The Sushi Economy
TEXT OF INTERVIEW
KAI RYSSDAL: The daily deadlines around here make it tough for us to get out for lunch most days — ever, in fact. But sometimes, a story comes along that you make an exception for. The other day, I met a guy named Sasha Issenberg at a sushi bar over in Little Tokyo, about a mile or so from the studio.
ISSENBERG:Moriawase. Just order a standard assortment, what they call moriawase. In Japanese, it's sort of a traditional 10 or pieces . . . RYSSDAL: Sasha says he's got pretty good sushi bar Japanese. But it's really more than a party trick. He spent two years researching and writing his new book, The Sushi Economy. Over some truly excellent tuna and sea urchin, we talked about the role raw fish has in the world economy. And how sushi came to be popular here in the United States.
ISSENBERG: We're at Sushi Gen in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. Sushi, as a business lunch, is really how the bar came to be. And the first sushi bar opened in Los Angeles in 1962 and the first generation of people to come were the corporate ex-pats and business travelers and tourists with Japanese money.RYSSDAL: Let's look at a piece that's on the plate here. We got a piece of blue fin tuna. Where has it been? Where'd it come from?
ISSENBERG: It could be coming in the summer months from the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. Could have been ranched off the coast of Spain. It could have been caught by a fisherman off of Cape Cod. It could have come from the North Pacific, waters off of Japan. I mean, what's amazing is that, you know, we don't know which ocean much of this stuff has come from. And really, the answer could be that it could from any of them. But it could have been shipped fresh on ice, come over by air. It also could have been frozen at negative 70 degrees in a nitrogen-chilled freezer. And it moves its way through a cold storage supply chain for the last 18 months, you know. The chef may know. It's quite possible the chef may not know.RYSSDAL: Speed is key here?
ISSENBERG: Yes. I mean, not just against other commodities. But if you look at other high-value food products, tuna loses more value more quickly than any other. I mean, if you have truffles they'll do fine on a shelf for a while. Your wine is probably only gonna increase in value with age. And if you don't find the right buyer for your tuna a couple days after it's caught, it's gonna go to waste.RYSSDAL: Sushi has become really sort of a really good tool to look at globalization. It's the single fish that somehow makes its way via modern conveniences and incredible technology to dinner plates and sushi bars all over the world.
ISSENBERG: You have these two elements. You have the globalization of supply, which is the new cargo connections, especially jet travel. You have the ability of people to move capital around the world quickly enough to turn over these rapid transactions in this valuable but decaying product. Simple things like fishermen having satellite phones so they can call in their catch and the guy at the dock in some out-of-the-way Third World harbor having a fax machine so he can get a daily sales report from an auction at a fish market in Tokyo and know what it's worth. And then you have this sort of globalization of culture or of tastes that has created appetites for this sort of peculiar Japanese delicacy all over the world.
RYSSDAL: It is, in a lot of ways, sort of contrary to the image we have of globalization, you know, which is factory workers in some developing country, in a sweat shop stitching garments or soccer balls. It's more high-tech, it's more complex and in a way, it's different in its end result, in that it's actually something we consume.
ISSENBERG: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to break down this idea that we've been left with sort of two options in, as food culture and business generally go global, that you either have the intimate local ties with the farmers' market, or you have the impersonal global option to McDonalds. And the fact is, that this is a, the sushi economy is a quintessentially global industry that couldn't exist without the sort of revolutions and technology and finance of the last generation. And yet, it still relies on the type of interpersonal relationships and human trust, and local knowledge that we think has disappeared.RYSSDAL: Americans really don't do sushi right, don't we?
ISSENBERG: I sort of wanted to call into question the whole idea of doing it right. I mean, the fact is that sushi is this really modern innovation in Japan. It started as a street snack in Tokyo in the 19th century. The sushi bar as an institution didn't really develop until the 1960s. You know, tuna was considered a trash fish, safer for pet food or marinated beyond recognition. . . . [Chef serves sushi] I believe that's Hamachi — yellowtail. . . . And so sushi's almost always been in flux and changing. And we're doing it as right as the Japanese are.RYSSDAL: Sasha Issenberg's new book is called The Sushi Economy.