Among the most expensive meals in America is the perfectly crafted sushi at Manhattan’s Masa. But sushi is also one of the country’s most workaday meals—found in corporate cafeterias and delis alike. Sushi has saturated nearly every level of our food economy: How did this ostensibly Japanese food come to be so dominant? This season, two serious-minded books examine how sushi got to be one of our reflexive dining options, and how our taste for rice and fish affects our oceans.
In The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, Sasha Issenberg, a Philadelphia-based writer (who has written for Slate), focuses on how sushi as we know it—and in particular, the coveted, fatty flesh of the bluefin tuna—is the product of a very sophisticated (and sometimes clandestine) global economy. In The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket, Trevor Corson, who dug deep into crustacean sex life in The Secret Life of Lobsters, tells the story of sushi from a very different point of view. He follows along with a session of the California Sushi Academy, which is trying to supply this country’s untrammeled demands for sushi chefs. Along the way he profiles the students and teachers, as well as the individual fish that top our nigiri. The books are complementary rather than redundant, although both circle back to themes of sushi as a multicultural phenomenon, rather than a pure Japanese tradition. We gathered them together for an interview on sushi: its history, its cultural status, its environmental impact, and its future.
Slate: Sushi obviously developed long before refrigeration. Can you talk a little bit about its origins?
Issenberg: Sushi started as a method of using rice to ferment the fish—it was a preservation tool. It was not until the 19th century that you get what the Japanese call “fast sushi,” which is basically sushi as we know it—nigiri made à la minute, assembled and eaten in basically the same motion. Major technological and business revolutions in the 20th century allowed us to create cold-storage supply chains across continents, as well as use jet travel to move this food around the world fast enough to eat it raw on another continent. In that sense, sushi is now operating diametrically opposed to where it started.
Corson: Pickling is the really great example that has carried through from the origins of early sushi to today. Fish actually needs to age a little bit to develop flavor, so the traditional technique that sushi chefs used when it was a street food before the age of refrigeration was pickling. In those days, sushi places were often called tsuke-ba, which means “pickling place,” because they used so much salt and vinegar in preparation of the fish. They were pickling the fish to prevent it from going bad.
We’ve come to think that the freshest tuna is the ultimate sushi experience, but if you go back and order a piece of mackerel sushi that’s pickled, that’s the technique that originally defined sushi. I think it’s fascinating that we assume sushi’s all about the fresh, raw fish, but there are die-hard sushi aficionados in Japan who don’t consider it sushi unless the chef has done something to his seafood ingredients, whether it’s a slight parboil or pickling.
Slate: How much of the sushi we get today has been frozen?
Issenberg: There are food-handling laws that vary state by state. It depends where you’re eating and what time of year and what you’re paying for it. But if you’re eating American-style fast food sushi—sushi at the mall food court—it’s overwhelmingly frozen. You can eat very good bluefin tuna that’s been frozen in these big nitrogen-driven freezers that go down to -70 degrees. They stop all molecular activity and decay in a fish.
Corson: Salmon is a great example of a case where we think, “Good sushi’s always perfectly fresh,” but the fact is that salmon is almost never used for sushi in Japan because it’s a fish that spends a good amount of time in freshwater, which makes it very susceptible to parasites and worms. So all of the salmon sushi we’re eating better have been frozen at a very cold temperature for a good amount of time.
Slate: Sasha, could you describe a little what an apprenticeship might be like for a sushi chef in Japan?
Issenberg: The traditional apprenticeship of the chef can take up to 10 years from the moment a teenage kid enters the door of a sushi bar to when he’s thought to be ready to be a head chef at his own restaurant. It usually requires several years before they even go close to touching or cutting fish. They start by going down to the market with the master and helping him carry his bags back. Then there are errands, cleaning up around the restaurant. Eventually, there’s the making of rice, and eventually the prepping of fish. It’s a long while before somebody’s putting rice and fish together. This serves historically not only to train chefs but also to regulate the labor market in Japan. Now, with the high demand for sushi chefs outside of Japan, very few chefs have gone through that ladder.
Slate: Trevor, what made you decide to frame your book around the California Sushi Academy, an American cooking school that definitely challenged the apprenticeship model?
Corson: I was basically looking for an American story about sushi. The reason that Toshi Sugiura started the school is that he had become kind of a stickler for hygiene, healthfulness, and these safety issues with sushi. He saw the demand for sushi spreading so rapidly in the U.S. that there was no way that the traditional apprenticeships were going to satisfy the demands for chefs. He figured we at least needed a way to create a quick basic foundation for people. He’s not expecting that they’ll become expert sushi chefs after the three-month training at the school, but it will give them the basic knowledge.
Slate: Do you think that people who are enrolling at the school understand that they’re not going to be full-fledged chefs?
Corson: I don’t know. There’s an incredible range of people that come into the school. Sushi now has completely broken out of its traditional mode, and there’s a whole range of different forms and manifestations. That’s both perilous and fascinating.
Slate: Sasha, you really questioned the idea of fixed sushi tradition—of sushi’s arcadian past. Sushi has always had outside influences—even traditional nigiri sushi was influenced heavily by American taste during the occupation.
Issenberg: Yes, I think there’s this myth—not only with sushi but with most food—that there’s this path that existed before commerce and global influence. To some degree, the slow-food movement embraces this idea that we can return to a pure moment in our food past. But if you look at the story of sushi, it never existed without commerce. It started with fast food and the big commercial industrial city, Tokyo, in the mid-19th century. It grew as Tokyo became the capital of one of the world’s dominant economic powers. Tuna was worthless to the Japanese—especially the fatty cuts that are now the most prized—until the postwar period. Then, the Japanese, during the American occupation, were introduced to the idea that their occupiers were bringing in red meat—beef—which had never been seen as part of the Japanese diet.
Corson: There’s a story in my book about how the U.S. military occupation authorities were the ones who took Tokyo-style sushi and spread it all over Japan, setting the stage for sushi as we know it to spread around the world.
Slate: How specifically did L.A. become this center of sushi in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Corson: Sasha’s book contains some very interesting information about the evolution of Japanese food in Little Tokyo, and I tell the story of a particular gentleman—I think Sasha mentions this, too—named Noritoshi Kanai, who was looking for a way to expand the business of the important Japanese foodstuffs for Americans. No one had considered sushi because they thought it would be too disgusting for Americans to try. I believe the story is that he was on a business trip back in Japan with an American colleague, and they went out to eat sushi. The American colleague went crazy for it. That was sort of the “Eureka” moment. Once Hollywood celebrities caught on, it got a whole new life.
Issenberg: The first wave of sushi bars in Los Angeles were catering to the new Japanese money there—the sort of places where special occasions and business meetings were celebrated. It took some part of a generation to move into something that’s offered in a kind of fast food version—as opposed to, say, tacos, which started in ethnic enclaves as an inexpensive accessible food, and now a generation or two later, you see the gourmet Mexican version. The first people to eat sushi were having it at its most refined.
Slate: One of the reasons I think sushi translates well in the United States is because it has a certain similarity to steakhouse culture—the rich meats, the minimal emphasis on sides, and it also caters to male business clientele. There’s also this interesting element of eating sushi where you quantify your food—keeping track of ounces or the number of pieces of nigiri you’re eating. What’s your take on the gestalt of sushi?
Issenberg: In Japan, it really is comparable to steakhouse culture. But in the United States, even though it’s overwhelmingly produced by men, it seems a disproportionately feminine experience, and I actually think sushi bars are a far more feminized space than the steakhouse.In the ‘70s and ‘80s, when we had sort of a national diet culture emerge, sushi was a perfect way to satisfy that while still being an adventurous diner.
Corson: The flip side of that feminine thing, though, is that maybe there’s a kind of masculine macho aspect to eating sushi. Certainly at the beginning, when people like Yul Brenner started eating sushi in Hollywood, it was a dramatic, exotic kind of macho thing to do. You got points for trying something that was different and potentially disgusting to the average palate. I do think we’ve maybe tricked ourselves a little bit, calories-wise. Sushi is not that much healthier than a lot of the stuff we usually eat. In my book, I mention going to the supermarket and getting a frozen pizza and a California roll: They had the same number of calories per serving.
Slate: How healthy is it to eat sushi? These days, is there any control for, say, mercury in the buying process for the sushi market?
Issenberg: By and large there are very few people that test fish for mercury before they distribute it. There’s an absolute absence of information, and there’s no transparency whatsoever in the business. Fish often passes through so many hands before it gets to you, even a well-meaning chef might not know where his fish came from—what country, which ocean, how long it’s been out of water, if it’s fresh, if it’s been frozen at all. It can go through 10 different hands. All the rich menu language we get about our lettuce—where it’s from and when it was harvested—you never get that when you order sushi. The opportunity to talk with the sushi chef as you are ordering, as you’re eating, that’s the opportunity to make that last link in the global chain work for you. That’s what diners should be looking for—that trusting relationship with your chef, more than asking any particular question about what’s been tested, because it might be that the chef won’t know.
Corson: I think the sushi chefs are behind the curve on this whole question of ecological impact and health. The next big wave of high-end sushi is going to be environmental health and awareness among chefs. You’re just starting to see this now. There are seafood restaurants popping up that are selling only sustainably harvested fish.
Our definition of the highest end of sushi has come to be these fatty red-meat cuts of fish like the fatty tuna and the fatty salmon. And the PCBs in mercury are particularly related to the question of fat. We should recognize that our cultish obsession with these melt-in-your-mouth cuts of rich fish like tuna and salmon are not traditional sushi at all. Going back to our discussion of early sushi—the real kings of sushi in the old days were these lighter, leaner-fleshed fish like sea bream and flounder, which have more consistency, more chewiness, more interesting, subtle flavors, and a lot less fat in most cases.
Chefs who are experienced can suggest a lot of other interesting kinds of fish to eat besides the usual tuna and salmon. And that can also perhaps have better consequences on the health and sustainability fronts.
To me, the great thing about sushi is the experience of trusting the chef, and letting them pick for you. That conflicts with this impulse we all have to know exactly where all our food came from. But there’s going to have to be some negotiating between customers and chefs in the world of sushi in the next few years to hammer that out.
Issenberg: The industry is opaque for a reason. It’s necessary to direct the fish through the byways of global commerce. Tuna’s the best example of this because tuna are too big for any single restaurant to buy whole. Tuna that is 600 pounds needs to be divided up among many users. By definition, these tuna have to be laundered, sometimes on multiple continents, and it’s hard to envision any sort of reputable for system for many species of fish that would give a guarantee to a diner or chef that they actually know where their fish came from and how they were caught.
Corson: You’re exactly right. Everyone I talk to is trying to do some kind of sustainably certified fish. It’s a huge problem.
Slate: Is there any progress in any of the regulation?
Issenberg: The European commission just announced in the last couple of weeks plans to cut the quota across the board by 20 percent, and it enforced the restrictions on spotter planes, which were used by boats to track schools of fish from the air. But there have been quotas for years, and twice as many tuna are being caught out of the Mediterranean as the quotas allow, so I don’t see what cutting quotas by 20 percent does if there’s no viable means to expect countries to enforce these EU-given quotas at their own fisheries. What this does show is a new level of cultural and political awareness in Europe.
Slate: What about the progress on the tuna-farming effort?
Issenberg: The science is there. There’s a laboratory in Japan that I write about in my book which is now trying to look at how to sell their technology around the world so people can start cultivating their tuna in captivity anywhere. But the economics are fundamentally misguided, and the problem basically is that tuna are too big and tough to be bred and raised in pens. In short, you would spend more money to grow out a tuna than you would get back for it at market.
Slate: What does the future of sushi look like? Will it continue to democratize as it spreads to places like China, or do you think that these supply problems and health issues are going to make it so that only the richest people can afford it?
Corson: It’s entirely possible that we may be living in an unusual historical moment that might not last. That’s the case for seafood across the board. You’ve got some scientists saying that we’re basically going to run out of fish by the year 2050 and squid may be the only thing left. To me, sushi’s really a treat, and I eat it maybe once a month—once every two months at most. I’m happy to go to the sushi bar and have just five or six nigiri that are very unusual and special. These fish are—and should be—luxury items because we’re running out of them. It’s turning into this globalized fast food everywhere. There’s enormous pressure on these fish, and I think it cheapens the experience for all of us. One thing to remember also is that sushi just refers to that rice with the vinegar and sugar and a little salt, and that’s what is so delicious about it, ultimately. You can make that with all kinds of things—there’s an infinite variety of interesting sushi out there to be made with all kinds of ingredients and toppings.
Issenberg: Yeah, sushi in its broadest sense will be with us for a while, probably through the collapse of several wild fish stocks. I end my book with this Japanese restaurant mogul trying to expand in China who sees Japan saturated in terms of sushi culture. Sushi has, throughout its life, or its modern life, been this food that people use to celebrate their integration into the new global economy. It makes sense that Shanghai and Beijing get their turn.
Slate: Thank you so much, both of you.