Nigiri Sushi (握り寿司)
Nigiri Sushi is perhaps the most ubiquitous type of sushi and probably the first image that comes to most people’s minds when they think of Sushi. In Japanese Nigiri (握り) literally means to grasp. By inference, the preparation of Nigiri Sushi involves clasping and hand-pressing. The sushi chef would grasp a small amount (less than a mouthful) of vinegar rice or Sumeshi (酢飯 すめし), hand press it into a block and smear some wasabi on top. Sushi topping or Neta (ネタ) is then placed on it.
Nigiri Sushi originated from Edo (江戸) (the old name for Tokyo) sometime between 1804 and 1830. Hence, Nigishi Sushi is also called Edo-Mae (江戸前) Sushi or simply Edo-Style Sushi. Edo-Mae literally means “In front of Edo”- it referred geographically to the present day Tokyo Bay area from which most seafood consumed in Edo were caught.
There is an alternate origin of the Edo-Mae name: it was said that it came from the style of gutting eels and other fishes- the way it was done near Edo was for the knives to go down from the top, as opposed to up from belly in the Kansai area (it was speculated that this unique was of gutting fish was so to avoid making reference to Seppuku and offending the Samurai class, many of whom resided in Edo).
The unique style of Nigiri Sushi is said to be originated in a sushi stall called Yohei Sushi (與兵衞壽司) near present day Sumida (墨田) District in Tokyo. As it was located next to a temple, Eko-In (回向院), in which wrestling matches were regularly hosted its proprietor, Yohei HANAYA (華屋 與兵衛), came up the on-the-spot hand-pressing style and introduced bigger serving portion such that the stall could accommodate faster turnover to cater to the large crowd of spectators.
Apart from two major differences, the Nigiri Sushi of present days remains essentially unchanged from those served during the early 19th century. They are:
- Size: the portion became more manageable over the years. As the style was invented out of necessity for fast turnover, the size of each piece of sushi was huge (as big as twice the size of present day sushi)- with the added advantage of offering value for money. As the dish progressed from fast food to fine dining, the portion size shrunk towards the size of just a mouthful.
- Variety: the types of Edo-Mae sushi in the old days were limited to seafood harvested in Tokyo Bay. Because of absence of advance refrigeration system and poor connectivity, sushi toppings are restricted in locality- for instance, Sea Urchin (海胆; Uni) or Salmon Roe (ikura; イクラ), which were harvested only in Northern Japan, were not on not the sushi menu until the 20th Century. With modern day technology and logistic convenience, many more varieties are added to sushi menu- probably one of the reasons the name “Edo-Mae” has gone out of fashion.