy. It was served with ginger and hot spices, with or without rice. All types of raw food and food mixtures, fish included, were specialities. No one knows how frequently they ate them. In the Wazuzu, Goodrich Fang reports that the use of this delicacy was widespread in very early times, but how widespread is widespread? No one found and numeric references as to how much or how often.

Culinary historians are not sure if these delicacies were widespread throughout China. They say it was popular in earlier times in southeastern regions. Only an occasional reference is made to eating raw fish in China’s north. They do not question that plain raw fish, not raw fish on rice--as current sushi practices dictate, was popular.

Sushi and sashimi consumption first appeared in Japan after raw fish was eaten in China. In Japan’s Heian Period (794 - 1185 CE) the first written records appear about eating pickled fish. In the 17th century Japanese historians report that they added rice, mixed the rice with vinegar, and put the rice under the sashimi and at that time, they dubbed it sushi.

Others report early pickled raw fish use in both China and Japan. What they are talking about is raw fish layered with salt and rice. Prepared this way, the rice and the salt are removed and then the fish is eaten. This process pickles the fish somewhat. The Cambridge Encyclopedia in Volume Two has an article by Professor N. Ishege, who says that sushi originated as a means of preserving fish to prevent putrefaction. He says that the fish are salted and placed in boiled rice and preserved by lactic acid fermentation. A souring flavor occurs in the process. The fish is eaten only after the sticky decomposed rice has been cleaned off. Ishige refers to this as an older type of sushi that is still produced in Western Japan. There are similar types of fish preservation known in Southwestern China, Korea, and in Southeast Asia.

The evaluation of food history before adequate written records leaves many things questionable. Francois Sabban at the Sorbonne in France, reminds us that this preservation of fish was the way sushi originated but that that piece of information has yet to be proven. She readily acknowledges that there are many recipes for fish preserved this way and she reminds us that the consumption of plain raw fish was common in ancient China. The dates she gives for that are probably much earlier than the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), but she can not put her hands on that information yet.

The Chinese called sashimi-type raw fish kuai. They report it beautiful, silver, and probably in use by 300 BCE. They also report it cut in thin strips, sort of julienne-like. Sabban does not believe that raw fish was minced, though others do. She says that during Tang Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE), sometimes called 'The Golden Age of Sushi,' raw fish use was very, very popular. She and others agree it pretty much disappeared by the 1600's. Unanimity as to why, does not exist. Current fish preservation as done years ago packed in salt and cooked rice may still be in use in China, but no one can tell us where, so we can not verify that.

Pickled vegetables and other foods may have origins in China, too. At least there are early records that seem to predate the first usage in Korea. In China, the very earliest can be traced to an old collection of poetry. One poem translated in Chang’s Food in Chinese Culture speaks of sour salad and pickled pork. Another talks of sauces and pickles, and yet another of steeping beef in good wine and then eating it with pickles. What fascinates are all the ancient writings and that people had knowledge about pickling foods more than three thousand years ago. Pickling is also highlighted as to use and beliefs in a section titled: 'Xiao Ya' in a specific poetic stanza, that says: "If you slice it up, pickle it, and offer it to your ancestors, your progeny will live long and you will receive the blessings of heaven."

Pickled vegetables seem to have come to Korea some time between the 4th and the 7th centuries of this Common Era. The first record of them appears in an extant item called the Tonggu Gis Anggukship or the History of the Konjo Dynasty; written by Yi Kyu-bo (1164 - 1241 CE). Also, the Korean characters for kimchi are probably derived from two Chinese characters that mean 'salted vegetables.'

Pickling was very common in many cultures. Records of preserving and flavoring foods, in China at least, are quite ancient. Searching old food records is always enlightening, but not always easy to interpret. Material can be controversial because they need to be understood in the larger picture of the times, and not by themselves alone.

One spurious argument about sushi came from a chap who touted it as one hundred percent Japanese. He was unwilling to share sources, and when pressed said that the word 'sushi' was one hundred percent Japanese. We agree, but do not agree about sushi’s origins. Our best information to date is that sushi--by its Chinese name--is pre-second century and from southern China. This chap would only concede that the Japanese added vinegar to rice then put raw fish on it in the 1640's. His point was that sashimi was an appetizer, sushi a main course. Again no divulgence of sources. Facts from such folk can be a giggle, and unfortunately they often contort the real issues. He did say that during the Song and Tang Dynasties, the Chinese ate both raw fish and pickled vegetables, but that their Mongol rulers taught them to love meat more. Wonder if he ever consulted a chronology to know that the Mongol leaders ruled China during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 - 1368 CE). That was long after both the Tang and the Song Dynasties.

Early food history is fraught with misconceptions, his included. More food research about raw fish, pickled vegetables, and other foods is needed. As writings and artifacts are unearthed in China, more historical facts and fewer opinions will prevail. Then with an adequate supply of corroborating data, clear indisputable information can prevail. In the meantime, sort out what is known and keep exploring newer data as soon as it is uncovered. Should you have some on these topics, do expand ours and keep us posted.

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