You aren’t being paranoid—your sushi chef is judging you. If you sit at the bar and order California rolls and then a piece of salmon, you’re likely to receive the sorriest, leanest piece of tail meat in the house. A distinguished Japanese diner, on the other hand, or an outsider who can prove himself a connoisseur, will be rewarded with the most buttery bites. Sasha Issenberg’s enlightening book The Sushi Economy offers an inside look at sushi, with such juicy fun facts punctuating the story of this unique global business.
Foodies may pride themselves on knowing that their free-range chicken originated in the Catskills, but challenge them to identify the birthplace of their beloved sashimi, and you’re guaranteed a stumper. The economic history of sushi is largely the story of tuna’s transformation in Japan from cat food (the Japanese disliked its oiliness) to a natural resource precious enough to necessitate the 18,740 tons of frozen fish one tuna-ranching consultant calls Japan’s “strategic tuna reserve.” The stuff that ends up in our inside-out rolls has been on a long journey, quite possibly around the world, and has likely changed hands 10 times.
The Sushi Economy is part culinary history (wasabi was originally dabbed under gizzard shad in an effort to kill poisonous toxins) and part business text (a tuna regularly sells for $30,000 at Tsukiji, Tokyo’s 57-acre fish market). Issenberg breaks down the complicated fiscal web into character profiles. Akira Okazaki is the Japan Airlines executive who, in 1972, took the risk of installing refrigerated containers aboard aircraft to fly tuna from Canada to Japan without spoiling. Haruo Matsui, a wholesaler, “ogles” the curves of bluefin tunas to gauge their fat ratios before auctions. In Austin, Texas, Issenberg hangs out with a white sushi chef named Tyson Cole who fell into the business as a dishwasher/in-debt college student. Cole provides us with Anthony Bourdain–esque tidbits, like that California-roll bias and the admission that at his restaurant, Uchi, the chefs yell their “Irashaimasse!” greeting with varying degrees of enthusiasm, depending on the hotness of female customers.
And then, of course, there’s Nobu Matsuhisa. Issenberg tells the story of a young sushi chef who sliced his way from Tokyo to Lima, to Buenos Aires, back to Japan, then to Anchorage, then back to Japan, and finally to Los Angeles. Matsuhisa’s travels informed his palate and changed sushi itself. In Argentina, the inspiration was laid for Nobu’s toro steaks. Issenberg traces the etymology of the celebrity chef’s ceviches and tiraditos back to his time in Peru, and notes that Alaska, where Nobu’s restaurant burned down after just a couple of months, gave him a taste for wild salmon and king crabs. But for “Nobu-style cuisine,” economics shaped the food as much as world travel did. More concerned with quality than cost, Matsuhisa began purchasing whole tuna once he became his own boss. The steaks and ceviches he invented were clever ways of using the hundreds of pounds of meat left over after the sushi had been carved away.
Issenberg argues that the worldwide sushi system is a positive example of globalization. As he describes it, tuna in particular moves from the hands of fishermen to any number of middlemen by a code of trust. Despite the fact that a fish bears no label or brand, and its appraisal is entirely subjective, Issenberg says “few participants ever feel as though they get ripped off.” Yet he also acknowledges the ugly side of global sushi. Most revolting is an aside about a New Jersey broker whose reaction to September 11 was “Sons of bitches! I had tuna on one of those planes!”
Those of us who trudged through the battles in War and Peace eager to return to the ballroom scenes might likewise find our eyes glazing over at some of Issenberg’s economic and scientific details, but his storytelling and research unite to lead us back to the sushi bar, a place where we can all relate. For sushi lovers who have taken our maguro nigiri for granted, it’s a fascinating tale of a cuisine originally created in an effort at preservation (the rice acted as a pickling agent and was removed before eating), which reversed to become a delicacy dependent on freshness. The obsession has been the catalyst for a worldwide economic system that reminds us at many points of the oil market.
The latest chapter in the industry is the Australian invention of tuna ranching. The grotesquely wealthy “tuna barons” of Port Lincoln have gone beyond farming to breeding—controlling not only the supply, but the quality of the fish. Taking the risk out of the game, Issenberg predicts, will
devalue the commodity. Meanwhile, China is poised for a sushi explosion—consumption rises have had a historical correlation to national wealth. One of Issenberg’s sources predicts the Chinese will soon be willing to pay higher prices for tuna than the Japanese, with exporters setting their sights accordingly. “Five years from now, Japanese consumers will not be able to eat good- quality sashimi,” the expert says. “You’ll have to go to China to do that.” Bad news for Japan, but good news for Issenberg: The author may have a sequel on his hands.