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The Sushi Economy

(article, Sasha Issenberg)

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h3. From the introduction: "World Gone Raw"

At restaurants of all sorts, menus are now filled with highly detailed prose designed to comfort consumers unsettled by the increasing distance between their plate and the origins of the food that sits on it. Poultry dishes carry the label "free-range," cuts of beef come from a "grass-fed" cow, the seafood was either "line-caught" or hauled in via "dayboat," and the day's specials can contain greater detail about harvest rhythms than the Farmers' Almanac. Menus have elevated small farms and family orchards into the register of familiar place names. 


h1. About the book and author

The Sushi Economy began as an exploration of the local sushi scene for Philadelphia magazine. Journalist Sasha Issenberg expanded his regional reporting into a global look at sushi, ranging from its cultural history to its complicated marketplace.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Gotham Books, a member of the Penguin Group (2007).


Sushi, however, arrives in front of customers with virtual anonymity, accompanied by none of the where-when-how provenance now afforded to a humble roasted chicken. All diners see of their meal's origins is the chef who prepared it, as he removes a piece of fish from the refrigerated case in front of him, slices it on the cutting board before their eyes, places it on rice, artfully arranges it on a plate, and serves it onto the counter. In an age of factory kitchens and take-a-number service, many find the simple transparency of this culinary transaction refreshing. But the exchange is also misleading.

Standing sentinel over a glass caisson of small, plastic-wrapped pylons of fish, the sushi chef is merely a charismatic front man for an invisible world. Behind him is a web of buyers and sellers, producers and distributors, agents, brokers, and dealers that extends from everywhere there is a net that needs to be emptied to anyplace there is a plate that can be filled. On their way from the ocean to the restaurant, some fish take a multi-continental voyage of days, weeks, and, in certain cases, months or years, crossing borders, being subjected to tariffs, having value assessed more than half a dozen times, and visiting more airports than most business travelers.

Sushi as we know it is very much an invention of the late 20th century, in particular the flows of money, power, people, and culture that define the era's interconnectedness. Jet travel allows perishable goods to speed over oceans. Fishermen call in their catch across distant seas via satellite phone. Agents are able to sustain orders by quickly moving capital across currencies to out-of-the-way docks in Third World countries. As the world gets smaller, the selection in those glass cases gets bigger — and better. Eating at a sushi bar, then, is not so much an escape from fast-paced global commerce as an immersion in it. 

[%image promo-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/akaplummer" caption="A tuna roll epitomizes sushi at its simplest and most popular."]

Globalization is, at its most simple, the integration of local economies through trade, a development that has taken place over centuries but accelerated in the late 20th. Nearly every business across the world has been in some way affected by the currents of global capitalism, but in few places are the complex dynamics of globalization revealed as visibly as in the tuna's journey from the sea to the sushi bar. 

In the sushi system, tuna is the trophy fish: the most demanded by diners, the one that is tested as a benchmark of a restaurant's merit. "In Tokyo restaurants, tuna is such a must-have item that we say if you don't have tasty tuna at your restaurant then your sign saying you're a 'traditional sushi bar' would cry," author Takeaki Hori has written. Tuna has moved to such a position atop the world's cultural food chain — "the diamond of the ocean," in Hori's words — that for many of the 30 million Americans who regularly eat sushi, a piece from that fish is, on a per-pound basis, the most expensive food they have ever consumed.

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