Fun with Fermentation: Funa-Zushi

Sushi's ancestor, funa-zushi, is served anything but fresh. After a year of fermentation, it produces a smell not unlike Roquefort cheese. Sushi expert Hiroko Shimbo describes the process of making funa-zushi for Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Fish may be evolving faster than we'd thought, but in some corners of the world, the art of fish preparation remains unchanged. For our food moment today, we're going to look at the centuries-old practice of pickling fish to produce funa-zushi, an ancestor of today's sushi.

Hiroko Shimbo recently wrote about funa-zushi in Saveur magazine, and she joins us now. Hello.

Ms. HIROKO SHIMBO (Japanese Chef): Hi, hello, Debbie. Thank you very much for having me today.

ELLIOTT: Very happy to have you. Now, pickled fish might not make everyone lick their lips. What are the origins of this dish?

Ms. SHIMBO: The origin is, surprisingly, the present northern part of Thailand where they caught seasonal river fish, and pickling is the way to preserve the fish with salt and rice. This style of sushi eventually evolved into today's sushi, so people love today's sushi much more than this ancient sushi.

ELLIOTT: Did you try it?

Ms. SHIMBO: Yes. I liked it. It is, hmm, the smell is maybe 10 times stronger than the Roquefort cheese.

ELLIOTT: Oh, my.

Ms. SHIMBO: And the flavor is very acid because of the one-year pickling with rice and salt, so lots of lactic acid produced. This preserve the fish and gives very, very strong but pleasant taste to the fish.

ELLIOTT: How do you eat it?

Ms. SHIMBO: So slice very thin, and then you just have some small cup of sake or glass of beer. You have a little munch and then sip one glass of beer or sake and another munch, so enjoy a kind of strong flavor little by little.

ELLIOTT: Does it get better the more beer you drink?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHIMBO: Maybe, yes. Plus, another very, very good way to eat, make a soup. Fish becomes tender, milder, and it's just wonderful, wonderful soup.

ELLIOTT: You traveled to Japan to observe a family of artisan producers at work, people who have been doing this in their family for centuries now.

Ms. SHIMBO: Yes.

ELLIOTT: Tell us about the family and the process of making funa-zushi.

Ms. SHIMBO: Okay. This is a mom and pop factory. They get this local carp from the nearby lake, which is one of the largest lake in Japan, in early February. So they clean the fish very carefully and then pickle in heavy salt in the barrel for three months.

In May, when, well, in Japan we start to get lots of sun, spring sun, they take out the salt-pickled, the fish out of the barrel, and then the wife prepares rice, and she stuffs rice into the cavity of the fish. This fish is later put them in a barrel, which is about across 20-inch and 22-inch deep, and the...

ELLIOTT: Now, about how many fish fit into one of these barrels?

Ms. SHIMBO: Fifty, so a little bit of, a little layer of rice and then stuff the fish, layer of rice, fish, rice, fish, and then the wooden lid is put on, and then big ball, which weighs about 80 pounds...

ELLIOTT: Like a big rock.

Ms. SHIMBO: Yes, place two on top, and then...

ELLIOTT: Two of them?

Ms. SHIMBO: Yes, and then left for pickling for one year.

ELLIOTT: The process takes a full year.

Ms. SHIMBO: Yes, and during the summertime, Japan gets very hot and humid, so the fermentation reaches to the peak. Lots of carbon dioxide is produced inside the barrel which pushes up the lid and then just knock the heavy stone boulder out from the lid, and they never...

ELLIOTT: Wow, I find that kind of hard to believe...

Ms. SHIMBO: Yes.

ELLIOTT: ...that fish could produce that much energy to knock off two 70-pound boulders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHIMBO: Yes, and whenever this happens, the husband, he rush to put the stone back on top, and he tells me that that's the most enjoyable part of funa-zushi making.

ELLIOTT: Hiroko Shimbo, who writes about the ancient art of sushi in her new book The Sushi Experience, due out this fall. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SHIMBO: Thank you very much, Debbie.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: If 70-pound boulders toppled by fermenting fish in a barrel sounds like a tall tale, you ain't heard nothing yet. After the break, we'll take you to the annual West Virginia Liars Contest, coming up next from NPR News.

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