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Quest to taste world’s oldest sushi reveals clash of ancient and modern traditions

Friday, February 21, 2020


LAWRENCE – Eric Rath won’t forget the time he tried an oversized candy sucker when he was a child.

“I remember popping it in in my mouth and feeling it totally overwhelm me with its sour flavor. But there was a hint of sweetness,” said Rath, a professor of history at the University of Kansas. “Take that hint of sweetness away, and you have funazushi.”

That’s how he describes the taste of this legendary delicacy with origins dating to the 8th century. His quest to eat it is documented in “Some Tasting Notes on Year-Old Sushi: Funazushi, Japan’s Most Ancient and Potentially Its Most Up-to-Date Sushi.” The article appears in the current issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food Studies.

During a 2019 research trip to Japan, Rath headed to the Shiga Prefecture, centrally located by the country’s enormous Lake Biwa. He vowed to spend several days consuming as much of the dish as possible.

Funazushi is a fermented food made with the lake’s crucian carp that is often described as “Japan’s most ancient form of sushi.” Yet it’s also gained a reputation for its “disagreeable” taste.

“I saw one 2015 survey that said only 5.9 percent of people in Japan had ever tried funazushi. Despite being the most representative ‘local sushi’ out there, you have to actually go to the place to try it,” he said.

“But no one talks about the taste, which made me very curious. It’s either they don’t want to discuss it out of fear of offending somebody or they never tried it themselves.”

As for the flavor that conjured memories of giant sour candy from his youth, the Chicago-area native describes the “mouthfeel as having a sausage texture.” A cheesy aftertaste trails that ranges from a cheddar to a blue cheese.

“I grew up in the Midwest eating summer sausage, and somehow this sensation of summer sausage and cheese was nostalgic for me,” he said.

He claimed some of the preparations of the dish were indeed off-putting. However, one little family restaurant called Biwako Daughters took a funazushi slice, combined it with Havarti cheese and served it on Italian bread.

“That was a game-changer in my view,” he said. “It was remarkable and without any sourness, either.”

Rath’s first introduction to sushi was courtesy of the 1985 teen comedy “The Breakfast Club.” It features a scene where the preppy character played by Molly Ringwald brings a sushi lunch to her weekend detention.

“I grew up in a very similar area and had to go to a breakfast club like in the movie — although it was all guys,” he said. “Yet that iconic sushi scene stuck with me when one of the other characters says, ‘You won’t accept a guy’s tongue in your mouth, and you’re going to eat that?’ I was in high school and thought, ‘Oh, we have to try this.’

So he convinced a friend to join him for sushi at a nearby restaurant.

“We got it, and it was beautiful. And we looked at each other and didn’t know what to do. ‘How did we eat this?’ Fortunately the waiter came over and politely explained,” he said.

America’s ignorance about this cultural dish still lingers 35 years later.

“People assume sushi means raw fish, and that’s incorrect in a lot of ways because it doesn’t necessarily have to be fish. And the fish we get is not raw; it’s been frozen. It has to be frozen for quite a long time at quite a low temperature — according to law — to kill parasites. So it’s not exactly ‘fresh,’” he said.

A KU professor for more than 20 years, Rath has written extensively about Japanese food and culture, including the books “Japan’s Cuisines: Food, Place and Identity,” “Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan” and “Japanese Foodways, Past and Present” (with Stephanie Assmann). He teaches a KU course on the history of sushi.

Rath plans on incorporating his funazushi experience into a section of an upcoming book focusing on the history of sushi due out at the end of the year. 

“As a historian of food, I can do things other people can’t do,” said Rath, who will speak at the University of Toronto in March about taste in food history.

“If I was studying battles, I could only walk the battle site to get a feel for it. But I can actually try stuff that is still around. Taste adds another dimension to our understanding if we can integrate that into our academic work.”

He’s not done seeking out new and unique Japanese fare.

Rath said, “There’s a type of sushi in Wakayama Prefecture that uses a fish called Pacific Saury. There’s this version that’s 30 years old, in which the sushi and the rice become a practical liquid. It was on the menu at a restaurant I went to. But I just … couldn’t. Now I have another reason to come back.”

Top Photo: Funazushi with roe. Credit: Eric Rath.