food general lunch/dinner

Preparing for an authentic Edomae Sushi meal

Edomae Sushi (or Edomae-zushi) is the traditional sushi variety that evolved in the Japanese capital, called Edo until 1868. As it was here that sushi was cultivated as we got to know it today, you could say that Edomae Sushi is the “original” sushi. As preparation to my next sushi meal I put together an article for this quintessential Old Tokyo experience.

While the origins of sushi go way back, contemporary sushi was first served during the 1820s in Edo, when the fast food business was looking for easy and quick ways to serve food to the affluent population of the day. Vinegared rice with a seafood topping, fresh from the Edo bay, was the perfect fit for a quick meal. Sushi from “in front of Edo” (the literal translation of Edomae) became all the rage.

Fresh ingredients

Many shops in Tokyo are legendary as they are the ones that defined the way in which these sushi were eaten and how the individual pieces received their name. For example, one the clients of Yoshino Sushi in Nihombashi (still in business!) coined the name toro for one of the fatty pieces of tuna ca. 1918. Toro refers in Japanese language to how the fish melts in your mouth.

The origin: Hanaya Yohei

Long story short, it all started with Hanaya Yohei (1799–1857), who came to the capital all the way from Fukui prefecture in the early 19th century to try his luck. He is widely credited as the inventor of the nigiri-zushi, a slap of fish over vinegared rice, around 1824. This new type of sushi was fast and hence perfect for the busy lifestyle in Edo. He started out selling this sushi on the street. After a while he started his own shop in Ryōgoku, which was in business until 1932.

Signboard commemorating of Hanaya Yohei near Ryōgoku Station, one of the famous sushi shops during the Edo period

Types of Edomae Sushi

Edomae sushi is most famously the nigiri-zushi. A piece of fish (call neta) on vinegared rice (called shari). While completely raw pieces of fish are common these days, in the beginning most pieces of fish went through various preservation processes. This means that the fish was often marinated in soy sauce, simmered in broth or cured in salt or kombu. This helped to preserve the fish, but also to bring out the umami flavours. These methods are still in use, especially in Edomae Sushi.

Edomae sushi also includes norimaki-zushi, sushi rolls in seaweed. This was a food innovation from late 18th century and became immediately part of the quick Edomae Sushi bite. On the other hand, chirashi-zushi (a kind of rice bowl with raw fish topping), also seen as Edomae Sushi, was derived from the nigiri-sushi, and is still popular as a separate dish.

Gunkan-maki-zushi is a more recent addition to the Edmomae sushi family. It is a type of of nigiri-zushi with a piece of nori wrapped around it. It was an innovation by the famous Ginza Kyubei restaurant in 1941. Ikura (fish roe) and uni (sea urchin) are these days considered essential sushi pieces.

Saltwater eel (anago), one of the not-raw sushi pieces

In order to be comprehensive, inrō-zushi (or inrō-zume) is also seen as Edomae Sushi, but not very common these days. It is flavoured rice in boiled squid, cut into slices. It looks a bit as norimaki, except that the outer layer is squid, not nori.

There are some famous images that give us insight in exactly which types of sushi were eaten in the 19th century in the capital. Likely the most well-know image is the Ukiyo-e by Utagawa Hiroshige from the 1830s. Another famous image is the menu of the aforementioned Hanaya Yohei sushi shop from 1877.

Ukiyo-e from Hiroshige (left), Hanaya Yohei menu from 1877 (right)

In the ukiyo-e from Hiroshige we can see: japanese tiger prawn (kuruma ebi), dotted gizzard shad (kohada), omelet roll (tamago-maki), sea bream (tai). In addition to the ones above, we can see in the menu Hanaya Yohei: giant clam (mirugai), japanese whiting (kisu), squid inrō style (ika inrō), japanese icefish (shiro’uo), trout (masu), horse mackerel (aji), blood clam (akagai), sweetfish (ayu), mackerel (saba) and a sushi roll with nori.

Not all of these sushi are common these days. I have never seen a sweetfish on rice like that. Neither the the inrō, but it’s reassuring that many of the sushi are exactly the same as today.

Types of fish for Edomae Sushi

Fish are seasonal, so depending on the season you will be served different sushi. I am always astonished about the sheer variety of fish that are being served. To give you an idea, I add a couple of lists of fish that are served in specific seasons, and those that are commonly served throughout the year.

Types of fish by season
Spring: kisu, shiraou, sayori, kasugo, hiramasa, torigai, aoyagi, asari, hamaguri, hotaru-ika, shako
Summer: aji, shima-aji, shinko, suzuki, katsuo, tsubugai, isaki, tachiuo, ebodai, anago
Autumn: saba, kohada, iwashi, katsuo, kanpachi, mirugai, ikura
Winter: kajiki, buri, hamachi, sawara, hirame, tai, kōika, akagai, hamaguri, tairagi, hotategai, kani, amaebi

Throughout the year, the following are available: maguro, karei, awabi, ebi, tako, ika, uni

Please note that tuna (maguro) is served as either akami (not fatty), chūtoro (moderate fattiness) or ōtoro (fattiest part). Salmon, now a popular sushi, was not eaten in the beginning. It was only in the 1980s with some help from Norway that salmon got added to the sushi menu, but not usually onto the Edomae Sushi menu.

How to order and eat Edomae sushi

Ordering can be done through a set menu or you can order individual pieces. Ordering all pieces individually is quite uncommon, rather a set menu is ordered first and then a couple of pieces are ordered in addition. The standard size of one serving is 8 pieces and half a roll of maki-zushi (rolled sushi), which is usually not enough for me. If you are going to a very authentic place, the maki-zushi pieces are often left out.

Eat each piece as soon as the chef places it on the leaf or plate in front of you. Temperature of the fish and consistency of the rice dictate that the sushi piece is at its best when it gets served.

A yubifuki, compared to oshibori on the right

Pick it up with your hand. Nigiri-zushi were made to be eaten with your hand, not with chopsticks. They might say to you it is OK and it does not matter, but yes, it does. You will receive a yubifuki, a small wet towel to clean your fingers. This towel is much smaller than the oshibori that you get to clean your hands when you sit down to order.

Do not dip in soy sauce if the fish has received a coating. At cheap places, especially when you receive the pieces all at once, many sushi come without coating and you have to apply it yourself. However, if you go to a high-end sushi place and sit at the counter, the chef will place piece by piece in front of you and usually apply a coating right before serving if it needs one. I have never had to apply soy sauce to any sushi at Edomae Sushi places.

Eat in one bite and eat some of the sweet vinegar-soaked ginger (called gari) in between to prepare for the next piece. If you eat a lot of the ginger, the chef will put more on your plate, so do not worry about running out.

Where to eat Edomae Sushi?
These days, many shops in Tokyo often put “Edomae sushi” as a tagline on their menu, but it does not mean that you actually get the original Edomae sushi. However, plenty of shops in Tokyo still serve the traditional Edomae sushi, but you’ll have to look a bit around. Images in this article are from Sushi Dokoro Yamazaki (in Toyosu market) and Ginza Onodera Sushi (as the same suggests, in Ginza, but also with restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii and Shanghai). Please note that these are not representative restaurants.

My tips for a successful experience

  • There are usually 3 set menu choices (most often called nami, jō and tokujō). I usually go for the cheapest one, because it allows me to choose a couple of additional sushi that I like afterwards (I am talking about budget, not portion size). Besides, the more expensive sushi sets often include raw shrimp, which I am not a very fond of.
  • Sit at the counter and talk to the chef. I found out that in particular sushi restaurants are places where it is easy to talk to the chef. They really love to talk about fish.
  • Trust the recommendations of the chef. The chef knows which pieces are the best. So especially after the set menu is finished I ask: (honjitsu) o-susume wa nan deshou ka? – What is your recommendation (today)?
  • Don’t forget to leave the chopsticks aside, and eat with your hands.