What is "Edomae" ?
Nigiri sushi is also known as edomae sushi, but over the years there have been various theories of the meaning of the word "edomae," and there have also been a lot of misconceptions.
The word "edomae" refers to "the inlet in front of Edo Castle," and in the past, unagi (eel) caught there was called "edomae unagi."
Up until around 100 years ago, if a store had the word "edomae" written on its sign, it meant that the store sold unagi.
Rivers such as the Sumida River and Arakawa River flow into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay), which contains a lot of nutrients, and a lot of marine animals who feed on those nutrients.
Over time, the inlet in front of Edo Castle was filled in, and the original meaning of "edomae" ceased to exist, but the use of the word "edomae" to refer to seafood caught in Edo Bay would continue to spread.
Seafood not from Edo Bay was referred to with terms such as "tabi no mono" or "bachigai" ("out of place"), and clearly differentiated from edomae seafood.
In the Edo period, when nigiri sushi was first invented, the most pressing issue was how to preserve sushi ingredients for longer.
To preserve their food's freshness, they began to pickle "hikarimono" (sliced fish with the silver skin still on) such as kohada (spotted sardine) and aji (Japanese jack mackerel) in vinegar, and fish with white flesh were pickled in kombu or soy sauce as well as vinegar.
Even maguro (tuna) was pickled in soy sauce at the time, and known simply as "zuke" (literally "pickled"), which is a well-known fact among sushi aficionados.
Ingredients pickled in vinegar often tasted too sour, so in those cases, they put oboro (shiba shrimp that has been mashed, seasoned, and fried) in between the rice and the sushi ingredients, so that its sweetness would cancel out the sour flavor.
These tricks/techniques for preservation would be completely overhauled by the arrival of the refrigerator.
As you can tell by the very fact that sashimi is a type of cuisine, fresh fish is much more valuable than fish that isn't as fresh.
As refrigerators using ice evolved into electric refrigerators, and the roads and transportation systems improved in quality, many of the things that were done to sushi ingredients to preserve their freshness stopped being used.
By the 1980s, sushi was completely disconnected from the once necessary preservation techniques of the Edo period, and reached the height of its popularity.
However, ever since the gourmet boom of the 1990s, when people once again began to recognize the value of the work done by hand by sushi chefs,
this type of sushi has been known as sashimi sushi or fresh sushi, and treated separately from the traditional nigiri sushi.
As sushi returned to the ways of the Edo period, people started using the word "edomae," once used to describe the place where seafood was caught, to refer to sushi made the traditional way, or even the philosophy of creating sushi.
Classic Edomae Sushi Ingredient 1: Kohada
The kohada (spotted sardine), sometimes referred to as the champion of edomae sushi, is actually rarely seen outside of sushi.
The kohada is called by a few different names as it grows up, with its youth stage being known as "shinko."
As it matures, its name progressively changes from kohada, to nakazumi, to konoshiro.
Many say that samurai in the Edo period disliked konoshiro because in Japanese, the phrase "eat konoshiro" sounds the same as "eat this castle," so as a result kohada became more popular than konoshiro.
Fishermen with kohada to sell can be found in markets throughout Japan all year round, so you can eat it any time at a sushi restaurant, but they're truly in season from winter through to spring.
Supposedly, in the past people would get enought kohada for a year during this time, remove the organs, put them in a pot, and pickle them in vinegar and salt before closing the lid and storing them under the floor.
They still pickle it in salt and vinegar today, but there is now a process called "furishio" that involves sprinkling just the right amount of salt onto an opened kohada; this is a complex artisanal task requiring a lot of experience.
Strictly speaking, the correct amount of salt for each kohada is different, so sprinkling the right amount of salt on each kohada when they're all lined up together requires years of experience and a master's intuition.
After the furishio process, the kohada is left out for a while, but the length of this time also varies between summer and winter.
The salt is then washed off with water, and after the water is dried off, the fish is pickled in vinegar.
This kohada preparation process takes a huge amount of work, but also varies from restaurant to restaurant.
This variance reflects the individual chef's vision of the perfect kohada, which is why kohada is said to be the face of a restaurant.
Classic Edomae Sushi Ingredient 2: Hamaguri
While hamaguri (common Orient clam) is one of the most iconic edomae sushi ingredients, if you ask for it at a sushi restaurant, many of them will start to mumble, before you eventually find out they don't serve it at all.
But conversely, that means that the presence (or absence) of hamaguri on an edomae sushi restaurant's menu is a convenient yardstick for measuring the restaurant's potential.
As you can tell from the fact that hamaguri as a sushi ingredient is also known as "boiled hamaguri," the clam is boiled during preparation.
However, when hamaguri is boiled, it gets hard, and you can't taste the harmony between that delicious shellfish flavor that oozes out from its soft flesh and the sweetness of the tsume.
That's why, in the edomae preparation method, you first wash the skinned fish in a stream to get rid of the sand and slime on it, then put it in boiled water and heating it for a short time, before thoroughly removing the internal organs and tendons and opening it up with a knife.
You then pickle it in tsume, which is made of hamaguri broth, sugar, soy sauce, and mirin (sweet rice wine) all boiled together.
So the real meaning is "pickled hamaguri," but traditionally it has always been known as "boiled hamaguri."
This is one of the most time consuming things to prepare in edomae sushi, and it's harder to come by high quality hamaguri than it was in the old days, which are two of the possible reasons we're now seeing more sushi restaurants that don't serve boiled hamaguri.
Classic Sushi Ingredient 3: Anago
Anago (conger eel) is prepared by boiling it with soy sauce, mirin, sugar, etc. By boiling down the leftover broth with ingredients like sugar and mirin, restaurants create their own unique "tsume."
They say it's essential to stir it with a paintbrush while boiling so it doesn't burn.
Most of the time, anago is a slightly brown color, but there's also an edomae boiling technique called "sawani," where you either use light soy sauce, or don't use soy sauce and mirin at all, and cook it in just sake and white sugar, making the anago white.
Alongside maguro and kohada, anago is one of the most iconic edomae sushi ingredients, and every restaurant has their own secret tsume recipe.
That makes this the ingredient that most reveals the differences in style between restaurants.
Anago is usually served with tsume, but in recent years some stores have stopped using tsume, opting instead to sprinkle salt on it.
By the way, in the traditional way of making anago sushi, the top half of the eel is prepared skin side up, while the bottom half is prepared skin side down, so many restaurants recommend ordering two pieces so you can taste both versions.
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This is such a good article, the comments are also superb. Thank you for sharing so much knowledge in English, which is so hard to find online.
Leo Saitochief editor, TokyoTableTrip
I'm going to explain the meaning of the word "edomae," something that seems like it's common knowledge but is surprisingly unknown.
A fantastic article, thank you Saito san!
I want to add a few more things from what I've encountered elsewhere and feel free to correct me any of the information below are incorrect.
The red colored vinegar that has been more commonly encountered in sushi restaurants for shari (especially the darker shade of red/brown) these days is sake lees (sake kasu 酒粕) vinegar. The key ingredient is the lees from sake production, which is the remainder of pressing the mash (rice, water, yeast, koji). Sake lees is naturally white in appearance. During the Edo period, rice was a prized and pricey commodity, thus rice vinegar was costly to produce.
Demand for sake grew also around the Edo period, and izakaya were also very popular then. The sake lees, although a by product of sake making, was readily accessible and wasn't used for much other purposes (unlike today where some cow farmers might feed their cows sake mash by Dassai for marketing purposes). Someone came up with the idea of using sake lees as a replacement for rice for vinegar production. They added water to the lees to try to make rice vinegar (sake lees already has some alcohol so it would be less processing than fermenting rice), but the resulting flavor turned out be too light. There was not enough sugar content in the lees to induce more fermentation to achieve the desired result similar to a good rice vinegar for sushi. It is said that by aging the sake lees for at least a year improved the aroma, complexity, and flavor drastically, and resulted in a darker crimson shade of color. Then vinegar production began with the aged lees and it turned out to be successful (what we call akasu these days).
Some say that Hanaya Yohei was the first to use this vinegar, but I do not know who really came up with this idea. I suppose Mizkan's well known Yokoi Yohei Akasu brand that is quite popular in Japan, probably attributes akasu and its origins to Hanaya Yohei in that case. Yokoi Yohei akasu is actually aged three years before release. Iio Jozo's akasu, used by a number of well respected sushi restaurants across Japan, is aged upwards of ten years before release.
As the original akasu became popular, it was recognized as the vinegar (or sushi rice vinegar) of the Edo period.
And some say that during the economic boom in Japan, chefs decided to switch away to rice vinegar instead of sake lees vinegar (akasu), and some specifically wanted to move away from the image of sushi as peasant street food and associated akasu with that. But now we are seeing a lot more chefs using akasu in the last 10++ years due to either following a trend or their attempt to return to roots. Or in some cases, blending traditional with modern style. Some more successful than others. Although I am curious, who was the first to re-introduce akasu when komesu was the dominant vinegar to season shari. One more thing to note though, akasu by itself is aromatic and naturally sweet in some ways. Komesu has more punch and acidity/sourness. This is why some chefs these days blend the two, use just a blend of akasu, or season the akasu further to bring up the flavors and balance. The combinations can be many, but takes a lot of skill to perfect and maintain.
On a separate note, there seems to be periods in time when there was a prevalent practice of chefs serving maguro or chutoro as the very first piece of sushi to start the meal, can someone confirm? This was even mentioned briefly in Jiro Philosophy book. And this pre-dated Jiro Ono's decision to start with shiromi/white fleshed lighter flavored neta for sushi.
Also the original Edomae tamagoyaki is a very thin layered piece, where you can still find this style to this day at Bentenyama Miyako Sushi and of course Shinbashi Shimizu.
Leo Saitochief editor, TokyoTableTrip
Wow! What a fantastic note!
Thank you for the very educational read Saito-san. The topic has depth, and goes much deeper than one can grasp in one sitting.
Hamaguri is the most memorable sushi I ate at Shimizu. I did not realize how painstaking the preparation was. I will also pay more attention to the sensibility involved in making Kohada from now on.
Anago tsume has been a topic I've been reading on the past year. A rather ambitious sushi chef friend of mine showed me this week, has been steadily working on an anago tsume, that's been simmering in a pot for about a year (with the bones, konbu, katsuo, etc...). I think, at a certain time, he adds it to another batch, which contains an ongoing sauce he's been protecting for about 8 years now. Admittedly, he says not many people knows he does this amount of work, and I was really taken in on how much of a lost art this is.
ChuToroZuke, a while a go, several years, I noticed that most English translated sushi guides would refer to the rice of fine sushi restaurants as being prepared with 'sake lees'. That was what was literally translated. Nowdays, I see the word more often translated simply as 'akazu'.
On your note about tuna, I don't know when I started thinking this, but I somehow always expect tuna to appear earlier in the course at the beginning, and find it a bit off when it doesn't. It seems to be something that made sense for me at some point.
Regarding tamagoyaki, I admit I've found myself being much more impressed with the castella style version, especially if it has shrimp. I also quite like the shape, if it's made properly, and not watery. But when I ask many sushi chefs recently, they prefer to old fashioned style.
It's interesting to see how Edomae sushi has evolved since its inception. Things improved upon, and other techniques or ingredients either phased out, substituted for something easier/faster, or replaced. Then you have the different schools and innovators, all of which adhere to some basics, but not really following what was done the old way as much.
It is no wonder that Japanese media keeps focusing on the same chefs to showcase when discussing Edomae sushi and techniques, all coming from a historical context, in addition to the labor intensive work that showcase skill over just selecting premium ingredients.
The old school method of "zuke" for tuna is placing a cloth over the block of tuna, pouring boiling hot water over then quickly immersing in ice (to arrest the cooking process), then placing the block in the "zuke" marinade. This creates a barrier on the exterior to slow down marination and prevents the fish from being overly pickled. Many modern chefs no longer employ this method (as many feel this is a waste of premium tuna), and instead choose to slice tuna (or other fish) then drop the neta into a bowl of the marinade for upwards of 20 minutes, then dry it with a napkin before pressing to nigiri. But some of the modern chefs might have no qualms searing otoro... a good solid old school maguro zuke is so delicious if done right.
Ono Jiro probably came up with the castella style tamagoyaki. I like that version as well, but it is a treat to be able to the taste the original more simpler thin style original Edomae tamagoyaki and some say it's more work. Kusakabe in San Francisco does an interpretation of this but they add in lobster dashi (very subtle though) and serve it rolled with rice inside. Now you also have a lot of foreign visitors that have shellfish allergies, and even the castella tamagoyaki (or custard version a la Sushi Kanesaka/Saito) recipe has changed for many high end sushi chefs from not using shrimp to instead incorporating fish (e,g. madai or amadai)...thus affecting the texture and moisture content. So even the original flavor of a modified unique item has changed yet again. But I suppose if you go to shops that don't cater to tourists hopefully one can still find shiba ebi tamagoyak in Japan. Overseas you run the ask of alienating customers by not making an allergy free item.
Tsume/Nikiri - now this part is interesting because at some point both were important but during the economic boom for some reason nikiri shoyu was phased out so customer would use shoyu and wasabi (if need be), then nikiri shoyu became associated again with high end (just like akasu for shari). I've also heard the term dashi shoyu being used in the 90s. Serious shops would have one tsume for anago and another for hamaguri (Hama tsume) and when in season maybe a few shops would have a specific tsume for awabi. Big fans of tsume should try Sushi Bun (yes the one that attracts tourists that was at Tsukiji Inner Market / Nihonbashi for 100+ years) and has now moved to Toyosu. Their tsume or baseline, is as thick as molasses, as it has remained the soul of the family of chefs that made it, handed down the generations, and continually reduced upon/added to it...very dark and rich/robust in flavor. I recommend going there just to try it (must be thickest and richest in the business), but you need to overcome the hurdle of their minimum order: either a nigiri combo or if you want to save stomach quota, get a sashimi combo, then add on ni-awabi, ni-hamaguri, and ni-anago sushi. The crafting and shape of the nigiri looks a bit rounder and the ratios might be off, but still quite tasty (also do not mind the softer and stickier rice, that is the style). It is seriously worth it just to experience tsume like this. Then there's also Izumi near...Musashi Koyama? Master has upwards of six to eight tsume/nikiri for various applications, don't think anyone else is doing this....on my to try list, but not foreign visitor friendly it seems unless you speak fluent Japanese. The master is also older too.
For anago, Japanese media also mentions Sushi Noike in Sendagi/Nezu area. Master is probably as old as Ono Jiro....for some reason his anago is famous. But interestingly his other sushi are not mentioned much or if at all. Really curious why his anago is so important from a history discussion standpoint or chef's background. Not a tourist destination though. In the USA, a few months ago I tried two similar preparations of anago that combined the traditional cooking method with the addition of sake from the sawani style of cooking. Possible one of the preparations used usukuchi shoyu (and sake) that resulted in a lighter version of anago (before tsume was added), like a very light shade of brown.
Kohada - in addition to the different pickling methods from each chef (or degree of pickling affecting the flavor profiles), the knife scoring, presentation in nigiri form has so many variations. It's so hard to keep up with them all. I would love to know the correct names or terminologies for each style of scoring/presentation. It's interesting also now how most of the great kohada comes from west wide (e.g. Amakusa).
Just a small point. The first portion of the zuke preparation you've described, is it not exactly the same as 霜作り shimozukuri? I recognize it, because I once forgot what it was called, and went through a painstaking day to locate the word again.
I've also taken points of the other notes you've made, and listings of these old school sushi shops. Thanks again ChuToroZuke.
You got it partly and half right, the term is actually called yushimo zukuri 湯霜作り. The first kanji "yu" 湯 referring to scalding hot/boiling action and shimo 霜 meaning frost (like shimofuri, frost falling), here referring to the action of immersing in ice. But that's part 1 of 2 of Edomae zuke, with part 2 being immersing in marinade.
If speaking from a shokunin technical standpoint, the term yushimo zukuri, 湯霜作り is what a chef would do to make really firm skinned fish to be softer/looser, create more separation between fish and skin, and be able to incorporate the skin of the fish when serving nigiri, especially sea bream family and that also includes kinmedai.
Old school zuke is still referred to as zuke. It's the additional step of yushimo zukuri that's employed that makes it old school. I remember seeing it in Osaka and the chefs referred to it as "maguro tattaki" perhaps a play on katsuo tattaki (I can't remember if that maguro was smoked also). So I don't think yushimo zukuri is the right term for old school zuke or if you only use it like that.
Ooh, ok! Thank you for clarifying that. I will add it to my notes. From the times I've seen the technique, I thought it was to tense up a fish, prior to serving it as sashimi. It also seems an excellent technique for cooking shrimp rare. I did not know it was a component of a zuke process.
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