Sushi: A Global Yen

August 16th, 2007

Sushi Economy
The Sushi Economy
Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy
Sasha Issenberg

Gotham (May 3, 2007); 323 pages; $26.00

We recall our neighbor’s seven year-old son and his first attempts to fish on our Connecticut beach. When the boy reeled in a 4-inch porgie, he begged his mother to let him keep it, so she “could take it home and make sushi.”

From Japan to Jersey City, no matter how you slice it, sushi is cool. An exploration of how it got that way is the story spun by Sasha Issenberg—The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy.

Here is another book (think of Cod, Salt, Longitude…) that examines and magnifies something small (in this case, bite-sized) to the point that it seems to reach the edges of the known world.

There’s a current trend for a journalist to place one topic center stage and then plunge out—as far as the bungee cord may reach—before coming back to center for yet another jump in a different direction. The result is “radial research,” a technique that can keep an author energized. If he is as facile a writer as Mr. Issenberg, it also mesmerizes readers. John McPhee provided the model for this sort of reportage in his 1975 citrus industry profile, Oranges. Sasha Issenberg was not born until 1980, but he’s a clearly a worthy heritor of Mr. McPhee’s format.

What relationships are shared by Pacific air cargo deficits, New Age diets, declining fishing fleets, Peruvian demographics, affluent Texas techies, the Reverend Sung Myung Moon, currency exchange rates, refrigeration advances, fat-bellied tuna, and the streetscapes of contemporary Tokyo and Los Angeles?

These are just a few of the extended leaps the author takes. But unerringly, he bounces back to the center: the global tuna trade and patterns of consumption of a commodity whose prices have ranged from six cents a pound when canned as cat food, to over $150 a pound as a New Year’s gesture of Tokyo auction braggadocio.

Sushi’s global force was unleashed in the 1970’s when, after delivering countless televisions, cameras, and stereo systems to North America, Japan Airlines needed to fill the cargo holds of its 747’s for the return trip. Tuna, favored for sushi, were plentiful in the North Atlantic and their market value in North America was low. Japanese affluence as well as modern aviation and innovative refrigeration technologies enabled fresh fish from Canada to be served to Tokyo connoisseurs. Mr. Issenberg points out this irony: the antecedents of sushi lay in the ancient Japanese custom of preserving fish in barrels of rice, but the most prized component of modern sushi had become fish of uncompromising freshness. Only hours out of the water, Boston bluefin became the return passengers on JAL’s east-bound cargo planes.

Sushi, literally “vinegar-seasoned rice,” has surprisingly recent origins. The Sushi Economy presents an overview of stalls selling snacks of rice and fish in 19th century Tokyo and follows sushi as it becomes formal restaurant fare, popular with elite samurai families. We get glimpses of traditional Japanese hierarchy (sushi chefs and their apprentices, fish wholesalers and retailers). That such codified social and economic relationships developed around sushi so rapidly is noteworthy, but perhaps not surprising in Japan. In a populous country with limited resources, there have always been brakes on upward mobility. Sushi, like so many other master-apprentice trades, tended to keep its young aspirants in lengthy training, for as long as a decade.

So, sushi chefs themselves went out, like wandering samurai, gaining experience and exposure to ideas that might not have been so well received in Japan.

Among the many engaging chapters are portraits of two acclaimed sushi chefs: Nobu Matsuhisa—a native son who left Japan—and Tyson Cole—an Army brat and white American Southerner, who subjected himself to the discipline of the Japanese sushi apprentice system.

Nobu took his knives to Peru, Alaska, and Los Angeles before actor and investor Robert DeNiro lured him to New York, where Nobu-style cuisine inspired scores of lesser establishments to dabble in sushi fusion. A product of the apprentice system before he left Japan, Nobu was nonetheless open to local influences and foreign flavors like chili and olive oil. In Manhattan, he became an exemplar of that phenomenon, the celebrity chef, a guest on late-night television and the creative director of Nobu restaurants in cities and resorts around the world.

Mr. Issenberg marvels at the Lone Star spirit of Tyson Cole:

“To pick up a sushi knife outside of the traditional sushi precincts of Tokyo, or of its sushi sister city Los Angeles, is to be released from expectation and precedent. Sushi in Austin, Texas, happens to be whatever Tyson Cole decides it should be…His craft includes both reverence for tradition and rebellion against it… [and his food is a] mixture… whatever…the global economy happens to make available…”

Cole began his serious education as a sushi chef in Austin “alongside four Japanese guitar players,” because his Japanese boss and mentor sought to hire musicians and auto-mechanics for their manual dexterity. Immersed in Japanese culture at work, Cole embraced it, going on to learn Japanese from anime cartoons. His boss took him to Tokyo.

Now the owner of his own restaurant, Uchi, Cole epitomizes the creative spirit of American culinary fusion on both menu and balance sheet. He can run a spreadsheet on monthly bluefin costs and knows what percentage of that precious commodity went into two of his best-sellers: Maguro Sashimi with Goat Cheese (topped with pumpkin-seed oil) and a crunchy tuna roll with a balsamic vinegar-reduction. Meanwhile, Uchi’s staff adheres to the strict labor division of a Tokyo sushi bar.

Even though the book has a clear progression—in both chronology and complexity—a reader can dip into it at random, to read (or reread) an especially entertaining or evocative passage. In the Gloucester chapter, one can almost hear the gulls and detect the iodine scent of the sea. Sushi Economy is heady stuff, but sensual food description is not the main course. Nonetheless, one could hardly write about Japanese food and neglect aesthetics and gastronomy. So foodies get a little tasting here and there, along with some trade and restaurant gossip.

Japan’s post-WWII industrialization and fascination with American fast food yielded restaurants with conveyor belts that brought sushi back to snack-food status for the Japanese working class. Meanwhile, outside Japan, the concept of sushi as a lifestyle statement—spare, exotic, elegant—ricocheted around the globe, morphing at every port of call. Today, sushi and sushi presentation seem to be at once traditional and the essence of what constitutes the last word in dining chic.

It’s useless to bemoan or mock the existence of Moroccan couscous and crab maki, Hawaiian Spam® sushi, and the Philadelphia Roll (A seaweed-wrapped sushi roll enriched with Philadelphia® cream cheese). The Japanese themselves are toying with their “traditional” food. Gastronomic worries about authenticity seem pointless when one learns that the “classic” sushi is not so old and that a Japanese student returning home from the US opened a “New York-style” sushi bar back in Tokyo.

Like so many comestibles on which we expend discretionary funds, sushi is a statement. But it’s different from a single-malt Scotch or premier cru Bordeaux. It’s not a table at The French Laundry, Restaurant Daniel, or Le Bernardin. It’s not a chalice of Petrossian beluga.

Mr. Issenberg’s exhaustive research and insights lead him to conclude that:

“The speed with which a rapidly enriched elite takes to sushi is not a perfect index of the development of a Western-style business culture, but one could do worse in the search for such an economic indicator. Moscow marked its resurgence from a decade of post-Soviet recession with a freshly acquired taste; in late 2001, The New York Times trumpeted that, RUSSIANS, NEWLY PROSPEROUS, GO MAD FOR SUSHI—WITH MAYO, a development that the paper noted, coincided with the country’s second year of economic growth…”

“…Culturally, sushi denotes a certain type of material sophistication, a declaration that we are confidently rich enough not to be impressed by volume and refined enough to savor good things in small doses…While to afford it frequently demands the fruits of real wealth…to order sushi signifies something different about one’s participation in the globalized economy than does being fitted for a fur coat or taking a Ferrari for a test drive. More than any other food, possibly more than any other commodity, to eat sushi is to display an access to advanced trade networks, of full engagement in world commerce.”

This idealized notion leads us to ponder yet another sushi conundrum: the appearance of nigiri and maki in the most quotidian of American dining experiences, the all-you-can-eat buffet, does not seem to have sullied sushi’s profile of restraint, purity, and style.

Consumption continues to grow. Japanese restaurateur-entrepreneurs eye an expanding class of moneyed Chinese diners as Mediterranean tuna rustlers raid “ranches” established to raise more fish than can be caught in the wild. Even as economic and environmental factors cause fish prices to gyrate, sushi is keeping its cool—in no danger of losing its place as an insignia of prestige.

In the interest of full disclosure, the publisher sent us a copy of this book for review.


Reviewed by Holly Chase and Skip Lombardi

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