Hakozushi: Sushi With a New Shape

Hakozushi: Sushi With a New Shape

When people think of sushi, they either think of nigiri sushi (a slab of fish over a block of rice) or sushi rolls. However, sushi is more varied than you might think. In fact, Osaka has its own version of sushi that joins other traditional Osakan foods like kitsune udon and kappo cuisine. This Osaka sushi is called hakozushi and it is a work of sushi art.

Read on to learn more about hakozushi and its beautiful twist on sushi!

What is Hakozushi?

A box of hakozushi with different fish on each square and a flower shaped topping on each
Beauty is the key to this dish (and the reason it even exists), but beauty takes time, which has led to its slight decline. Image via Instagram (@mkcafe419)

Hako means box and zushi is a variant of the word ‘sushi’. So hakozushi is box sushi that has been pressed and cut into cubes. What makes hakozushi special is the beauty of its arrangement, with multiple fish and ingredients of varying colors creating a beautiful sushi tapestry. Many even call it a form of art.

A traditional take on nigiri sushi. Rice, toppings are placed in a wooden pressing box (oshibako) and pressed. It is then removed and cut into bite sized cubes or boxes. This creates a beautiful, pressed piece of sushi. Well, we say sushi, but it’s actually never raw. The fish is boiled or cured. It’s sushi in the sense of it being a variant of fish over rice, but it’s not raw.

This allows it to keep longer, which means that you can transport it further. Whether it is a souvenir for a friend in another part of Japan or something that you want to take home and eat later, hakozushi will stay okay to eat much longer than sushi.

A wooden box of hakozushi without any sauces
This sushi style often includes sauces nowadays, but many places offer a simpler experience where the taste of the fish and rice shine. Image via Instagram (@mameko505)

Unfortunately, a bit more time and energy has to go into making this treat, making it more of a delicacy that is harder to find than regular sushi.

Fun fact: Aichi is also known for a type of hakozushi that uses fresh water fish. It looks a bit odd, especially compared to the varied look and design of typical hakozushi. However, it is said to taste really good. According to Kyodo Ryori, this dish uses moroko, a fresh water fish, and is difficult to find at restaurants.

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How is Hakozushi Made?

The Rice is Key

A Japanese bamboo bowl of fluffy Japanese sushi rice
Sushi rice is a delicate balance of flavors, and its origins come from food preservation practices. Image via Unsplash

The most important part of hakozushi is the rice. It has to be prepared properly and with the right flavor. If the flavor of the rice is off, there’s not really a way to save it when it’s all put together. You see, sushi rice contains rice wine vinegar that is combined with Japanese short grain rice.

Historically, Japanese people wrapped fish in fermented rice to conserve it. However, they actually threw out the rice when it was time to eat the fish. Eventually, to reduce waste, they started to add vinegar, making it safe for consumption and great to eat with fish.

The Process

A large square of nine hakozushi pieces of varying toppings like shrimp, mushroom and eel
The great thing about this box sushi is that you can arrange it with several ingredients, providing tons of flavor in each bite. Image via Instagram (@mugi_chocolate72)

We’ve given the general process, but let’s look a bit more at how it’s made. Rice is boiled until cooked, and then, a mix of vinegar, sugar and salt is made and added to the sushi. Once it’s nice and mixed, we switch our focus to the wooden pressing box. Hakozushi is made upside down so that it will be easy to remove.

First, you have to place your topping. Toppings can really be whatever you please, but mackerel, red snapper and eel are the more traditional and popular options. However, tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette) and shrimp are also pretty common, with people putting many other toppings according to their tastes.

Next, people put their rice into the container. If you want a filling or middle layer, only fill it up halfway, place your filling and finish it with rice. Then, you put on the lid of the pressing box and—well—press. Press until it’s nice and compact. Flip the box over onto a cutting board and cut them into squares or rectangles.

If you don’t have a pressing box (like many don’t), you can actually use something like stackable Tupperware. You place the ingredients into the Tupperware and use the bottom of another container and press it down.

Where Does Hakozushi Come From?

Two pieces of hakozushi, one with salmon and cheese and one with mackerel and sauce
Many chefs these days are finding new ways to improve on pressed sushi, like with special sauces or creamy toppings. But this pressed sushi isn't hakozushi. Image via Instagram (@nortsuchiya)

This dish supposedly came from a small shop in Senba district in Osaka, called Yoshino Zushi, in the 1800s. Yoshino Torazo, the owner, was supposedly looking to create a more beautiful form of sushi and had the idea of making pressed sushi with various colors of cooked fish. Thus, hakozushi was born.

Torazo became known for creating beautiful, symmetrical sushi and his technique has been passed down for generations even to Yoshino Zushi’s current owner, Oyama Yuichi. Oyama Yuichi added to the dish by adding more ingredients to hakozushi. By placing the rice halfway full, then adding ingredients and finishing with the rest of the rice, Oyama created a sushi sandwich in a more elegant and stylish form.

Actually, hakozushi is a type of oshizushi, or pressed sushi, and is only one of many. However, hakozushi is arguably the most famous of them. Oshizushi is actually even older than the typical nigiri sushi we know. Oshizushi is made by pressing fish and sushi rice down in a wooden box, but it is traditionally made with only one fish topping and usually doesn't have a filling. 

A rectangular piece of hakozushi with an eel topping and sauce filling
Hakozushi is usually square but can be rectangular too. The difference is the added layer of sauce or filling common in newer versions of this sushi. Image via Instagram (@47_foodie_travel)

Hakozushi is not just a treat for the eyes but also a treat for the taste buds. It may not be as famous as nigiri or roll sushi, but it’s a great way to experience sushi if you’re short on time or want to take some sushi to go.

Would you give this dish a try? Have you already tried it? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments!

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