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The unstoppable rise of sushi

1 April 2020

The story of sushi is the story of Japan, of globalisation and of soft power. So how did this unassuming dish conquer the world?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the 2012 Netflix documentary about a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, did much to illuminate how we think about the dish both as culinary and cultural phenomenon. Featuring ageing sushi master Jiro passing on knowledge to his son, the chef’s almost mystical reverence for his creations reinforced many of the tropes we have come to accept about sushi as a culinary force: the austere chef, the sacred rituals, the almost religious nature of the preparation and consumption of the dish. It speaks to our idea of Eastern culture too, but is how we think of sushi correct? And just how did an unassuming raw fish creation take over the world?

Historically, cultural – and particularly culinary – ideas tended to travel from West to East. From the hamburger and denim jeans to rock’n’roll and Hollywood, it seemed western (and specifically American) ‘memes’ were destined to help project western power across the globe. But it has not all been one way traffic. From curry (now Britain’s most popular dish) to ramen, there are plenty of culinary staples that have bucked the trend. Yet, at first glance, sushi would seem like an odd dish to do so. It is essentially raw fish, not a food that a western palette would fall in love with. Originally a way to preserve fish in salt (the word sushi is derived from the Japanese term for sour, or vinegar rice), its introduction to the American psyche was tentative at first. In 1929, the Ladies’ Home Journal introduced Japanese cooking to the American public, noting the inherent problem in making raw fish sound appetising: “There have been purposely omitted… any recipes using the delicate and raw tuna fish which is sliced wafer thin and served iced with attractive garnishes. [These]… might not sound so entirely delicious as they are in reality.”

Any chance of Japanese food making its way into the American consciousness was put on hold by World War II, and the subsequent raft of anti-Japanese sentiment. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that sushi started to make inroads again. In 1972 the New York Times reported on the opening of a sushi restaurant in New York’s Harvard Club, while Esquire breathlessly reviewed the city’s sushi scene. Raw fish, it seemed, was hot – not just in New York, but around the world.

“One of my personal theories as to why sushi has had such a global impact is that as consumers, we’re attracted to new cultural products that feel exotic and adventurous, but that are also approachable, and that also fit with our times and larger trends,” says Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi. “For many of us, sushi feels so wonderfully exotic that eating it proves how adventurous and open-minded we are, and demonstrates that we’re on the cutting edge of cool new things,” he adds.

“At the same time sushi fits in with trends over the past few decades toward more healthy eating and a more cosmopolitan global culture. The actual taste of sushi is quite friendly to our palates. It’s mostly rice seasoned with sugar, salt, and vinegar – that good old combo of sweet and sour – and we’re already in love with the yumminess of soy sauce from Chinese cuisine, and finally, it turns out that really fresh fish doesn’t even taste all that fishy. So it feels exotic and exciting, but is also really easy to eat.”

Of course, there were plenty of food fads that emerged in the 1970s that have been confined to the cliché today (fondue, anyone?), yet sushi endured and has thrived; there are now more than 250 sushi restaurants in New York City alone. Some sushi aficionados insist that its staying power in the West is down to its ability to be all things to all people. In Japan, sushi was traditionally seen more as a treat for special occasions, not the serviceable snack that it is in the West. It’s also adaptable. In the 1970s, two Japanese chefs in in LA, Ken Seusa and Ichiro Manashita invented the California Roll, a sort of fusion mash-up of crab meat, avocados and cucumbers, wrapped in rice. The very American version of sushi was an instant hit.

Yet it wasn’t until the 1980s that sushi exploded, which had much to do with Japan’s arrival as a global superpower. The 1980s was the decade when Japan seemed everywhere; from its cars and electronics to its efficient working systems to its music, Japan was loved and feared in equal measure (witness the number of Japanese ‘baddies’ in 1980s Hollywood movies, something unthinkable today). These days, Japanese food is everywhere; just look at the number of celebrity-owned Japanese restaurants in the US (where everyone from Robert De Niro to Ashton Kutcher to Justin Timberlake all at least part-own Japanese restaurants). While Japanese culture is not as dominant as it was in the 1980s (culturally Korea, and economically, China, have stolen Japan’s thunder), there’s no doubt its food is now embedded into the mainstream.

Of course, not everyone is happy with sushi’s increasing ubiquitousness, with some believing it has watered down the craft of sushi making and turned it into just another fast food; something sold on conveyor belts at airports and shrink-wrapped in convenience stores ­– a world where ethnic food is watered down to cater to the bland taste buds of those in the West, and where Japanese perfectionism is replaced by Western ‘it’ll do’ culture. The renowned sushi chef, Kaz Okochi, who runs the Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington DC, echoed this in an interview with The Washington Post a few years ago, where he worried about the glut of new sushi restaurants that focused on fun, rather than the obsessive attention to detail that most authentic sushi restaurants are known for.

Yet globalisation being what it is, the more American style of sushi has now seeped into Japan’s restaurant scene. “The differences 30 years ago to what you could only find in Japan and in the US have converged,” says Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy. “Now there are places in Japan that see themselves as American-style sushi bars; and, of course, there are places in the US that replicate traditional Japanese places. The lines are relaxing.”

Of course, sushi’s future may not be plain sailing. While globalisation brought it into restaurants around the world, the current movement towards sustainability could see its star fall. The days when flying tuna in from Japan to serve at a New York restaurant was deemed to be acceptable, are almost certainly over. Another issue is over fishing and habitat destruction. According to the Nippon Foundation-Neurus Program, which created a guide to which fish stocks to buy and sell, squid, tuna, shrimp and salmon are endangered, which is not only bad for the underwater habitat, it pushes prices up. Bluefin tuna is reaching incredible prices – one sold for $700,000 at a 2017 Tokyo auction. These rising prices have created what one Japanese food blogger calls a ‘sushi bubble.’ The Sushi Geek says: “Loads of new shops are opening every year, some with chefs who are frankly not quite ready to run their own restaurants yet. Ten years ago the most exclusive shops would charge Y25,000 ($220) per person for their omakase course. These days, Y25,000 is considered a bargain, and many shops charge twice that amount. We’re also starting to see some ingredients becoming scarce. Eventually many ingredients such as bluefin tuna will disappear from menus. And at some point this sushi bubble will burst and a number of restaurants will go out of business.”

It’s not unlikely then, that sushi, as we know it today, will become the preserve of the 1 per cent, and the rest of us will have to make do with lower quality fish should we want to keep eating it. Yet, according to Trevor Corson, the sushi we are eating today is not ‘traditional’ either. “At the same time that there isn’t really one authentic form of sushi, it’s also a surprise to realise that the most popular sushi ingredients we’re stuck in a rut eating these days – things like tuna, salmon, hamachi, and freshwater eel – were never part of sushi tradition at all until the industrial age of high-tech globalised sushi,” he adds.

“The history of sushi, including the past few decades as well as the past few thousand years, has been a story of never-ending change, evolution, and cross-cultural mixing, often in unexpected ways,” Corson says. “For example, today we are obsessed that sushi has to be super fresh, but not long ago sushi was made by squishing together fish and rice in wooden boxes and letting it sit under piles of stones for days or weeks.”

So maybe another, more optimistic version of the future is one where sushi continues to change – as it has done since it left Japanese shores in the middle of the last century. We currently have sushi burritos, Cajun sushi, even sushi donuts. If indeed the mere act of eating sushi as we know it today becomes too politically incorrect, too expensive, or both, then we can expect sushi to adapt to this new reality, as it has done for hundreds of years.

Five must-try sushi restaurants

1.Sushi Tetsu, London
One of the hardest restaurants to book in the UK, this seven-seater joint is run by a husband and wife team trained in Kobe. The fatty tuna nigiri gets a lot of attention as does the pickled mackerel roll. There’s a large, curated sake list and the prices are very reasonable. If you manage to get a table (a big if), there’s nowhere better in London.
12 Jerusalem Passage, Clerkenwell, London

2. Sushi Noz, New York
This tiny eight-seat bar made something of a splash when it opened, with much of the buzz focusing on its $300 omakase. With a Michelin star and a reputation for its aging and preservation techniques, its chef Nozumu Abe, combines an old-school approach to sushi with the freshest of fish. A must-visit in the Big Apple.
181 East 78th Street, New York 10075

3. Sukiyabashi Jiro, Tokyo
Probably the most famous sushi restaurant in the world and with good reason; it’s won three Michelin stars and was the focus of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It may be hard to get a table however, as you now need to be a regular, book through a hotel, or know someone who knows someone. With ten seats, and $300 for the chef’s selection, this is a special place, and worth the effort to get there.
104-0061 Toyo, Chuo City, Ginza, Tokyo

4. Nobu, Dubai
If ever evidence was needed of sushi’s rise into the mainstream, then look no further than Nobu. Founded by Nobu Matsuhisa and Robert De Niro, the chain is eyeing up a $1 billion valuation as it expands across the world. At its Dubai outpost, you can expect a mouth-watering array of Japanese cuisine, but unsurprisingly, the sushi is the star (along with the beautiful interiors) Although some may scoff at the lavish scale, its undoubtedly made the world of sushi a more interesting place.
Atlantis, The Palm, The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai

5. Isami, Paris
A slice of Japan in the heart of Paris, Isami – under the watchful eye of owner Katsuo Nakamura – specialises in sushi and chirashi. Like the best sushi joints, the décor here is simple (aside from the stacks of Japanese earthenware stacked behind the bar), and the stars of the show are the chefs who effortlessly gut, cut and roll the fish with incredible skill.
4 quai Orléans, Paris, 75004

Words: Conor Purcell

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