Fear of Sushi

There were not one but two Op-Ed articles in the New York Times yesterday about sushi. Two! It always amazes me how fast sushi has become mainstream in the U.S. in particular and 'the West' in general, but I guess this is some sort of proof.

The two articles are Chicken of the Sea by Stephen Shaw (the author of a dining guide to restaurants in Asia) and Sushi for Two by Trevor Corson (author of a book about sushi). While I agree in the spirit of their arguments (Americans or eh, 'Westerners' should be more adventurous with their selection of fish at a sushi place, and that some people are overly scared of the raw fish used for sushi), I sort of wonder what planet they are living on.

For one thing, don't we all know that many Americans are simply scared of their food? If it's not parasites in raw fish, it's something else - trans fats, cholesterol, fat, carbs, alcohol, 'germs' in general, chemical anything. I've been through various food scares in the past in other countries (such as near-hysteria levels over e.coli on raw vegetables in Japan some years ago) but to me, when it comes to an almost constant fear of the harm that food can do to ones body Americans are really up there. There are not a few people who cannot get any kind of enjoyment out of food - to them food is merely fuel, an evil necessity. If these people could just ingest some manufactured nutrition bars and nutritional supplements that are guaranteed 'safe' and 'healthy' I'm sure they will. (It's also the land of ligitation. Some of my European friends laugh at the big bad warning labels on bottles of wine and such that appear on bottles meant for the American market and things like that, but ultimately it's a matter of covering everyones' legal asses.)

In such a climate, it's really no wonder that at least a segment of the American population is scared of raw anything, let alone raw fish. One of the writers makes the argument that raw shellfish, which is a part of the 'American' diet (while sushi is 'foreign'), is a cause of more food poisoning than raw fish consumed with or as sushi, and that that's illogical. Of course it is, but human beings are just illogical when it comes to food: it's easier to dismiss a food that is newer to ones eating habits than something one has grown up eating.

When it comes to pregnancy and food safety it's hard for most people to be totally rational or be willing to experiment. While mothers in Japan eat raw fish in the form of sashimi or sushi without worrying, I can't really blame mothers in America or elsewhere for being cautious. Even though I don't have kids, I tend to be over-cautious about eating sushi, simply because there are a lot of so-called sushi chefs out there who just don't know what they are doing.

Which leads to the other point that Trevor Corson makes, about the need for Americans to diversify their sushi fish selection, and for the sushi chefs to educate them about it. I am guessing Mr. Corson lives in a big city with a good selection of really good sushi restaurants? Does he know that increasingly, the neighborhood sushi restaurant is manned by 'sushi chefs' who couldn't tell you much if anything about different kinds of fish? If your neighborhood sushi restaurant has things like 'dragon roll' on their menu, chances are this is the case. Sure, it's a great idea to try different kinds of fish other than tuna. When I go to a good sushi restaurant, I only have tuna twice (once as toro and once as akami, the lean cut of the fish); the rest of my selection is made up of different kinds of neta (the stuff that goes on top of, around or in the rice), of fish and beyond (pickled cabbage sushi is great). But there is a scarcity of good sushi places. Until just 15 years ago or so ago, most sushi places outside of Japan were expensive, special places, generally with chefs who knew their craft. Nowadays, while you can still get that specially prepared sushi from a master, the sushi that most people eat is a version that is dumbed down. (And Japan is not immune to this phenomenon either - there are places to eat sushi on all levels, and the safety of the fish at some of the cheaper all-you-can-eat, conveyor belt or 'floating boat' and other places has been called to question.)

In any case, I don't really think that Americans inhaling more than their share of tuna is really the major reason for tuna scarcity; it's just the explosion of the popularity of sushi all over the world.

So if you are a sushi lover, what to do? This is what I do anyway: I try to stay away from cheap sushi unless the neta is cooked or vegetable based. If I want to be more adventurous I go to a really good sushi place with a real itamae-san. I do have the advantage of speaking (and er, being) Japanese, but even the most English-challenged itamae-san likes an adventurous eater.

The most basic thing to remember though is: good sushi is not cheap, even if you aren't gobbling up tons of toro. If it's cheap it's not good, because that means they are cutting corners somewhere - with the quality of fish, the quality of chef, or both.

Add new comment

Filed under: