Is Sushi Chinese, Japanese or Korean? Not as obvious as you think

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  September 7, 2020
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I actually thought this question was quite strange, because in my mind sushi was quite obviously form Japan.

When thinking of the origins of sushi, most will associate it with Japanese culture. They may not even give a thought as to whether it is Chinese.

However, sushi does have roots in Chinese culture and it may be surprising to find out how easily these lines can become blurred.

Read on to find out the answer to the question if sushi is Chinese or Japanese and why there is a legitimate cause for confusion.

Origins of Sushi

Although sushi is commonly associated with Japan, it originated outside of the country.

Early historical records trace it back to regions of Southeast Asia around the Mekong River in the second century CE.

It started out as narezushi or fermented fish wrapped in sour rice, a dish that later spread into China and Japan.

Origin of Sushi

Also read: sushi for beginners, a complete guide

Although early forms of sushi spread to China and Japan, the Chinese were quick to adopt it.

The rice was not seen as a part of the meal but rather as a way to preserve the fish during times before refrigeration.

The fermentation of the rice worked as an antimicrobial keeping the fish from spoiling.

When rice ferments, it becomes acidic producing conditions that are unfavorable to bacteria.

The half fermented fish that resulted from this preservation process is known as namanare.

Today, there are still dishes served in Hunan that use rice and salt to ferment fish.

Sushi’s Introduction to Japan

Eventually, Japan became inspired by China to make their own version of namanare.

However, rather than using the rice to preserve the fish, they would eat it along with the raw fish. Like the Chinese, they also called this dish namanare or namanari.

The dish continued to evolve and during the Muromachi period, it was served as raw fish wrapped in vinegar rice. It was made to be eaten fresh to preserve the flavor.

Once again, the rice was not used to preserve the fish but just for the taste and enjoyment of the food.

However, it is worth mentioning here, that the formulation of vinegar played a major role in the evolution of sushi.

Once vinegar was formulated, people stopped using fermented rice to preserve their fish using vinegar instead.

Not only did vinegar work well in the preservation process, but it also brought a taste to the fish that people preferred, especially when it was mixed with sugar.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s during the Edo period, when we would start to see sushi that more closely resembled the modern-day sushi we know and love.

The modernized version was called hayazushi and it was created by a man named Hanaya Yohei.

Yohei updated the production and presentation of the raw fish and vinegar rice recipe making it much closer in taste and appearance to the sushi we eat today.

Yohei started by setting up a food stall near the coastal area of Japan where he could get fresh fish.

Instead of wrapping the fish in rice, he gave the rice an oblong shape and placed the raw fish on top of it.

He served it as a snack that soon became a hit among the local people.

To make the morsels even more attractive, he served them with wasabi and soy sauce. This helped make them a much sought-after treat.

The fast and easy preparation was also part of what made them popular.

In addition, this new form of sushi helped spur a tuna craze in Japan. Once thought of as a common fish, tuna was often used in different sushi recipes.

As a result, it is enjoyed more now than ever.

Sushi and Japanese Culture

Sushi and Japanese Culture

Although there are blurred lines when considering whether sushi is Chinese or Japanese, many associate the food with Japan.

This is partially due to the fact that a Japanese man is credited for bringing the modern version of sushi to the masses, but it is also because Japan has integrated the food so firmly into its culture.

The Japanese use food as a way to display their cultural heritage and sushi is a big part of this.

Chefs spend many years working to perfect the art of sushi making paying special attention to the details used in the presentation as well as the flavoring.

This is part of why many tourists put ‘visiting a traditional sushi restaurant’ on their bucket lists.

If you visit one of these restaurants, you will find modest nigirizushi and sushi rolls that differ greatly from the Westernized sushi we are used to seeing.

Another reason sushi has become so popular in Japanese culture is that the country is surrounded by ocean on all of its borders. This makes fish a huge part of its staple diet.

Is sushi Korean or Japanese?

Is Sushi Korean or japanese?

The lines between Japanese and Korean sushi are a lot less blurred as the lines between Chinese and Japanese are, because it is quite clear that Japan introduced its sushi when it annexed Korea in 1910.

That’s when they brought dishes like sushi into the country and why there are such strong culinary ties between the two.

The Korean sushi you see now it an evolution from the sushi that Japan brought and they call it “gimbap”, which are more like sushi bowls (Japan also has sushi bowls but they are quite different, read all about these types of sushi here).

Sushi in America

Sushi in America

Sushi is not only popular in Japan, it is popular all over the world. It first came to America in the 1960s when the Kawafuku Restaurant opened in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles.

After that, many other sushi restaurants followed suit.

Sushi caught on big in America and was a favorite among everyone from A-list celebrities to immigrants.

It continued to evolve with the creation of the California roll which brought avocado and crabmeat into the mix.

And while California loved sushi, it spread in other states of the U.S. as well as becoming a hit in New York and Chicago.

Sushi restaurants rapidly popped up all over the country in the ’80s and by the ’90s, it had become a national trend and a major part of the exotic food industry.

Sushi in China Today

Just like in every part of the world, sushi is enjoyed in China today. In addition to being eaten in namanare form, it is also served in its modern-day presentation in countless sushi restaurants.

However, these restaurants are often run by Japanese businessmen.

There are still a few that realize that China was truly behind it all and deserve credit for playing a key role in making sushi available to the world as we know it.

We thank them for this amazing dish!

Do Chinese restaurants serve sushi?

Restaurants in China do not serve sushi although you do have a few Japanese restaurants in China. There are a lot of Chinese restaurants in America who began serving sushi because of the popularity of the dish, but it is not traditional.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.