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The Sushi Economy

What does the sushi industry reveal about globalized food culture and commerce?

July 10, 2007

What does the sushi industry reveal about globalized food culture and commerce?

In a dialectical food fight between forces of globalism and tribalism, the world’s diners have been challenged to pick sides: McDonald’s or the farmers’ market.

To many people around the world on both the left and the right, the extra-virgin isolationism of the second option — acting locally by eating locally — became the easiest way to stand up to the perceived inhumanity of global capitalism.

Yet those who point to the facelessness of the new international marketplace — the might of cash triumphing over the intimacy of the handshake — would find much to admire in sushi.

In the modern trade around raw fish, we witness what many of those sympathetic to the Slow Food ideology seem to have foreclosed — that a virtuous global commerce and food culture can exist. On a new landscape of consumption, power is decentralized, and supply and demand are regulated not by moguls — but by local ideas about value and taste.

Even large corporations that become involved, particularly the massive Japanese food conglomerates that supply supermarkets and restaurant chains with fresh fish, are usually forced to defer to local expertise.

This big-money business — unbranded, still not standardized, with its reliance on old-fashioned markets — depends on those involved knowing they have to look one another in the eye to make it all work.

Through sushi, we see that such integrity does not need to come only from defending the tribal honor of terroir, but is to be uncovered in movement, as well. Conquering distance, geographical and cultural, can be a triumph of the liberal values of mobility and interdependence, empowering local communities instead of threatening them.

What the world now knows as sushi began as a street snack in 19th-century Edo-era Tokyo — fast food well before that term was ever applied to hamburgers, fries and shakes.

In the place of its birth, sushi has changed since then — flitting between high and low, the elite and pop spheres, one-time trophy fish blue marlin displaced by tuna — as food entrepreneurs have been pushed to respond to adjustments in Japanese lifestyles and tastes.

Today, it is a ubiquitously coveted delicacy outside Japan, too, found in nearly every city in the United States, where it’s sold out of the deli case at supermarket counters, as a snack at baseball stadiums — and as part of a $350 omakase lunch at New York’s Masa.

Takeout sushi restaurants — where fish is either punched out and assembled by automated machines known as “sushi robots” or by minimally trained human beings — can be found in mall food courts and university student centers. The Los Angeles company Southern Tsunami operates 2,000 such locations nationwide, generating $250 million in annual revenues.

The story of sushi upends a lot of other similarly easy assumptions made about globalization and its effects on food culture — about mass and luxury tastes, about who stands at the new global landscape’s center, who has been resigned to its periphery and who serves as power brokers and tastemakers in the global economy.

In the sushi economy, power does not flow downward from the boardrooms of multinational corporations, and culture does not radiate outward from decisions made in Hollywood studios, New York newsrooms or London ad agencies.

The expansion of supply and demand for sushi across continents was not typically outlined in corporate mission statements or governmental agendas. Instead, the agents of change have been individuals, who have — largely through personal migrations, both temporary and permanent — created unlikely linkages across hemispheres in an era of new mobility.

Tastes for sushi traveled with migrant Japanese farm and railroad workers in the 19th century and with the country’s corporate executives in the 20th. Individual chefs, through their own desultory career paths, mixed flavors across continents.

The most famous non-Japanese contribution to the sushi repertoire was the California roll of avocado and crab, invented in Los Angeles in the 1960s by Japanese chefs adapting to American tastes and available ingredients.

In Brazil — whose first city, São Paolo, has the world’s largest Japanese population outside Japan and where in 2003 the number of sushi bars exceeded that of Brazilian barbecues — the avocado in California rolls is replaced by mango, in deference to local produce and the national sweet tooth.

At Casa Lalla in Marrakech, a Michelin two-star chef rolls maki with crab and couscous alongside a quail tagine. In Sydney, an “Internet Café & Sushi Bar” seemingly owned by a Korean family sells rolls of poached chicken with peas and corn to scraggly backpackers and pimply online gamers.

The London-based chain YO! Sushi took the conveyor belt developed by a Japanese restaurateur in the 1950s to apply impersonal fast-food economics to the sushi bar and raised it to a status design element.

When it comes to their food culture, the Japanese have always been borrowers and fusionists. Around 1900, the Japanese were already making sushi rolls with ham and Western-style black pepper.

At that time, the fatty cuts of tuna known as toro were largely served as cat food — the Japanese preferred lean fish. Not until the American influence of the post-war period introduced Japanese diners to the idea that greasy red meat could be a luxury food was tuna prized at the sushi bar.

And so what most diners now think of as the Platonic ideal of the “authentic” and the “traditional” sushi experience — a fatty, pink slice of toro nigiri served by a chef to a customer seated before him — is in fact no older than the California roll, a creation of the same flows of international commerce and culture.

Editor’s note: Adapted from THE SUSHI ECONOMY: GLOBALIZATION AND THE MAKING OF A MODERN DELICACY by Sasha Issenberg. Gotham Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.