National | Deep Dive

Edomae: Sushi made to stand the test of time

What is Edomae sushi?

Edomae sushi has had a major influence on modern-day sushi, especially the popular nigiri-zushi, which is usually a single piece of raw fish on rice.

Edomae, created in Tokyo in the Bunsei Era (1818-30) during the Edo Period (1603-1868), is said to have been invented by a chef named Yohei Hanae. Hanae began experimenting with new sushi creations at his shop in the city’s Ryogoku district, according to the book “Sushi” (1982) by Hiroshi Kondo.

And a few of his earliest creations can still be eaten today.

Why is it called Edomae sushi?

The most obvious answer to this question is that Edomae was created in the city of Edo, now the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo. Many believe that the “mae” refers to the phrase “in front of,” referring to the fact that most of the seafood used to create sushi was taken from nearby waters. In this sense, Edomae sushi would literally translate to “sushi in front of Edo.”

But food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto believes that the “mae” portion of the name has nothing to do with a direction and instead refers to style, such as in jimae (on one’s own) and otokomae (manly).

“I have been saying it for 30 years. The ‘mae’ means style or how you conduct yourself,” Yamamoto says, adding that Edomae sushi, therefore, means Edo-style sushi.

What is the key difference between Edomae and other modern-day sushi?

In Edomae sushi, the fish is marinated and preserved for a few days rather than served fresh. Serving fish fresh without being marinated is only a relatively recent phenomenon made possible by modern refrigeration.

In earlier times, chefs had to use preservatives such as soy sauce, salt and vinegar to prevent the fish from spoiling. Through this process, chefs like Hanae found that certain pieces of fish went better with different marinades and preservatives.

What were some of the earliest pieces of sushi?

While many contemporary sushi lovers crave ikura (salmon eggs) or uni (sea urchin), these are relatively new sushi neta (ingredients). For those who desire a more authentic Edomae sushi experience, Yamamoto recommends the following three pieces:

Kohada (gizzard shad): An often underappreciated piece of sushi that is said to be one of the oldest neta of Edomae sushi. Steeped in vinegar and salt for around three days, what makes it unique is that kohada is not often eaten outside of the world of sushi.

Akami (lean tuna): Today, akami is the less expensive and less sought-after portion of the tuna when compared to otoro, its fattier cousin. But before refrigeration, akami was more valuable because it did not spoil quickly due to its low fat content. It’s usually steeped in soy sauce for around two to three days.

Anago (saltwater eel): In the Edo Period, anago were easy to catch in what’s now known as Tokyo Bay. Marinated with a combination of sugar and soy sauce, anago is one of the sweeter elements of an Edomae course.

How common is Edomae sushi today?

While some restaurants may serve a combination of Edomae alongside other styles, Yamamoto estimates that there are only around 30 authentic Edomae-style restaurants in Tokyo. Edomae may mean slightly different things to each customer, as there is no government or industry Edomae certification.

Recommended restaurants:

Sukiyabashi Jiro

4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo Ward, Tokyo

Bentenyama Miyakozushi

2-1-16 Asakusa, Taito Ward, Tokyo

Tsuruhachi

2-4 Kanda Jinbocho, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

Shinbashi Shimizu

2-15-10 Shinbashi, Minato Ward, Tokyo

Sushi Masuda

5-8-11 Minamiaoyama, Minato Ward, Tokyo