How sushi spread to Europe

Photo credit: @Getty/iStock.
Photo credit: @Getty/iStock.

In recent years, sushi has become one of Europe’s most popular lunchtime snacks. But how did it become so successful? We take a look at sushi’s route out of Japan and into European high streets and restaurants and find out how it became so popular.

The origins of sushi in Japan
According to Japanese author Naomichi Ishige, sushi became popular in the East as a way of preserving fish in pickled rice. This practice developed in the 15th and 16th centuries and, eventually, people began to skip the pickling stage altogether and eat fish with freshly-cooked rice seasoned with vinegar. The snack became popular in Tokyo in the 1820s.

Sushi comes to Europe – via America
Theodore C. Bestor, who wrote an article called How Sushi Went Global in 2000, puts a large part of sushi’s worldwide success down to the rise of the Japanese economy in the 1970s. Japanese technology and design were seen as new and exciting as they focused on good quality electronic goods and clean, contemporary design. Japan soon became a desirable new business destination, which, he says, “prepared the world for a sushi fad”. Sushi restaurants started to spring up in the U.S., firstly to feed Japanese businessmen and later to satisfy inquisitive Americans. However, not all Americans liked the thought of raw fish on rice, which led to the creation in 1973 of the California Roll – an inside-out sushi roll of crab meat, avocado and short-grain sushi rice, created for U.S. tastes. Sushi was fast becoming a fashionable, healthy food in cities such as New York and it soon started to catch on with visiting Europeans.

Sushi for the European masses
Taking America’s lead, sushi restaurants rapidly opened around Europe in the 1990s. Trendy Japanese restaurant Nobu launched a London site in 1997, and UK sushi chain Yo! Sushi opened its first restaurant in Soho in the same year. It went on to open other UK and European sites, including restaurants in Dublin and Moscow. Other sushi chains followed, such as Planet Sushi, which opened in Paris in 1998 and now has restaurants in Ibiza, Casablanca and Miami as well as all around France. Once people saw that sushi wasn’t just about raw fish, but could also make use of ingredients such as smoked salmon, avocado, chicken and carrot it soon became a more exciting way to eat. With the use of more familiar ingredients, sushi was also being viewed as less mysterious and something that people could even make from home, with sushi rice, nori and rice vinegar. Furthermore, ready-made sushi was available from supermarkets.

Fusion sushi
As sushi became well-known, chefs were more willing to experiment with it. They created fusion sushi – combining the concept of vegetables, fish or meat on or wrapped in seasoned rice, but using locally sourced ingredients. Sushi rolls started to appear with sliced sirloin steak or Scottish salmon inside, instead of the traditional Japanese ingredients, and marinated Peking Duck started to appear on top of a block of sushi rice in a Japanese-Chinese style of sushi. Restaurants around Europe also started adding Parmesan cheese, foie gras and mozzarella to their sushi rolls, sending European sushi in a whole new direction. 

Why is sushi so popular?
One of the reasons for sushi’s European success is down to the fact that it was – and still is - seen as new and exciting. The bright colours, from the deep red tuna to the pale green roe, as well as the perfectly formed shapes, make it seem exotic and fashionable. And, in its bite-sized form, it is good, healthy food for people on the go. The fusion scene proved that sushi can be adapted to almost any taste, with Italian, Indian and Chinese influences, among others. Today, sushi is one of the most popular lunchtime foods; UK sandwich chain Pret a Manger have stated that they sell around 30,000 packs of it each week. We can buy sushi at high-end restaurants, sandwich stops and at railway stations. We can have it delivered to our workplace or even rent a sushi conveyor belt for a party. Sushi is everywhere. And its popularity shows no sign of abating.

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