Hold the tuna and the food guilt, please

torosashimi.jpgThis past week the New York Times published another in a series of dire warnings about how dangerous a certain food is, in this case tuna which is supposedly laden with mercury. One of the sources of this recent round is a conservation group called Oceana. There were, of course, rebuttals and counter-claims to this. The Japanese government isn't all worried because of yet another food scare rash in the U.S.

It isn't as though we haven't heard this kind of thing before, whether it's how dangerous soy is, or whatever.

A couple of thoughts came to mind as I read about this latest scare.

First of all, it's odd that people are focusing on tuna in sushi. Despite the explosion of sushi popularity worldwide, I would bet anything that the consumption of canned tuna is far higher than as sushi or sashimi. And as that NY Times article itself notes, cooking does not affect the levels of mercury at all. (Most canned tuna is 'light' so has less mercury, but it does have a not-insignificant amount.)

But then, sushi is trendier, and a nice piece of raw tuna is much prettier than a boring beige can of the thing.

It also reminded me of a certain regular customer at Sushisay. He would come in at least once a week, sometimes more, sit down at the counter, and order a big plateful of toro sashimi, about 20 pieces, at (depending on market prices) $10 a piece or so. He'd follow that up with several tuna and yellowtail sushi pieces, around $7-$10 pp. (I don't see yellowtail garnering as much attention; it's not the star tuna is, and it's also, you know, beige, but since it is also an oily fish that is higher up on the ocean food chain, I've no doubt it also comes with a generous serving of mercury.) Attempts to coax him to try other kinds of sashimi and sushi never amounted to much. He was a good customer of course, but his backside was taking up a precious chair at the counter unnecessarily - if you're going to sit there you should be prepared to tackle some variety. (I am sure a lot of sushi dilettantes sit at the counter because they've heard somewhere that's the 'best spot'. It is, but if you're just ordering a Cooked Sushi Set, go away to that corner table.)

I never talked to him directly, but I was really curious about this. Did he eat all that tuna because he loved it so? Did he do it because of its alleged health benefits? Was he just showing off? (His bill was always astronomical, as you can guess.)

It always annoys me when I see these food scares going around. It seems to reinforce this preoccupation that a lot of people have with the idea of food as medication, good or bad. There was an old science fiction short story by Japanese author Shinichi Hoshi, called "Flavor Radio" (Aji rajio 味ラジオ) about a society where people only ate bland, carefully nutritionally balanced and manufactured bread. Their urge for different flavors in the mouth, since humans are such oral animals, was met by a 'flavor radio' that was embedded in a tooth, with constantly changing programming. I think a lot of people would love to jump to a future where such a thing was possible. Many would probably just skip the flavor radio part right now and just eat nutritionally balanced manufactured food, period, right now. You know, those people who down a huge handful of vitamin pills and things every day, or subsist on protein powder drinks.

Of course I am not saying we should not be concerned about food safety. On the other hand people shouldn't be rushing to wards the latest miracle nutrient either. And above all, moderation is a great idea, especially in eating. Why not try all the different kinds of sushi neta instead of safe old tuna?

But this may actually be good news for those of us who truly love sushi. The biggest danger connected to tuna, especially bluefin (the type that's most popular for sushi and sashimi) may be that it's being overfished. If enough half-believers start to stay away from tuna, there'll be more left for us for a longer time.

So, if you're eating sushi just because you think it's 'healthy', stop! Go away. Go back to uhm, well what do you go back to these days? Spinach with e.coli? Sprayed apples? Organically produced green beans that aren't politically correct because they've been shipped from a third world nation where people could use the work desperately but think of that long journey to get them to you and the C02 emissions OMG?

Bring on the flavor radio. In the meantime, I think I will stick to moderation and variety, and enjoying how my food actually tastes first and foremost - with a wary eye on the food news.

Related, tuna porn! All about tuna, an article I wrote for the Sushisay web site back in the day.

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