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Before Sushi, There Was Funazushi

Raw fish. Rice. Wasabi (or is it?). That little piece of plastic grass. Since the 1980s, sushi has been among the great American eats that have origins beyond our borders. The spicy salmon roll we all know and love? Not Japanese. Even the California roll—the most American of sushi innovations—comes from Canada. Sushi has truly taken on a life and tradition of its own outside of Japan.

It turns out, the sushi we’re familiar with—even in a structural way—is only one half of a much wider and grander culinary tradition. Welcome to Shiga Prefecture, Japan, on the banks of Lake Biwa, where Mariko Kitamura is keeping a family sushi tradition alive.

Kitamura and her husband, Atsushi, make “funazushi,” which differs from the sushi we know several significant ways. First, that raw-fish-and-rice composition that probably comes to mind when you think of a beautifully arranged plate of various rolls? That’s called “haya-nare,” and that’s the stuff you have to eat within a day. The delicate nature and short shelf life of haya-nare is a big part of what gives sushi its international appeal. There’s fish and rice all over the globe, and the ephemeral lifespan of haya-nare makes it feel exclusive—a delicious treat, specially prepared, that must be consumed quickly.

But the funazushi that the Kitamuras make is “hon-nare,” the preparation that makes up the other half of the sushi equation. You still eat hon-nare with rice, but as a side. That’s because hon-nare is a preserved sushi—it’s fish that’s been packed with salt and allowed to ferment for three years. It develops a completely different taste and ends up with the texture and flavor of a “fish prosciutto,” in Mariko Kitamura’s words, and a saltiness akin to the finest of caviars.

So while “hon-nare” could feasibly be made anywhere, the Kitamuras’ funazushi is wholly unique to their home. They only use one kind of fish—a species of wild goldfish endemic only to Lake Biwa—to craft their funazushi. Like a fine wine, all the elements like the fish, the local salt and the specific biosphere of the Shiga region have a part to play in its incredible taste. Although you could try your best to scientifically recreate or export the unique ingredients the Kitamuras use, you still wouldn’t have the history. That’s because Mariko Kitamura is the 18th generation to prepare her family’s funazushi. Their shop has been open 400 years, since 1619. So while chefs the world over continue to innovate, the Kitamuras keep their sushi legacy alive.

Location

Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, Japan

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