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Japan to dispatch ‘sushi police’

Marketplace Staff Dec 7, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Those who know their sushi from their sashimi can listen to this next story with a knowing ear. The rest of us will want to pay closer attention. Japan’s culinary guardians aren’t happy with what passes as Japanese food around the world. Japanese traveling abroad are returning home with culinary horror stories: Soggy seaweed and sushi with untraditional toppings. Japan’s agriculture ministry is preparing a kind of roaming sushi vice squad. Steve Herman reports from Tokyo it’s set to hit the road sometime next year.

STEVE HERMAN: But Japanese also relish pizzas topped with corn or squid, hamburgers smothered in mayonnaise and wasabi or chowder brimming with tofu. So, no qualms here about modifying the cuisine of others. But others messing around with Japanese cuisine? Well, that’s different.

Japanese, dismayed with restaurants abroad with familair names such as Fuji or Osaka but finding nothing recognizable on the menu, have prodded bureaucrats at home to try to rectify the culinary confusion. In response the agriculture ministry has pulled together an expert panel which plans to set standards for so-called “Japanese restaurants” around the world.

Mily Togasa is a chef who owns a Japanese restaurant on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. She says the Japanese food inspectors should have an open mind about what they deem authentic.

TOGASA: I ordered something and it really was awful, so I did actually send it back. To apologize, they gave me a free sushi roll, which was even worse than what I had ordered. I found out that the owner had nothing to do with Japan, neither did the chefs or anybody there. But the people in the neighborhood loved the place and loved the food, so what’s wrong with that?

Sushi served in the shadow of Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market is as good a criterion as any. The exclusive Masukomi Sushi Bar on the 20th floor of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan is supervised by head chef Issei Kurimoto. He has been serving fish for 30 years.

ISSEI KURIMOTO [translator]: The real test of authenticity should be how the sushi chef wields a knife. It can take six years of practice not to be an embarrassment in front of patrons.

Then there is the equally important skill of communicating with the honorable customers. That, chef Kurimoto cautions, can also take years to master.

KURIMOTO [translator]: Japanese society puts a premium on protocol. A faux pas can be just as bad for business as serving bad tuna.

The agriculture ministry says it is premature to comment on whether chef Kurimoto’s criteria are the sort of things their inspectors will be noting.

Bali restaurant operator Mily Togasa is more tolerant of regional variations, even though there have been meals like one in New York that even she couldn’t handle.

MILY TOGASA: The stickiness of the rice, the different kinds of vinegars used for the rice and also the seafood that you get in the different local areas are going to vary — and some of which you cannot even get in Japan. So it really depends on the criteria that they’re thinking of.

But that is the sort of establishment likely to find itself on the wrong side of Japan’s sushi police. The agriculture ministry’s blue ribbon panel will unveil its certification standards by the end of February. And starting next April, their inspectors will begin what may turn out to be a most unappetizing assignment.

In Tokyo, I’m Steve Herman for Marketplace.

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