Of all the dishes of Japan’s extremely varied and healthy culinary tradition, sushi is probably the most overrated. Maki and sashimi are now the centre of an unstoppable global craze. Even political leaders and heads of state have been caught up in the hype surrounding what has come to be considered the crown jewel of Japanese cuisine.
It is no coincidence that Prime Minister Shinzō Abe took President Barack Obama, on his most recent visit to Japan, to Tokyo’s most exclusive sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jirō.
North Korea’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, was so passionate about sushi that he hired his own private sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto. After fleeing the hermit kingdom in 2001, Fujimoto went on to reveal how close he had been to the levers of power in North Korea. In addition to revelations about the regime made in his 2003 autobiography, Fujimoto was also one of the Japanese secret service’s main informants about what was really happening in Pyongyang. His views are still sought by the media when interpreting events North of the 38th parallel.
Sushi’s global success has not passed unobserved in Tokyo. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), in 2007 outside of Japan there were between 20 and 25 thousand Japanese restaurants and the number was growing. In Milan alone there are over three hundred Japanese restaurants, of which only a paltry 0.5% are actually authentic.
The fish and rice dish has become a global trend: sushi represents a status symbol on one hand and serious business on the other.
Faced with this phenomenon, in 2007 MAFF, with the help of the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO), published a series of recommendations that can be found in English on their website: http://www.maff.go.jp/e/soushoku/sanki/easia/e_sesaku/japanese_food/pdf/proposal_e.pdf.
The primary objective was to warn less savvy foreign consumers about imitations and to underline the qualities of authentic Japanese cuisine. Japan’s culinary tradition is distinguished by its seasonality and the variety of its ingredients as well as the highly specialized chefs at work in the kitchen and at the sushi counter.
“I trained for ten years to become a sushi chef”, says Yosuke Imada, one of Tokyo’s most famous restaurateurs speaking to the BBC in the spring of this year.
Nevertheless the global demand for sushi today contrasts starkly with the penury of chefs trained according to the strict rigors of the Japanese tradition, partly due to demographics and also because of the stress and exertion that the career entails.
In Japan the sector has been in crisis for some time, at least since the end of the economic bubble, wrote the New York Times in 2010. Over the last 20 years the small but expensive sushi-ya (sushi restaurants) have been losing out to the cheaper kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi restaurants) with an inevitable knock-on effect in terms of the quality of ingredients and the skill levels of the chefs.
This has also been happening in many parts of Europe, where predominantly non-Japanese restaurants have a hand in the sushi business.
So while demand is rising, the specialized workforce is shrinking. The real problem, however, is the decreasing availability of the (pardon the pun) raw materials. Sushi consumption is endangering fish species such as bluefin tuna, known as maguro in Japanese, as well as the ecosystems of the seas and oceans.
The latest alarm bell sounded on 17 November when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published its annual red list of animal species at risk of extinction. The bluefin, prized for its red flesh, only really became popular during the 1970s but the species is now becoming increasingly rare. Estimates in 2013 claimed that the number of bluefin tuna in the Pacific has fallen by 96% due to overfishing.
Until the global appetite for sushi is sated, the bounty on the heads of these fish – the price for an exemplary yellowfin tuna was 1 million dollars at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo in 2013 – looks set to keep on rising.
Edited by Nicholas Neiger