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Funazushi: The Fermented Stinky Sushi Ancestor

Throughout its history, the famous  Lake Biwa, in north-east of Kyoto, has provided the medieval capital with various freshwater products. As a result, it has greatly enriched Kyoto’s gastronomy. Among the local specialties is a legendary dish: the smelly funazushi, the local version of narezushi and the ancestor of the sushi, which is basically fermented fish preserved with salt.

Even though there are lots of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across Lake Biwa, Shirahige Shrine stands out! You’ve probably seen this gate emerging from the waters before! This shrine has a 1,900-year-old history, which makes it the earliest in Shiga Prefecture. Its distinguishing feature is its huge, vermillion-lacquered torii. As its title (Shirahige significance “white blossom”) indicates, the shrine blesses people white a long, healthy life. But only if you eat fermented fish regularly!

The sushi as we know it, which is made with vinegar rice associated with the fish, does not date from so long. It was born during the Edo Dynasty in the early nineteenth century and was called haya-nare zushi  (“fast sushi”) because it was made to be consumed within a day. This term is a direct reference to the funazushi that existed long before: a fermented, hon-nare sushi (or narezushi). 

Mental post-it:  Narezushi is a generic term for fermented fish and could be produced with yellowtail, mackerel or ayu. The most frequent type of narezushi is the funazushi, made from endemic nigorobuna fish, from the Lake Biwa.

 

Funazushi narezushi fermented fish
Funazushi

 

Until then, sushi was, first and foremost, a method of preserving animal proteins, a technique formerly common to certain regions of Southeast Asia and southern China.

The fishes were placed in salt with cooked rice, which initiated the process of lactic fermentation. The ingredient used and the fermentation time differed from region to region, but it existed in the 8th century and continued to exist alongside the haya-nare zushi.

At the edge of Lake Biwa, some centenary workshops still make funazushi, especially in Shiga, a prefecture close to Kyoto. The process starts in the spring. The fish is scaled, gutted and maintained in salt for a couple of months. Then, it is combined with rice and left to ferment until early summer.  They will be ready to consume at the end of November-beginning of December.

Provided that there’s a dim storage area in space temperature, the fish can be kept for  years or perhaps decades! For several centuries, people ate just the fish and hauled the fermented “stinky rice” out. However, across the 1500s, people started consuming half-fermented rice and fish together – hence paving the way for contemporary sushi.

HOW TO SERVE AND EAT FUNAZUSHI

At first, funazushi seems nothing like contemporary sushi. It is generally sold as one complete fish, coated in a white sauce with a texture of yogurt.

Sushi chefs slice the fish into thin layers and organize them beneath a bed of rice in a gorgeous pattern. Occasionally they prepare the funazushi as porridge with warm tea (known as ochazuke-rice) or fry it like tempura.

But regardless of how it’s served, the fermented fish causes extreme love/hate reactions. Like the Icelandic fermented shark, the Kæstur hákarl , it leaves a longlasting back taste hard to get hid of (a big challenge for the duo sake+wasabi).

PS: In Japan is very easy to find narezushi and funazushi, you can buy them even from Amazon!

If you plan to visit Kyoto, why not visit the Lake Biwa region and try this millenary delicacy?

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