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Sushi is the Japanese preparation and serving of specially prepared vinegared rice combined with varied ingredients such as chiefly seafood (often uncooked), vegetables, and occasionally tropical fruits. Styles of sushi and its presentation vary widely, but the key ingredient in all cases is the sushi rice, also referred to as shari, or sumeshi.
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Sushi can be prepared with either brown or white rice. It is often prepared with raw seafood, but some common varieties of sushi use cooked ingredients, and many other sorts are vegetarian. Sushi is often served with pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce. Daikon radish is popular as a garnish.
Sushi is often confused with sashimi, a related Japanese dish consisting of thinly sliced raw fish or occasionally meat, and an optional serving of rice.
Sushi originates in a Southeast Asian dish, known today as nare-zushi, stored in fermented rice for possibly months at a time. The lacto-fermentation of the rice prevented the fish from spoiling; the rice would be discarded before consumption of the fish. This early type of sushi became an important source of protein for its Japanese consumers. The term sushi comes from an antiquated grammatical form no longer used in other contexts, and literally means "sour-tasting"; the overall dish has a sour and umami or savoury taste. Narezushi is still made in Japan to this day.
Contemporary sushi generally bears only a vague resemblance to its predecessor. Funazushi, a strongly-flavoured and odoured narezushi made near Lake Biwa in Japan, most strongly resembles the traditional fermented dish among modern sushi types. Vinegar began to be added to the preparation of narezushi in the Muromachi period (1336–1573) for the sake of enhancing both taste and preservation. In addition to increasing the rice's sourness, the vinegar significantly increased the dish's longevity, causing the fermentation process to be shortened and eventually abandoned. The primitive sushi would be furthered developed in Osaka, where over several centuries it became oshi-zushi; in this preparation, the seafood and rice were pressed into shape with wooden (typically bamboo) molds.
It was not until the Edo period (1603-1868) that fresh fish was served over vinegared rice. The particular style of today's nigirizushi became popular in Edo (contemporary Tokyo) in the 1820s or 1830s. One common story of nigirizushi's origins is of the chef Hanaya Yohei (1799-1858), who invented or perfected the technique in 1824 at his shop in Ryōgoku. The dish was originally termed Edomae zushi as it used freshly caught fish from the Edo-mae(Edo or Tokyo Bay); the term Edomae nigirizushi is still used today as a by-word for quality sushi, regardless of its ingredients' origins.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest written mention of sushi in English in an 1893 book, A Japanese Interior, where it mentions sushi as "a roll of cold rice with fish, sea-weed, or some other flavouring". However, there is an earlier mention of sushi in James Hepburn's Japanese-English dictionary from 1873, and an 1879 article on Japanese cookery in the journal Notes and Queries.