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RAW: Not for Vegans - Part ONE: Finding Edo

Pinpointing the precise time of the advent of cooking would be extremely difficult. Even if we were to procure the time line for evidence of the first use of fire, this would not necessarily be evidence of the use of fire for cooking.

Research dates fire usage back some 300,000 years – can this be interpreted to when generation “homo-erectus” started putting wild boar on a rotisserie? Not likely. It seems as though today, even with the plethora of classic and new cooking instruments; sous vides, rationale ovens, salamanders and open flames, we as homo-sapiens still prefer to indulge in the rarest cuts of beef, lamb or fish-out-of water blue-fin tuna and wild Atlantic salmon. So, why on earth do we opt to consume uncooked protein? It seems almost barbaric to do so.

Part ONE: Finding Edo

Sushi is a perfect example of our desire to consume RAW at its peak. Cultural acceptance for raw fish to be comestible has grown significantly since the late 70’s – a growth of which is quite substantial, considering, if we were to go back even just 20 years, finding a sushi joint (in this city anyway) would be a rarity – let alone all-you-can-eat! Today, sushi (or just Japanese) restaurants can be found as successive as Golden Arches and the influx has not only presented itself in North America, but globally as well.

But, before indulging into (what we now know and associate) sushi, hop into my 88mph Delorean (that’s a Back to the Future reference):

Sushi, which is (was) actually a term for fermented meat or fish, was prepared for the sole purpose of preservation and believed to have originated in Southeast Asia. 2nd Century Chinese scriptures show this process of salted meats/fish fermenting in rice for long periods. This fermentation process was then adopted by the Japanese centuries later, though it was believed that, rather than the rice be disposed of, it was consumed along with the fish.

In the 10th Century, the raw fish and the rice were consumed together, but even then, the familiarity to today’s sushi was still far and wide. It wasn’t until the late 1820’s when raw fish and sushi (fermented rice) were physically combined. Created as an inexpensive fast food in Japan catering to the hustle and bustle of Edo (what is now Tokyo). Vinegar infused rice (resembling the naturally fermented sushi rice) paired with Japanese sashimi (particularly tuna) became an on-the-go culinary phenomenon; along with tempura, unagi & kabayaki. This is the sushi widely known to the world today. Originally called “Edo Style”, based on its origin city, Edo (Tokyo).

"Fun fact: Wasabi was originally used as an a germ killer for its antibacterial properties. During these times, clean water was difficult to obtain and refrigeration was virtually non-existent. RAW wasabi, grated from the Wasabia Japonica root was used to kill bacteria and e-coli. Today, what we typically see as wasabi is actually dyed green horseradish as actual wasabi is expensive to import."

Fast Forward:

In the late 1960s, Japan Airlines embarked on a new 'Cargo Division' and began exporting goods abroad, particularly to the United States - but a problem arose: Japan was exporting, but not importing. Planes bearing cameras and electronics to New York were returning empty; the airline needed a practical solution to Japan’s trade imbalance with the United States. Searching for something suitably expensive, JAL Cargo's President at the time, Akira Okazaki, researched and settled on price heavy seafood such as ark shell and sea urchin and particularly Atlantic blue-fin tuna, which was fast becoming a delicacy at the time. This marked a three-year process in the design and production of a properly refrigerated cargo container, by JAL, to import the fish. More specifically, in 1971 when the first Atlantic blue-fin tuna landed in Japan, it marked the starting point for the growth of sushi, all over the world.

By the mid 1970's, more and more sushi restaurants were opening to cater to Japanese businessmen living abroad; and naturally, the Western-living sushi chefs attempted to introduce it to American culture. Though persuading them to eat raw fish proved to be a daunting task, after much trial and error across the board,  the 'California Roll' was invented by a Japanese Chef living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Hidekazu Tojo. (There is an ongoing argument of this fact being accurate). The Western tongue, unfamiliar to raw fish and seaweed, soon became adept to the inside-out, vegetarian roll and the trend quickly moved south to California, swiftly across North America and eventually, around the world.

Today, the desire and taste for sushi is inherently Global. It grows as you read this. So much so, that certain species of marine life face extinction (and that is another topic on its own). Though, the question still remains, of why we choose to eat RAW fish? The first conjecture would be something as simple as TREND. By definition, "a general direction in which something is developing or changing". The sushi trend, from the streets of Edo, developing and changing into the streets of Toronto, San Fransisco, Warsaw, Moscow, Manila, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Sydney and even Mumbai. Much like the developmental stages of being able to find a Chinese restaurant in any country in the world, today, sushi restaurants are as Global as Starbucks, popping up in busy, tourist ridden areas to keep up with the demand of evolving palates. Which brings a fusion of a second and third hypothesis; this palatable evolution of Japanese cuisine. The emigration of the Japanese brought on their cultural significances (as would any cultural emigration). It would only be a matter of time for the final destination would adopt and spawn a "little town" of their own. In a heavily-populated, culturally-rich city such as Toronto, the effortlessness of finding a sushi restaurant is staggering thanks to our culinary open-mindedness - and, as appreciation grows for other, worldly flavours all over the world, we can only assume the desire to want more of what we're not used to, continually cultivates.