How the UK Fell in Love With Sushi

By Liv, DMT Collaborator on 27th May 2022 (updated: 12th May 2022) in Blog

Nowadays, we Brits know sushi as a tasty treat, perfect for lunchtime, snacking, or a full-on feast! We eat it from supermarket to-go counters, novelty conveyor belt restaurants, fancy sit-down bars, cutesy cafes and convenient takeaway services. 

It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, sushi simply wasn’t an option in the UK.

Before it joined the realms of curry, pizza and noodles as a classic global takeaway dish, sushi was, in fact, viewed with suspicion and even in some cases, disgust!

Read on to discover how this Japanese delicacy won British hearts and went from foreign fare to a treasured treat in as little as a couple of decades.

Intoku's sashimi sushi selection, beautifully presented by the window of our windsor cafe.

INTOKU’s sashimi selection.

Sushi’s Chinese Origins 🇨🇳

Since its inception in China between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, sushi has undergone many transformations. Originally necessitated by the need to preserve raw fish for longer periods, the Chinese version was simply fish fermented in a shell of rice and salt.

Later, the Chinese abandoned eating pickled fish, but Japan adopted it, and by the 8th century, a dish called narezushi appeared. This involved fermenting rice and fish in sake and rice vinegar under a large stone. 

Since the rice served to encourage fermentation rather than enhance taste in its own right, it was discarded before eating. This dish has been compared to blue cheese in scent; rather pungent and very different from the dish we know and love today…

The History of Japanese Sushi 🇯🇵

Later, oshizushi emerged and has since been hailed “the original fast food,” since it was most commonly served in public places like parks and at festivals as a sort of street food snack. 

This incarnation of sushi was rice mixed with yeast, topped with cooked or pickled fish and vegetables, then sprinkled with sake, wrapped in a bamboo leaf and left under a heavy stone. Its flavour was said to be much milder and closer to the pickled vegetable dishes that can still be found today in Asia.

Oshizushi soon evolved into something more like the modern cuisine. Dubbed the ‘inventor of modern sushi’, Hanaya Yohei created nigiri-zushi around 1824. This was, and still is, seafood placed on hand-pressed vinegared rice, one of the most iconic shapes. This was the convenience food of the chōnin merchant and craftsman class during the Edo period.

By the 1850s, this version of sushi was being sold all over Edo, now known as Tokyo, from roadside stalls.

As a result of the spread of Buddist beliefs in Japan, sushi experienced a popularity explosion. Abstaining from consuming meat was a core tenant of the religion, so fish became the relied upon protein source for many Japanese people.

20th Century Sushi 🍱

The invention of advanced refrigeration in the 20th century took sushi’s reputation from lower-class convenience food to an expensive delicacy.

Chefs were no longer restricted to cooking fish straight away to ensure it was served fresh, nor did they have to preserve it. The ability to prepare fish raw and keep it fresh in a refrigerator, which was an expensive new commodity, led to the evolution of new and creative approaches.

One such invention, birthed in 1930s Tokyo, was the ‘battleship roll’, or gunkan-maki, a cone of rice wrapped in a nori seaweed binding, then filled with a variety of fillings, from cod roe to quail eggs, to oysters.

As raw sushi became more attainable, options opened up, and competition heightened. Sushi became an art form, with masters training for years to learn their craft. Authentic sushi was soon viewed as a very high-class cuisine, far from its humble street food origins.

an intoku sushi platter

Modern sushi comes in many shapes, styles and forms, as this INTOKU platter shows.

Marketing Sushi to the World 🌎

As the world globalised during the 20th century, sushi began its journey from Japan to the wider world, at first, with expat communities in Western and Southern American, Australia and Brazil. Here, innovative concepts were developed, as there was much less pressure on chefs to produce “authentically” Japanese dishes.

By the 1970s, the Japanese economy was on the rise and Japanese tech and culture held fascination for the rest of the world. Its increasing dominance on the global stage boosted the number of visitors to the country for business and tourism purposes, and inquisitive Westerners tried the local cuisine.

This led to the creation of the California roll in 1973, designed to appeal to American diners who were not used to eating raw fish. Its inside out cooked crab meat, avocado, mayo and rice construction only resembles Japanese sushi in shape, but it paved the way for sushi to take on the US market. After this, the Japanese staple became a fashionable choice in cities like New York and L.A., where it was marketed as a healthier fast food option than burgers and fries.

Marketing was a very important part of sushi’s journey westward – it took a lot to persuade Western foodies that raw fish was more than just a strange and alien fad, especially when it came to the UK.

When Sushi Came to the UK 🇬🇧

Despite a report of sushi being consumed in Britain when the then Crown Prince Akihito visited Queen Elizabeth II at her Coronation in 1953, it was far from an instant hit.

At first, many Brits were put off by how foreign sushi seemed. They had only ever eaten fish cooked and usually battered. Other global cuisines that had made their way over to Britain had at least some familiar elements, being bread-based, like pizza, or formed of cooked meat in a flavourful sauce, like curry. It took a long time to convince ‘meat and two veg’ Brits that these colourful rolls with their bright colour palate were actually tasty.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that a rapid expansion of accessible Japanese restaurants appeared in the UK, starting in London with both high-end restaurants and a conveyor belt fast food joint. 

The novelty eventually caught on, and now sushi is the fourth most popular Asian cuisine in the UK, with 1 in 5 adults proclaiming their love for it.

Sushi at INTOKU 🌸

Whether you’re a seasoned sushi-lover or have never tried it before, we’re ready to welcome you with open arms and expand your flavour horizons!

It’s never too late to try something new – over half of all UK sushi consumers are over the age of 35, and over a third are over 45.

We couldn’t possibly list our entire sushi menu here, but here are a few highlights.

Premium Sashimi Selection Platter 🐟

Perfect for those who want to appreciate the mild and gentle flavours of raw fish, free from other elements. This handcrafted selection of Scottish salmon, tuna, seabass, prawn and hamachi is simple luxury epitomised.

Green Dragon Rolls 🐉

Modern fusion sushi to the max! These tasty green rolls are stuffed with Japanese rice, prawn katsu, cucumber slices and Korean chilli mayo. A real flavour explosion!

Battered Fish and Avocado Futomaki 🥑

These giant rolls pack a giant punch. With salmon and tuna trims, fresh avocado slices and INTOKU’s special sauce, they’re the perfect gateway to sushi if you haven’t quite got your head around raw fish yet.

stylised photo of a red dragon sushi roll featuring salmon, avocado and prawn

Intoku’s Red Dragon Sushi Roll.

Want to know more fun facts about sushi, or how to eat it like a pro? Check out our other blogs.

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