Now there’s a title for the squeamish! But guess what… a few years from now you may be craving it. An article in today’s Knowledge@Wharton titled How Sushi Has Changed Globalization tells the intriguing tale of the popularity of sushi.
In the short decades since Hughes’ hit film [The Breakfast Club], 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.
Yes, I’m one of them. At least a couple times a week, more if you count the tuna tataki I enjoy while my wife and I indulge in our tradition of Martini Monday at our favorite restaurant. No, we don’t cook (unless you count cereal)… we admittedly outsource the meal preparation to the chefs at a variety of restaurants. There’s definitely value to the customer, me, in a good tuna tataki. And there’s definitely something special about sushi…
The immediate experience of eating sushi is, for many, one of transcendent sensual calm, at once richly evocative and profoundly removed from earthly things. 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.
Ok, back to reality, how in the world is this related to globalization?
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." 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."
Issenberg goes on to describe how bluefin tuna, now a sushi delicacy, was once reviled as only good for cat food. In the 1970s Japanese tastes began to change, bluefin became very popular, and soon Japanese waters were overfished and practically devoid of bluefin. Then something interesting happened.
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.
And thus began fast global supply chains. Tokyo’s Narita International Airport has become — paradoxically — Japan’s most important fishing harbor. Over two years ago I witnessed a similar supply chain in action while tramping around southern Argentina and Chile, and even wrote about it here.
The major industry of the area [southern Chile] is salmon farming, which has transformed Chile into the second largest exporter of salmon after Norway. As planes arrive bringing tourists from around the world, the salmon supply chain springs into action. The age of salmon in the multitude of farms is measured constantly, and just before the planes land appropriate salmon is harvested. They are removed from their breeding and nuturing beds in the lakes, processed through several local factories, flash frozen or chilled, and loaded onto the planes… in less than a couple hours. The planes then return filled with fresh salmon.
Issenberg then explores how sushi has created and revitalized regional industries to support the global sushi economy.
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.
Wait a minute… globalization is supposed to be evil, isn’t it? That’s the popular [mis]perception.
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.
But here’s the reality.
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.
And that’s how globalization can coexist, and even strengthen, local customs and traditions.
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.
What a great thing, that globalization. But in this case it could also create some, err, "interesting" changes.
Issenberg outlines how the growing global passion for sushi has led to massive overfishing of bluefin. 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. 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.
Maybe I need to rethink this globalization thing. Luckily my wife turned me into a partial vegetarian that doesn’t eat anything with legs.