A Fish Tale on a Macro Scale: How Sushi Has Changed Globalization

A Fish Tale on a Macro Scale: How Sushi Has Changed Globalization (and the World)

Published: August 22, 2007 in Knowledge@Wharton

This article has been read 2,032 Times

In John Hughes’ smash 1985 film, The Breakfast Club,
five teenagers from different social cliques spend a Saturday together
in detention. There is the jock, whose identity is wrapped up in
athletic achievement. There is the nerd, who is book smart and socially
awkward. There is the moody basket case who wears black and broods
about death. There is the equally moody rebel, who smokes and swears
and defies authority. And there is the princess, whose clothes are hot,
whose manners are cold, and whose lunch speaks volumes about the
rarified social atmosphere in which she moves. While the others bring
sandwiches — if they bring anything at all — she brings sushi,
elegantly arranged on a fragile Japanese dish. The others don’t even
recognize what she’s eating, and when she explains what sushi is —
"rice, raw fish and seaweed" — the rebel mocks her for her willingness
to eat it.

Using food to trace the rigidly hierarchical world of American teen
culture, the scene expects the audience to see sushi as fundamentally
alien, exclusive and unappetizing. The Breakfast Club asserts
that sushi-eating symbolizes a distasteful elitism that we all
recognize, but that we do not ourselves create, maintain or like.

Such symbolism would never work today. In the short decades since
Hughes’ hit film, sushi has become a staple of American culture, a
familiar, accessible and immensely desirable food that can be found in
supermarket aisles and fast food outlets as well as high-end
restaurants. Far from signaling the snobbery of those who eat it, sushi
today belongs to the masses. Approximately 30 million Americans
regularly eat sushi, including the Simpsons, the country’s favorite
animated family. And it isn’t just Americans who have developed a
passion for sushi. A taste for Japan’s signature delicacy has also
sprung up in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and China.

A refined delicacy that is fast becoming a popular menu item around
the world, sushi says something important about how wealth, taste and
the market interact on an international scale. As Sasha Issenberg
argues in The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy,
sushi both reveals the "complex dynamics of globalization" and proves
what many critics regard as a singular impossibility, that "a virtuous
global commerce and food culture can exist."

Issenberg knows how counter-intuitive his claim is: After all, we
tend to associate sushi with the hushed, ritualized elegance of
Japanese culture, and we often regard the sushi bar as a welcome escape
from the hard economic bustle of daily life. The immediate experience
of eating sushi is, for many, one of transcendent sensual calm, at once
richly evocative and profoundly removed from earthly things.

But for Issenberg, that’s the point. In its striking beauty, sushi
has the quality of art, and often seems to come from nowhere to exist
purely as an irresistibly gorgeous, edible creation. Yet despite
appearances, every piece of sushi has a distinctly modern, highly
sophisticated economic history — and in its journey from the sea to
the market to the restaurant, from living fish to marketable good, it
has much to tell us about how balanced, healthy world markets can be
created and maintained. As such, Issenberg argues, "the new sushi
economy has challenged the way we see the globe."

A Jet-age Commodity

For Issenberg, the story of the sushi economy is the story of tuna.
Originally reviled in Japan (so greasy it was only good for cat food),
the bluefin was the beneficiary of a post-World War II shift in the
Japanese diet toward heavier, fatty meats. The overwhelming popularity
of the bluefin’s buttery flesh meant that by the early 1970s, the
Japanese had overfished their waters and were on the lookout for new
sources of their favorite dish. The moment coincided with the rise of
Japan Airlines (JAL), which was doing a tidy export business but needed
to find something to fill its freight cabin on return flights. In an
inspiration that would change the culinary profile of the planet, a JAL
executive partnered with the fishermen of Prince Edward Island, Canada,
who caught plenty of bluefin, but who had no use for it. Devising a
means of gently freezing bluefin to preserve it during the long journey
back to Japan, JAL inaugurated the era of global sushi.

Issenberg devotes considerable time to charting Japan’s internal
sushi economy, with special emphasis on Toyko’s Tsukiji market, where
fish imported from around the world are auctioned daily to bidders well
versed in the arcane science of evaluating meat they have not tasted.
At Tsukiji, we learn, a single bluefin regularly goes for $30,000 or
more at auction; once all but worthless, bluefin has become one of the
world’s hottest and most wholesome commodities. Detailing how Tokyo’s
Narita International Airport has become — paradoxically — Japan’s
most important fishing harbor, Issenberg explains how even in Japan,
sushi is a jet-age commodity. While sushi’s roots go back hundreds of
years to an era when fish was packed in rice to ferment and preserve
it, the nigiri and maki that signify sushi today are only as old as the
technological means of transporting highly perishable fish swiftly and
efficiently from one end of the world to the other.

Originally devised to keep the Japanese in tuna, the transport
system that evolved around bluefin has helped sushi spread far beyond
Japan. Issenberg maps the rise of regional sushi cultures in
California, Texas and middle America (Oklahoma, it seems, is one of
sushi’s newest hot spots). And in a chapter that holds special
resonance for big-city sushi lovers, Issenberg follows world famous
sushi chef Nobu from Japan to Peru to the U.S. to the Bahamas and
beyond, examining how he first reinvented sushi in his own
idiosyncratic image and then standardized his brand via his growing
chain of restaurants.

Working backward from restaurants to suppliers, Issenberg studies
the fishing economy of Gloucester, Mass., where centuries-old fishing
traditions have met with modern management in the form of True World
Foods, a distributor founded by the Moonies that is now one of North
America’s top suppliers of fresh sushi-grade fish. He also takes us to
Port Lincoln, Australia, where innovative ranching enterprises have
made local fishermen some of the richest people down under.

Through detailed, highly localized accounts of restaurants and
chefs, fishermen and middlemen, markets and appetites, Issenberg casts
sushi as an enormously positive example of globalization. An
exceptionally unusual ethnic food that has kept its integrity while
spreading its appeal, sushi melds the hunter-gatherer purity of
long-line fishing; the sophistication of state-of-the-art transport;
the hands-on, humane exchange of the auction; and the immense act of
international trust undertaken by the millions who are willing to eat
raw fish without knowing its origins or history. An index to a nation’s
worldliness, sushi expresses not only the sophistication of a country’s
taste, but also an equally sophisticated confidence in the procedural
purity of an industry with great potential for corruption and

Sushi thus offers a refreshing opportunity to rewrite the depressing
story about globalization to which we have become accustomed in recent
years. This story tends to see the expansion of global markets as
coming at a steep cost. As we grow increasingly global in our
preferences, processes and possessions, the story goes, we lose our
ties to local variants of the same; globalization tends to be equated
with standardization and diminishment, with a flattening out of vital
cultural specificity and an exploitative disregard for traditions. As
Thomas Friedman, perhaps our primary teller of this tale, has put it,
globalization amounts to a struggle for balance between the Lexus and
the olive tree, between the manufactured world of international
commerce and traditional economies grounded in nature, custom and
place. Too often, the story goes, as global markets expand, it is the
ways, beliefs, languages, styles and cuisines of particular locales
that are lost. As the Lexus sells, the olive tree dies.

Crab and Couscous, and Spam

Friedman says he was eating sushi when the idea for The Lexus and the Olive Tree
(1999) came to him, so it’s only fitting that sushi would serve as the
proving ground for Issenberg’s attempt to offer a signal instance of
globalization that balances the competing claims of world-scale
commerce and cultural particularity. And, indeed, Issenberg is at his
most fascinating when he outlines how sushi is at once preserved and
reinvented in every new market it meets: Crab and avocado found their
way into rolls in California, because that’s what was available. In
Brazil, California rolls are made with mango rather than avocado, again
because that’s what’s available. In Singapore, one can find California
rolls with both avocado and mango — and one can also find curry rolls
and halal sushi bars. Hawaiians retain a World War II-era taste for
sushi made with Spam. In Marrakech, one can eat maki made with couscous.

Contradicting the scare stories proffered by other recent chroniclers of global foodways (think Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma),
Issenberg serves up a singularly appealing picture of how our almost
insatiable globalized hunger for new experiences, new things, new
services — and, crucially, new foods — might be able to co-exist with
our increasingly urgent desire to preserve local traditions and protect
the environment. Combining a hunter-gatherer purity with a
sophisticated international market organized around swift transit and
state-of-the-art refrigeration, wealthy consumers and artisan chefs who
continually reinvent sushi according to local tastes and ingredients,
sushi seems to reconcile the conflict between the Lexus and the olive
tree. Sushi extends the possibility that we might actually be able to
have our globalization and eat it, too.

As Issenberg tells it, sushi sounds too good to be true — and maybe
it is. Toward the end of the book, Issenberg outlines how the growing
global passion for sushi has led to massive overfishing of bluefin. As
the market for bluefin expands, the bluefin population shrinks — a
circumstance that has led to rising prices, unenforceable quota systems
and ruthless international piracy.

But the depletion of bluefin has also provoked a remarkable
redefinition of delicacy that may prove Issenberg’s thesis after all.
As quality bluefin gets harder to find, Japanese sushi bars are looking
for ways to replicate the gorgeous look and feel of tuna, with its
bright red flesh and velvety texture — and they are turning to two
unlikely sources: horse meat and smoked venison. As strange and even
unappetizing as that may sound, it’s an innovation that is true to the
spirit of modern sushi, which is anchored in a fish that was once
regarded as inedible, and which makes a marketable virtue of local
culinary traditions grounded in convenience. Raw horse is a delicacy in
some parts of Japan. Known as basashi, it is served sashimi-style with
soy and ginger — and is even incorporated into ice cream. Perhaps the
next chapter in the world’s evolving sushi economy will include
expanding its culinary boundaries beyond the sea.

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