Sushi is said to have originated in China between the 5th and the 3rd centuries BC, as a means of preserving fish in salt. Narezushi, the original form of sushi, has been made in South East Asia for centuries, and nowadays, there are still traces of it in some parts. Narezushi appeared in Japan in the 8th century, and still survives today in the form of foods such as carp sushi. Narezushi was primarily a means of food preservation, and each Japanese region developed its own version. In those days sushi was eaten during feast days and festivals, and was also an integral part of the celebration. Generally speaking, narezushi was made of rice and fish pickled together, mixed with rice vinegar and sake, laid under a large stone to prevent decay and left to ferment. However, the rice was used primarily to encourage fermentation, and was discarded so that only the fish was eaten.
Izushi, which is found in Hokkaido and Tohoku, is also a form of narezushi, whereby rice is mixed with yeast, topped with fish and vegetables such as radish, sprinkled with sake and wrapped in a bamboo leaf, then placed under a heavy stone to set. This sushi is similar in taste to asazuke (pickle) and is not usually a strong smelling dish; the rice melts away leaving the fermented fish, and it appeals to people who are not familiar with this kind of food.
Vinegar, which is indispensable to sushi, was first made in Mesopotamia, around 5000 years BC. Rice vinegar processing came over from China to Japan around the 4th or 5th centuries together with wine-making. Rice vinegar first came to the Izumi region, south of Osaka, and Izumi vinegar, as it was known, was made until the Edo period. During the Heian period, the Japanese also made wine and fruit vinegars. Sushi sprinkled with rice or sake vinegar had been in existence for a long time, but because making Narezushi was a lengthy process, in the Edo period, people began to make vinegar from the lees of sake. Mixed in with rice, this became a popular dish, and thus spread the custom of sprinkling vinegar on rice to make nigirisushi.
Nigirisushi first appeared in 1800, but was different from the bite-size nigirisushi we are used to today. At that time, a piece of raw fish was laid on a bed of rice the size of a rice ball. Nigirisushi became known as Edomae sushi because it was made with seafood caught from the bay near Edo, and Hanaya Yohei is still recognised as its creator.