'Round the World in Sushi

Did you know that the prized and beloved fatty tuna (aka toro) was once considered unfit for human consumption and relegated to cat food? Or that Canada was central to shaping sushi as we know it today? These are just some of the interesting tidbits tucked inside "The Sushi Economy," a new book by Sasha Issenberg, a Philadelphia-based writer.

If you ever wondered how and where that sushi traveled before it appeared on a pretty plate next to the lump of wasabi, this book may satisfy your curiosity, and perhaps have you asking even more questions. The book reads much like a spy novel, traveling back and forth in time, among five continents, with a cast of characters that include fishermen, business moguls, auctioneers, rising star sushi chefs, airport officials, pirates, launderers, fish surveillance and of course, the blue fin tuna.

Last week, I caught up with Issenberg, who was in Los Angeles before heading to Japan. Excerpts from our conversation follow:

What inspired you to write this book?

I've been eating sushi since i was five years old. I always thought I was knowledgeable when I went out for sushi, I could tell the difference among several kinds of fish and easily order a 10-piece assortment. At some point, a decade or so ago, when I went to a Western-style restaurant, I began to notice more and more info on a menu, like where and how a chicken was raised. But I realized that this wasn't the case when I would go to a sushi restaurant. I could order by species, but I couldn't tell you which ocean, literally where the fish on my plate was from and how it had gotten to me.

You write in your introduction "Sushi reveals what many of those sympathetic to the Slow Food ideology seem to have foreclosed: that a virtuous global commerce and food culture can exist." Can you elaborate?
It seems that we've been presented with two options -- an intimate one at the farm market, where you know the person who raised or grew the food you buy; or the impersonal option of merchandise sold based on a decision made in a corporate boardroom. I'm saying neither is possible without the other, that global business couldn't exist without globalization, but just as important, couldn't exist without the interpersonal relationships and an understanding of local culture and needs. The liberal values that the Slow Food movement says it wants can exist in a global industry. I believe some version that combines the two exists.

What were some of the big surprises in the course of your research?
The big one is how sushi is presented to us, as we're taking part in a millennia-old Japanese ritual, with the blonde wood, calligraphy scrolls, this idea that we're being invited in on an ancient Japanese experience. But really, sushi is a modern institution, a creation of World War II Japan. And it never existed outside of the realm of global commerce. It started out as a street snack and the sushi bar is a creation of the 20th century.

Now, with 15 months of research that included travel to 14 countries, does sushi hold the same meaning for you?
Sushi has been demystified for me. Americans feel guilty about being outsiders about being invited to a Japanese kitchen; they should feel more free, to eat and enjoy. Americans don't fully appreciate that the sushi in this country is far better than any other place in the world other than Japan. It is far better than in Europe and Australia. We have a developed, matured sushi culture in this country.

Given the state of the world's oceans and rapidly disappearing supply of fish, is sushi here to stay?
If so, what is the future of sushi?

Sushi will continue to change in part of taste and in part because of what products are available. Maybe in 2050, that 10-piece assortment might look a lot different, but then again it looked a lot different in 1950. Fifty years ago, nobody thought of putting avocado and crab together. Now, in Tokyo, people want California rolls, too. There is a definite concern about overfishing, but I still think people will be eating fish and rice, but maybe instead of wild, we'll be eating farmed or ranched fish.

Where do you go for sushi?
In New York, I like Sushi Yasuda, which is a classic Tokyo sushi bar, but I list some of my favorites around the world on my Web site, The Sushi Economy.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 29, 2007; 11:17 AM ET Cook's Library , Food Politics
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A sushi bar in Johannesburg, South Africa, that I once visited offered a "sushi sandwich." They came in tiny squares and looked cute and tasty, so I figured I'd try them out. With the same delicious fillings as a sushi roll sandwiched between two layers of rice and seaweed, I thought I was set, but when I tried one, I discovered the unwelcome addition of MAYONNAISE!!!

The rest of the menu was fabulous, but the sandwiches were a rude surprise.

Posted by: Margaret | May 29, 2007 8:43 PM

I actually had mayonnaise on a delicious sushi roll in japan. Of course, it was Japanese mayo, and it was lightly drizzled across the top, but it was quite good. Don't knock it (Unless it was something gross like Miracle Whip).

Posted by: bc | May 31, 2007 5:16 PM

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