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The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

Sasha Issenberg

(Gotham Books)

Hey, sushi enthusiasts (and that includes you, Tony and Carmela Soprano): Ever wonder about the origins of those raw tuna slices you’ve taken to craving at the local Japanese restaurant?


Probably not, posits Sasha Issenberg in The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy. In an era where menus often read like manifestos to pedigreed ingredients, Issenberg notes that “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.”


And what of the earnest, hardworking sushi chef who pulls fish from the refrigerated case and prepares it before diners’ eyes? “A charismatic frontman for an invisible world,” asserts Issenberg. “Behind him is a web of buyers and sellers, producers and distributors, agents, brokers and dealers that extend from everywhere there is a net that needs to be emptied to anyplace there is a plate that can be filled.”


With those introductory words, Issenberg preps readers for the intent behind his first book: a clear, engaging account of the business behind one of the world’s most popular foods. The Sushi Economy is not a foodie romp detailing delicious meals at rarified sushi bars. Rather, it delves into the global seafood commerce that has developed over 30 years to accommodate the ever-growing demands for high-quality raw fish.


Each chapter homes in on real-life characters whose occupations form the links that stretch from the sea to the supper table. It becomes quickly evident, though, that the star of this tale is tuna, the “trophy fish most demanded by diners.”


Many of these fish tales illustrate hardscrabble lives: Cargo haulers in the early ‘70s who struggled with how to quickly transport newly valued Canadian tuna to Japan; tuna merchants in Tokyo at Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, who barter daily for the most-prized specimens; New England fishermen who learned to stake a monetary claim to the fish they send to market, only to face a dwindling supply of tuna in the ocean.


These somber narratives are offset by the book’s middle section, which focuses on the rise of America’s sushi culture and the colorful chefs behind it. “What made sushi particularly hard for Americans to stomach was its central premise,” reminds Issenberg. “Tuna was lifeless, off-white, emerged from cans, reduced to flakes, and then clumped back together, rendered into creamy paste, scooped with implements designed for ice cream onto slices of white bread.”


It was the Southern California lifestyle—“open-mindedness toward foreign cuisine, health consciousness, an aestheticization of natural foods, and a belief in the perfectibility of the human physique through diet”—mixed with Los Angeles’ Japanese community that started the proliferation of sushi restaurants.


And no chef better embodies the explosion of sushi’s popularity than Nobu Matsuhisa, whose eponymous restaurants helped him become the reigning warlord of Japanese cuisine.


For restaurant-world gossip hounds, this is the book’s most satisfying chapter: It recounts the early life of Matsuhisa as a young cook with wanderlust who finds success in Los Angeles. Partnered with Robert De Niro, he is now the figurehead of a globe-spanning chain of high-end restaurants who, in conversation, name-drops the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Celine Dion and Bill Clinton.


Texas readers, though, may be more engrossed by the chapter on Tyson Cole, the ambitious Caucasian chef who owns Uchi, a sushi restaurant in Austin. Issenberg chose Cole and Uchi to illustrate the ways in which sushi in America adheres to Japanese traditions while also increasingly veering from them.


Whatever political, economic and cultural insights the book offers, each page seems to resonate with a bottom line missive: Those rectangular slabs of ruby tuna served in sushi bars come with a lot more history than most of us suspect.

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