Primitive Funa-Zushi. The Horrid Roots of Modern Sushi

May 10, 2016 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The dish that we know as Sushi is a brilliantly modernized version of a Japanese Culinary innovation from the 1800s. Its introduction to world kitchens, particularly American, has transformed it into one of the most successful fusion food forms in the world. Without global influences, Sushi would not be the gorgeous and experimental dish it is today. But even what we presently think of as traditional Japanese Sushi was a vast improvement of an earlier dish imported from China and prepared for 800 years before the innovations of nameless street vendors in Tokyo less than 200 years ago created what we recognize as 'sushi' today. Join us as we explore the horrid precursor, Funa Zushi.

In most countries, rotten fish is thrown out. In Japan, they spend 3 or 4 years making it, and consider it an expensive luxury. Funazushi, the speciality of Shiga prefecture, is fermented buna (crucian carp).

This Buna fish little realizes what morbid gastronomical atrocities are about to be visited on its person.

The raw fish is packed tightly in salt for a year, then dried and mixed with rice. This mixture is left to “ferment” for 3 years. The rice is changed every year, but the fish is allowed to decompose.

As you’d expect, funazushi has an overpowering smell, which discourages many people from trying it. The taste is sharp and vinegary. It can be used in soups, deep-fried in batter to make tempura, or served in green tea (ochazuke).


Nama Nare Sushi

History of Funazushi

Around 1000 years old, a preservation method called narezushi came to Japan from China.

The word "sushi" originally meant fermented fish, and has its roots in Southeast Asia.  According to the history of sushi, this type of sushi is first  seen in Japanese scriptures in the 7th century.  Later on, the fish were stuffed with rice before they were fermented, and this is called nare sushi and is the earliest form of sushi in Japan.

Nare Sushi took a couple months to prepare, and eventually becomes consumed before the fermentation process is complete. This is called the nama nare sushi or "raw" nare sushi. This made the rice sour tasting from the fermentation process but edible and mostly dissolved. It is not until the 19th century when the Edo style sushi, or the sushi commonly known today was invented. The sour rice was mimicked by mixing fresh rice vinegar to make sushi rice, and fresh raw ingredients were used instead.

In Shiga, Narezushi became Funazushi. Fermentation was used as a way to preserve food stocks for the winter. Like many other Japanese foods (umeboshi, natto), funazushi became a national delicacy, even when fresh food became available all year round.

Funazushi is increasingly rare. As fresh fish has become available, modern sushi has been developed, reducing funazushi to novelty status. Younger Japanese people, who have more Western tastes, are less likely to develop a taste for the dubious treat. Recently, it can only be found in Shiga, and the smelly preservation technique may soon be redundant.

Funazushi, or Funa Sushi.

So, what is funazushi anyway? And, why doesn’t it require any koji starter to kick off the fermentation? According to Funazushi no Nazo, nigorobuna or C. auratus grandoculis, a fresh water fish from Lake Biwa, is cleaned, the ovaries are left intact, and it is then cured in salt for anywhere from one month to two years.

Next, after rinsing and a brief drying, the fish and cooked rice are carefully layered one over the other in a deep bucket or wooden cask called an i to daru (5gallon barrel). To finish up, a heavy weight is placed on top and the layered mixture is fermented anywhere from six months to over a year.

This is the tradition that was passed down for over 1,300 years in Japan. This form of sushi appears in the Engishiki, a law book penal code from the 10th century. This is probably the first well-documented appearance of sushi in Japan.

Here is a traditional recipe from the Shiga Prefecture!:

1) Scale female Nigoro Buna with a knife and remove guts.
2) Remove blood by soaking in salt water for 1-2 hours.
3) Stuff fish tightly with salt. Put fish in barrel. Place lid over fish. Put weight on top of lid. Wait for 2 years!?
4) Remove salt from fish. Dry for 1/2 day.
5) Mix with rice and ferment for 1 year.
6) Remove rice add new rice. Ferment for 3 months.
After a little over 3 years voila!

Place rice, 2-3 slices of funazushi, tororo kobu (a seaweed) in a bowl. Add hot water and 3-3 drops of soy sauce. Mix good and it's ready to eat.

Every bite you take of funazushi was prepared close to 4 years ago! Preserved foods have always been necessary for people worldwide to supply themselves with food in times of need. Ancestors all over the world have been so clever as to find ways to meet food needs year round. Funazushi is a perfect example.

Funazushi is the roots of the sushi you and I eat today! Funazushi is the origin of mixing rice and fish together which came over with rice culture from Southeast Asia. Over a thousand years of tradition and history accompanied by the care and detail of years of preparation, each bite tastes that much better.

How is it?
Much better than its reputation. Everyone says, "It stinks, it stinks!" It does smell a bit like a sake brewery but it is nothing to keel over about. It has a sharp vinegary flavor. It is best in ochazuke (a rice soup dish).


Shiga Prefecture!

This dish is becoming more and more rare these days and it can only be found in Shiga Prefecture. Lake Biwa is home to buna and several other species of fish that are native only to Biwa and Shiga Prefecture. Decisions people in Shiga make about the use of their lake and the preservation of such traditional foods may decide the future of this traditional dish.

As far as the writer is concerned, the good people of Shiga Prefecture are welcome to keep any decisions they might make about Funazushi wholly to themselves, and refrain from following the Scottish example in exporting the equally horrid dish of Haggis upon an undeserving mankind.

by Stephen Dare