Sushi From necessity to ubiquity

Detail from Utagawa Hiroshige’s [Amusements While Waiting for the Moon on the Night of the Twenty-sixth in Takanawa, showing sushi stalls serving tourists

Portrait of Eric Rath
Eric Rath
The California Roll was only the beginning. Or at least, the beginning of global domination. Back in the mid 1980s, when I made a documentary for BBC TV about disgust and learned food habits, we chose sushi as our exemplar of the Westerner’s idea of hard-to-understand foods. Raw fish. Cold rice. Seaweed. What’s to like? If I had known then of the rich history of sushi, I’m sure we could have made even more of its strange 1980s incarnation.

Eric Rath’s history of sushi traces the word back to its origins as a method of preserving fish through many twists and turns to today, when sushi means almost anything you want it to mean.


  1. Eric Rath’s book Oishii: The History of Sushi is published by Reaktion Books. It contains recipes old and new, in case you want to try making sushi at home.
  2. National Geographic surprised me with this article in early September: These popular tuna species are no longer endangered, surprising scientists.
  3. A popular culture view of modern sushi that I did not mention, precisely because it lives up to all possible stereotypes, is the amazing sequence in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. Almost more astonishing is the dedication that went into making it.
  4. Here is the transcript, thanks to the generosity of the show’s supporters.
  5. The banner image is a detail from Utagawa Hiroshige’s Amusements While Waiting for the Moon on the Night of the Twenty-sixth in Takanawa, which dates from the 1820s, with thanks to the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). The cover image is a detail from Bowl of Sushi, also by Hiroshige. I have not been able to date it.

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