On a Roll: The Internationalization of Sushi

No matter where in the world you come from, chances are you ate sushi even before moving to Japan. The sushi boom worldwide has led to the achievement of something once thought impossible: an international devotion to raw fish and cold rice. Sushi is now a basic bourgeois staple in the West, and trends seem to indicate that it will continue to become even cheaper and more accessible abroad. But how did sushi become so popular outside of Japan?

Sushi actually has humble origins as a working-class food. Portable, eaten without the need for utensils, and long-lasting due to the introduction of salt and vinegar (which kept the rice and fish from spoiling), sushi made a good meal for laborers who would tuck an oshizushi into their pocket on their way to work or pick up nigiri from a food stall on the way home. As with pizza and the hamburger, history and technology took its course with sushi in Japan and elevated its status to expensive delicacy. First, in the 1950s the fatty belly cuts of tuna once considered suitable only for cat food were popularized through a governmental marketing campaign put into action to address tuna shortages. Nowadays, these cuts, known as ootoro or shimofuri, are considered the finest meat available on the fish and can only be purchased from the highest quality fishmongers. Next, sushi restaurants introduced the conveyer belt to enhance the speed and efficiency of sushi delivery in restaurants. This innovation allowed restaurants to serve more customers, and the domestic popularity of sushi increased dramatically.

Kaitenzushi, making the rounds from Japan to Perth, Australia (where this photo was taken).

Sushi launched abroad when Japan’s economy boomed in the 1960s, giving sushi chefs the chance to try their hand at making sushi for Japanese expat communities in the Americas. Emigrant sushi chefs were often forced to alter their sushi to make up for the lack of certain ingredients and to make it more appealing to the American palette. Perhaps the most famous product of this alteration is the California Roll, attributed to Ichiro Mashita, a sushi chef at Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles. The California Roll eliminated or downplayed certain ingredients considered to have an “ick-factor” among picky Americans: the uramaki (“inside out”) roll featured an outer wrapping of rice rather than nori and a filling that substituted high-fat avocado for traditional raw tuna. Changes such as these transformed sushi from an unappealing foreign import to haute cuisine.

Anatomy of a California Roll: cucumber, crab, and avocado wrapped in nori with an outer layer of rice and toasted sesame seeds.

Upon its introduction to the West, sushi had an air of exclusivity: it was foreign in origin and used expensive, unconventional ingredients. Those wealthy and brave enough to sample squares of seaweed; raw fish; tart, vinegared rice; and wasabi became “initiates” in a food trend that quickly spread among Los Angeles celebrities. Celebrities were the perfect incubators of the sushi trend. The aesthetic of sushi appealed to those who could afford to go out to eat and wait for the chef to meticulously prepare a dish that was just as much a work of art as a meal. Furthermore, the small portions and healthfulness of fresh ingredients tantalized famous devotees of diets and health food.

In fact, the international spread of sushi is in part due to the advocacy of actor Robert De Niro, a close personal friend of restauranteur Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Matsuhisa began his career abroad in 1973 in Lima, Peru, where he developed his signature fusion style due to the unavailability of Japanese ingredients in South America. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he met De Niro. De Niro convinced Matsuhisa to open a restaurant with him in New York City. Matsuhisa did so, and the restaurant, NOBU, became a sensation and the flagship restaurant of the Nobu Chain of sushi restaurants. Masuhisa and De Niro now co-own the Nobu Chain, which has 11 American locations (think Aspen, Beverly Hills, Lanai) and 18 international locations (think Dubai, Hong Kong, Milan).

“You’re welcome.”

Now U.S. consular offices in Japan issue over 1,000 visas a year to chefs, tuna buyers, and other members of the global sushi industry—and it truly is a global industry. In the words of Japan scholar Theodore Bestor, “A 500-pound tuna is caught off the coast of New England or Spain, flown thousands of miles to Tokyo, sold for tens of thousands of dollars to Japanese buyers in Tokyo…and shipped to chefs in New York and Hong Kong? That’s the manic logic of global sushi.”

As sushi trickles down from its high-tier status to the proletariat, innovations in the industry abound. My own hometown of Santa Rosa, California, has become infamous as the spawning point of anthropomorphic pineapple Guy Fieri‘s sushi-fusion empire. At Mr. Fieri’s Tex Wasabi’s Rock n’ Roll Sushi Barbecue restaurant downtown, you can consume outlandish “Gringo Sushi” creations such as Big Bird on Fire (barbecued chicken and french fries wrapped with sushi rice), Jackass Roll (barbecued pork and avocado with chili garlic mayo), and Hog Tied King (salmon, bacon, cream cheese, sriracha, and unagi sauce).

"Hey...he does kind of look like a pineapple!"

“Hey…he does kind of look like a pineapple!”

A ways down the 101 Freeway in San Francisco, you can buy what’s called a “sushirrito“—if that sounds to you like a combo of sushi and burrito, you are correct. Thus, sushi has come nearly full circle from cheap, portable working class food to expensive haute cuisine and back to cheap, portable delight of the cultured masses.

The “sushirrito.”

The spread of sushi abroad has not come without consequences, however. Worldwide demand for certain fish like red snapper and tuna has led to overfishing of these species, causing environmental concerns. Sushi has been called the leading cause of “the inevitable collapse of wild fishery,” and it is uncertain whether farm or ranch fishing will be able to satisfy the needs of the international sushi market—the slow growth rate of tuna is one concern for farm fisheries. The emerging rarity of certain species coupled with unabated consumer demand has resulted in deception on the part of sushi chefs; often chefs will intentionally mislabel more common species of fish as their fancier, more expensive counterparts, which can expose diners to higher levels of mercury and other health risks. (For example, in the past some chefs have swapped white tuna for escolar, which causes gastrointestinal issues in humans.) A more scrupulous response to the jeopardization of the ecosystem is the rise of the sustainable sushi movement, which addresses the vulnerability of certain fish species and wasteful fishing practices in the creation and distribution of ethical sushi. The sustainable sushi movement puts the responsibility in the hands of the consumer in choosing restaurants and dishes that abide by rules protecting the diversity and productivity of the ecosystem.

A sustainable seafood chart from NAB Communities.

If it weren’t for environmental factors, the global rise of sushi would certainly persist, with increased affordability and accessibility worldwide. However, it’s not clear whether extant supplies of fish will satisfy consumer hunger. Sushi could easily retreat back into exclusive, expensive territory, available only to those who can afford to purchase such a delicacy.



Wikipedia: California Roll (Wikipedia)

Sustainable Seafood (Wikipedia)

How Sushi Ate The World (The Guardian)

Raw (The New York Times)

How Sushi Went Global (Foreign Policy)

Sushi: Globalization Through Food Culture (東アジア文化交渉研究)

Sustainable Sushi in San Francisco: Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar (NAB Communities)

Karin is a first-year ALT who enjoys fighting evil by moonlight and winning love by daylight. Her favorite sushi is kappa maki (cucumber roll). 


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