Culinary Giants

Hanaya Yohei, father of nigiri

19th-century chef developed the iconic sushi style of Japan

Sushi is the symbol of Japanese food worldwide. And the most iconic, most familiar, style of sushi is known as nigiri. Credit Hanaya Yohei, a 19th-century sushi chef, for its popularity. These oblong pads of vinegared rice topped with raw fish are found everywhere these days, from cutting edge restaurants in big cities to neighborhood joints in even the smallest of towns.

Sushi existed for centuries before Yohei's birth in 1799. Originally developed as a method of preserving fish in rice, nare-zushi took months to create as the fish cured in the increasingly sour-tasting rice. Using rice vinegar to spike freshly made rice sped up the process, but sushi took hours to make as it was pressed in wooden boxes.

Enter Yohei, the son of greengrocers. He moved to Edo — today's Tokyo — as a young man and took to sushi making.

"Finding press-molding a bother and squashed fish not very palatable, he conjured up the idea of quickly working rice and fish together in a few deft hand moves," wrote Kikuo Shimizu, a master sushi chef, in his book, "Edomae Sushi: Art, Tradition, Simplicity." Yohei's nigiri was a big hit with busy Edo workers who didn't have time to sit down for a meal and just wanted a nibble, Shimizu wrote.

The fresh taste of Yohei's sushi also likely was preferable to the fermented flavor they were used to, Shimizu said in an email from Japan forwarded by Noriko Yokota, who edited his book for the publisher, Kodansha International. (Yokota posed to him my questions about Yohei and nigiri and then translated and annotated his answers.) And, of course, there was the thrill of the new that Yohei's nigiri offered.

Yohei began selling his version of nigiri around 1824. He died in 1858 but his business endured into the 1930s, according to Theodore C. Bestor, a Harvard University professor and author of "Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World."

Shimizu, who owned a famed nine-seat sushi bar in Tokyo called Kikuyoshi before retiring, credited two 20th-century developments for spreading the nigiri style across Japan: The 1923 Tokyo earthquake devastated the city, forcing sushi-makers to relocate elsewhere, taking their style of sushi with them; strict rice rationing after World War II favored the smaller and more efficient nigiri style of sushi-making.

Sushi, of course, went global. Here in North America, the stuff is practically ubiquitous. It is ever-changing as Western ingredients and tastes take sushi in directions unheard of in Japan. Nigiri, once the main item on sushi menus here 30 years ago, is increasingly being pushed aside to make room for maki, or sushi rolls.

But for industry watchers like Dave Lowry, a St. Louis-area restaurant reviewer and author of "The Connoisseur's Guide to Sushi," nigiri continues to epitomize sushi at its best.

"The reason is not because of the toppings but because nigiri sushi lets you taste the rice, and that's what it is all about," he said.

Most North Americans have no clue who Hanaya Yohei was.

Ironically, most Japanese don't either.

Yohei has become so obscure his name was recently the answer to a trivia question of a television quiz show, reports Elizabeth Andoh, an American-born authority on Japanese food and cookbook author.

"If you mentioned Hanaya Yohei to most Japanese, the response would be: It is a chain restaurant operation in the Kanto (Tokyo area)," wrote Andoh, in an email from Japan.

Why care, then, about Hanaya Yohei?

"Much of the aesthetics of Japan is between that which is almost right and what is right," said Lowry, a resident of Maryland Heights, Mo. "We live in a world where almost right is good enough. In traditional Japanese thought, the difference between almost right and right is the same as completely wrong and right. Yohei dedicated his life to getting it right."

How to make nigiri sushi

Properly preparing nigiri sushi can take a lifetime to master. So exacting is it that many cooks, Japanese and others, leave it to the professional chef. Yet, it can be done — if you are able to scale your expectations to what a home cook can accomplish.

A number of cookbook authors offer a variety of simpler methods for shaping the sushi. The techniques, which sometimes involve molding the rice into balls using plastic wrap or a moist towel, may not be the most authentic or sublime way to make nigiri sushi, but the job gets done.

Debra Samuels, author of "My Japanese Table: A Lifetime of Cooking With Friends and Family," said it is vital to use the freshest, high-quality sushi-grade fish you can find. While sushi topped with slices of different fish is traditional in restaurants, choose quality over variety when making sushi at home. Follow the usual health caveats if eating the fish raw or undercooked.

wdaley@tribune.com

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