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Have you heard of funazushi? It’s a kind of fermented sushi, and despite its strong smell and flavor, some people think it could be a hit in Southeast Asia!

Funazushi is a traditional food of Shiga Prefecture, located in the central region of Japan’s main island of Honshu, and it’s no ordinary sushi. Because of the unique way funazushi is prepared, it’s a sushi that sparks passionate debate even among Japanese diners– you either really love or hate the strong-smelling dish. But now, after a series of successful business meetings and promotions hosted by Shiga Prefecture in Malaysia and Thailand, funazushi proponents believe there may be a market for the unique sushi in Southeast Asia.

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The tradition of funazushi is thought to have originated in China and Southeast Asia and then been introduced to Japan nearly 15 centuries ago. The dish is quite different from the edo-mae type sushi we’re used to seeing today (which didn’t develop until around the 19th century), and it involves curing and fermenting a freshwater fish known as nigorobuna, a subspecies of goldfish found only in Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture.

To make funazushi, the nigorobuna is cleaned of its scales, gills and innards (except the ovaries) and first cured in salt. Once the curing is complete, the fish is washed with water to remove the salt and is then stuffed with rice, after which it is further covered in layers of rice in a bucket and left to ferment for several months, sometimes for a year or longer, during which time the rice turns into the consistency of mush. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s said that the tradition may have started as a way to preserve the nigorobuna, which could be caught in large quantities during the rainy period when the rice paddies would flood, so that they could be eaten later.

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In recent times, due to the decreasing nigorobuna population, the local fishing industry has voluntarily decided not to fish for nigorobuna during the period from June to December, and production of funazushi has been going down correspondingly. That, combined with changing modern tastes, could be making funazushi a waning tradition, as there are fewer and fewer households in Shiga Prefecture now making the dish.

▼ Here’s a video of a restaurant owner in Shiga demonstrating how she prepares the nigogobuna for the salting and fermentation process (Note: Some graphic fish gutting is shown).

▼ These two videos are in Japanese, but the images give an idea of how funazushi is made.

▼ This video shows the process of slicing and arranging funazushi on a plate.

So how does this delicacy taste? It’s very sour and quite unlike any other food, so it’s certainly an acquired taste. And as can be expected with the long fermentation process, it has a powerful smell which some people compare to very strong cheese (or old socks). It’s powerful enough that people trying it for the first time are advised to have a few small slices, one at a time, just to see if they can handle it or not.

If you find that funazushi suits your palate, you can have it as it is, just sliced, which some people think goes really well with sake. If the smell is a bit strong for you, then having it as ochazuke, on top of rice with tea poured over it along with maybe some leeks or ginger, should make it easier to enjoy the flavor.

Interestingly, when Shiga Prefecture officials promoted some of their local foods, including funazishi, in Malaysia and Thailand earlier this year, the fermented sushi was incredibly well-received, with comments that funazushi had a nice sour flavor that seemed to go well with alcoholic drinks. The response was so positive, in fact, that there are now plans to invite travel agencies from these countries to Shiga next year to have them see how the sushi is made and actually try the product. But then, considering that funazushi is believed to have its roots in China and Southeast Asia, perhaps it’s not too surprising that the fermented sushi seems to be a hit with people in those regions.

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While the extreme fermentation may no longer be necessary with modern refrigeration, funazushi is still a well-known dish with sentimental value to the people of Shiga, and it’s exciting to think that it may now be introduced abroad. Some are even hopeful that funazushi may eventually do well not just in  Southeast Asia, but in countries with a strong cheese culture as well. Now, that should be interesting, to be able to choose between cheese and funazushi to have with a drink!

So, would you try fermented sushi?

Source: Sankei WestBiwako Okishima Tomitaya website
Top image: Biwako Okishima Tomitaya website
Insert images: Biwako Okishima Tomitaya website
Biwako no Sachi Uosan website