Who is Hanaya Yohei? Read all about the sushi rebel

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  September 26, 2020
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You may not know who Hanaya Yohei is, but if you like sushi, you will have a lot to thank him for.

Yohei is a Japanese cook who is credited with the invention of nigiri sushi (hand-formed sushi). Read on to find out more about his life and times and how he came up with this innovative creation.

Who is Hanaya Yohei?

Hanaya Yohei History

Hanaya Yohei was born in 1799 during Japan’s Edo period. He was born in Fukui, Japan to a family of the Fukui Prefecture.

Yohei was interested in cooking and would experiment with different dishes.  As a young man trying to find himself, he left home in 1818 and spent time between jobs working on and off at his family’s business.

Meanwhile, in the culinary world, people were trying to come up with an easier way to make sushi. The fish used for sushi was sourced from the Tokyo Bay. Rice and salt were added to make the sushi rolls.

The rice was vital because it worked to ferment the fish. In these days before refrigeration, the fermentation process was the only way to keep the fish from going bad. However, the need for fermentation meant that it took a very long time to make the sushi.

Because sushi was a staple of the Japanese diet, many people sought ways to make it easier to produce.

Yohei came up with a solution creating nigiri sushi in 1824.

Check out our post on nigiri and other popular types of sushi over here

To create the sushi, Yohei used neta (the fish used in sushi) that was either raw, marinated, simmered or salted depending on the type of neta that was used. He placed the fish on top of vinegared rice balls and hand molded the ingredients together.

In creating nigiri sushi, Yohei introduced a way to eat fresh sushi. No longer was the flavor profile dominated by the fermentation process; now the taste of the ingredients could really shine through.

And by eliminating all the time it took to make sushi, it was now a food that could be eaten on the go. Yohei took advantage of this by selling his freshly made sushi in a box he carried on his back.

Once his business started to grow, he moved his operation to a stand and eventually he opened a restaurant. The establishment was called Yohei Zushi and it was located in the Ryogoku area of present-day Tokyo. It stayed in business until 1932, long after Yohei died in 1858.

Besides creating his own successful business, Yohei also paved the way for many entrepreneurs that followed his footsteps. There are many sushi stands throughout Japan and it has become a popular fast food due to the speedy method Yohei introduced.

Tokyo still honors Yohei’s legacy and there is a placard that marks the birthplace of nigiri sushi located in the city.

Preparation

Yohei was responsible for bringing sushi to the masses, but he also helped with the popularization of tuna. Tuna was not regarded as a highly valuable fish in Japan but once Yohei started incorporating it into his sushi, it became a much sought-after delicacy.

The chef also served his sushi with a dab of wasabi and vinegared rice that provided a distinct taste. Today, using wasabi to flavor sushi is a time-honored tradition.

Yohei the Outlaw

Although Yohei was recognized for the creation of nigiri sushi and hence highly respected by his peers, he was not as well respected by the government who ruled Japan during the Edo period.

There was a famine in Edo in 1833. As a result, the Tempo Reforms were created and put in effect from 1841 to 1843.

The Reforms placed a ban on luxury foods and Yohei and many other sushi chefs were arrested. Fortunately, the Reforms eventually relaxed and sushi was restored to its glory going on to become a popular dish throughout the world.

Who is the Father of Sushi?

Because of Yohei’s creation, he is often credited as being the father of sushi. However, others argue that without Matazaemon Nakano, Yohei would have never been able to make his invention.

Nakano, you see, was the first to invent the essential sushi ingredient, vinegar.

Rather than argue about it, let’s just say that it was a combination of Yohei’s creativity and Nakano’s innovative spirit that gave birth to this delicious delicacy.

Who First Made Sushi?

But let’s not forget that even, before Yohei made nigiri sushi, sushi did exist. So how did the first versions of sushi come to be?

While there is much folklore surrounding the invention of sushi, the first hard evidence we have comes from a Chinese dictionary that mentions salted fish being placed in cooked rice causing it to undergo a fermentation process.

When the rice fermented it created lactic acid bacilli which causes a reaction that slows bacterial growth in fish. This is why sushi kitchens are often known as tsuke-ba or pickling place.

Also read: is sushi Japanese, Chinese or Korean? The full picture

Sushi gained popularity in Japan along with the spread of Buddhism in the 9th century. Because people were steering away from eating meat, they ate fish as a substitute. Combining it with rice made it more of a meal.

However, the long fermentation process meant the food was not as accessible as the people would have liked it to be. For instance, early versions of sushi contained golden carp, also known as funa. This funa zushi could take half a year to get ready for consumption and it was only available to the rich.

Hence, there were many attempts to cut down on the prep time of sushi. For instance, around the 15th century, cooks found adding more weight to the rice and fish reduced the fermentation time to one month. They also found that pickled fish didn’t need to achieve full decomposition to provide the desired taste.

These methods gave birth to a new sushi preparation called mama-nare zushi or raw nare-zushi. Although these new methods were an improvement, chefs were still working hard trying to come up with a process that was even more efficient.

Later on, in the 19th century, Edo sushi makers started using a fermentation process that was developed in the 17th century. They would place a layer of cooked rice seasoned with rice vinegar alongside the fish. Then they would compress the layers in a small wooden box for two hours before slicing it into serving pieces. This reduced the prep time even further.

However, it wasn’t until Yohei came along that the ideal way to make sushi was discovered. He completely eliminated the fermentation process so sushi could be made quickly while providing a fresh taste people loved.

Nigiri Sushi Vs. Sashimi and Maki

The nigiri sushi Yohei created is still popular today. However, other types have been created since including rolled varieties.

Nigiri sushi is made by layering a thin strip of fish on top of the rice. A small amount of wasabi may be added between the layers although some chefs choose to use nori or seaweed instead.

Maki, on the other hand, is rolled sushi and today, it is what often comes to mind when people hear the word sushi. To make it, layers of rice, vegetables and fish are layered on top of each other and rolled in a sheet of seaweed.

There are variations of maki including temaki which uses less seaweed and is rolled by hand to give it more of a cone-like appearance. Hosomaki is similar to make but it only has two ingredients; a fish or vegetable and rice.

Sashimi is also often featured on sushi menus, but the truth is, it isn’t sushi at all.

In order to qualify as sushi, a food must contain rice. Sashimi is only a thin slice of raw fish and, therefore, it is not technically a sushi product.

Also read: sushi vs sashimi, a complete guide to differences and similarities

A Restaurant Named for Hanaya Yohei

Hanaya Yohei has definitely made his mark on the culinary world; so much so that there is actually a restaurant chain named for him. The restaurant has over 130 locations all of which are located in Japan.

In addition to serving authentic Edo-Style sushi, they also serve shabu shabu (a meat and vegetable hot pot), tempura (Japanese fritters), udon (white flour noodles) and soba (buckwheat flour noodles).

They even have a dish named after Yohei called Hanaya Sushi. It is an assorted sushi dish that features boiled crab, lean tuna, squid, rapa whelk, salmon, red seabread and boiled shrimp “nigiri” with a piece of egg omelet.

The restaurant is reasonably priced and offers Japanese style ozashiki (tatami floor) seating. It’s a great way to get an authentic taste of Japanese cuisine when you visit the country.

The ironic part is, when you say the name Hanaya Yohei, most will say it is a restaurant in Japan without even realizing it was named for the famous chef who was truly the father of sushi. Yet his legacy lives on in the delicious food that has become a staple of the Japanese diet and has taken the world by storm. He is truly an unsung hero of Asian cuisine.

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.