Mark's Reviews > The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg
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's review
Jul 19, 2010

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Read in July, 2010

Ain't it great that we can eat sushi in Omaha as if Omaha were on the sea? It's the miracle of globalization that makes it possible (or even desirable.) But it's not the same as eating sushi in LA or San Francisco or New York.

One difference is midwestern American technique employed in eating sushi. Step 1: Order lots of rolls, especially California rolls, spicy tuna rolls and salmon skin rolls. Maybe include a little bit of nigiri made with tuna or shrimp. Step 2: Once the fish arrives, dribble some soy sauce into the little saucer. Then add the green stuff. It's not wasabi, which is only grown in Japan and Oregon, and not widely even there. But no matter, horseradish tastes good, too. Mix the resulting concoction into a slurry. Step 3: Using chop sticks, clumsily pick up your piece of sushi (which refers also to the rice, by the way, not just the fish) and dip it (rice, not the fish) into the slurry. Leave half the rice in the little saucer. Step 4: Pop all, or, at your choice, only part, of the piece of sushi into your mouth. If you chose only part, have the remaining rice disintegrate into your plate, but slurp up the entire piece of fish. Step 5: Discover the pile of pickled ginger on the plate with the fish. For your next bite, use your chop sticks carefully to pick up a piece of ginger and drop it on top of a section of roll. Step 6: go to step 3.

I once sat next to some Japanese business guys at the bar in a sushi restaurant in Toronto. At least, I think they were Japanese, and so was the proprietor. They ordered omikase, which means chef's choice, more or less, and were presented with a few pieces of sushi every several minutes. They had soy sauce in a little dish in front of them, but didn't mix in any horseradish. They picked up the sushi with their fingers. To effect this, one puts one's forefinger on top of the fish, and one's thumb and middle finger along the opposing sides. With a graceful flip of their wrists, they turned the piece over, and dipped one edge of the fish, not the rice, into the soy sauce. Then they usually put all of the piece into their mouths. A couple of times I observed them taking a partial, but they bit hard with their front teeth to sever the fish. All very neat. Then they had a big slug of sake, and invited the chef to have a drink of sake, too. The chef had his own bottle behind the bar, but he charged the customers for every drink he took, and only took a drink if they invited him. Sometimes, between courses, the diners took a piece of ginger. On occasion the chef gave them rolls, but usually it looked to be pretty simple nigiri.

In Issenberg's book we learn that spicy tuna rolls were developed by American chefs "to unload odd scraps of fish past their prime, assuming that slathering them in mayonnaise and chile would help mask dubious taste and texture." He doesn't judge those of us who like such things. He's too good a journalist for that. The reporting here is done with minimal invasion of overt opinions. (Although he is pretty critical of a Spanish guy who tracks violations of the ICCAT fishing agreements, but maybe he deserves it.)

There's a lot to like here. Issenberg starts in the fish market in Tokyo, and quickly moves on to describe how tuna came to be transshipped to Japan from North America. He outlines the history or tuna farming in Australia and the Mediterranean. He fairly profiles Nobu of the eponymous, and seemingly more and more ubiquitous, upscale restaurants. (I wasn't impressed during my visit years ago to Nobu Next Door, but it's only the JV version.) He describes the boom and inevitable bust of the Northeast tuna fishery. He covers all these topics and more. (But not the part above about comparing how midwesterners and Japanese eat sushi. I made that up.)

And he implies but doesn't declaim, a dire prediction for fisheries everywhere: "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." So, if only one-tenth of China's anticipated middle-class population in 2020 develop a taste for raw fish, that's 50 million new sushi eaters. Where will all the fish come from, not just for China, but for Omaha, too?

It's a good read if you're interested in the subject.
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