The global popularity of sushi has driven the worldwide ubiquity of sushi bars and restaurants of varying styles and price ranges. Once considered exotic, sushi is now an everyday food in many parts of the world. In addition to sushi bars and Japanese restaurants, sushi is also available in numerous kinds of Asian restaurants and in convenience stores, airport kiosks, college and university cafeterias, and supermarkets all over the United States and throughout much of the world. One can buy sushi almost anywhere in the United States, as well as in England, France, Russia, Vietnam, and South Africa, to name a few places. The widespread popularity of sushi has an impact on the food industry, which warrants its inclusion in this encyclopedia. A central issue related to the popularity of sushi is overfishing, leading to concerns about sustainability, particularly of the bluefin tuna, which is the most popular sushi fish, especially in Japan. Related issues include the labeling and mislabeling of fish and food safety. This entry reviews the origins of sushi, its worldwide diaspora, the range of sushi bars and restaurants, the key issues raised by its popularity, and its future viability.
Sushi originated in Southeast Asia as a means of preserving fish. Farmers stuffed fish with rice and then closed the container to let the fish ferment. After a suitable period of time—often years—the rice was discarded and the fish consumed. This type of sushi reached Japan, probably by the 8th century CE. This style—narezushi—is still consumed today in areas near Kyoto. Subsequently, a vinegarization process was developed, and numerous regional sushi specialties in which the rice was consumed appeared. Sushi actually means “vinegared rice,” and although fish is the usual topping, many other foods can be added. The constant is the vinegared rice. One type of sushi was developed around 1810 as a street food sold from stalls in Edo, the former name of Tokyo. This Edomae or nigiri sushi became synonymous with sushi in most of the world. The terms are used interchangeably but are not always identical. Edomae sushi refers to fish from Edo Bay, while nigiri sushi refers to the chef grasping rice to create a “finger” of vinegared rice, which is then topped with a carefully cut piece of fish, or something else such as egg or vegetable. Various rolls wrapped in seaweed (nori) called nori-maki were also developed and sold in these stalls and in sushi restaurants, also from the early 19th century.
From its humble beginnings as a “fast food,” sushi eventually became the food most identified with Japan, and in the eyes of many, the national dish of the country. Promoted by the Japanese government as a cultural icon symbolic of “cool Japan,” nigiri or edomae sushi became emblematic of Japanese culture and cuisine as the global sushi eaten throughout the world. The diaspora of sushi was facilitated by the development of freezing techniques, which made it possible for fish, especially tuna, caught anywhere in the world to be safely flown to Japan and to other fish markets. Although the acceptance of sushi in North America and then Europe was slow and proceeded in stages, by the 1970s, it had become popular. Many Japanese businessmen worked in the United States, especially in California and New York, and they craved good sushi. Sushi then caught on more broadly due in part to perceptions of it as a light, healthy meal, especially among health-conscious Californians. As it spread throughout the world, sushi developed in various ways. In the United States—beginning with the California roll, which includes cucumber and avocado—a wide variety of new types of rolls were developed. None of these were seen as authentic sushi to purists, but although initially viewed skeptically, California rolls and some others have now made their way to Japan, where they are often viewed as novelties.
Sushi restaurants in the United States initially tended to be expensive, as were many sushi bars in Japan. Soon after its origins as a street food, nigiri sushi had moved into fancier and more expensive restaurants. By the 1830s, several expensive sushi bars were serving Edo's elite. Sushi chefs developed skills such as rice making, molding the rice into the finger shape, and knife skills displayed in cutting fish, or other toppings, very carefully. High-end restaurants devoted to sushi provide sophisticated dining experiences at premium prices. These are represented in Japan by restaurants such as Jiro Ono's Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, celebrated in the 2010 documentary film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At Jiro's, one pays more than $300 for 15 pieces of sushi. Less expensive and less formal neighborhood sushi bars also opened. Sushi bars and restaurants throughout the world and in Japan vary widely in style and price. There are middle-range sushi restaurants, although, in Japan at least, these may be getting sparser. In the United States, many Asian or Japanese restaurants serve reasonably priced, although not always high-quality, sushi. Kaiten sushi, or sushi-on-conveyor, was invented in Osaka in the 1970s; these enjoyed a boom in Japan in the 1990s and quickly spread through the rest of the world. Such restaurants with a moving conveyor belt from which patrons choose their favorite dishes may not provide the best sushi, but are immensely popular and provide sushi in a casual, nonintimidating atmosphere. In some places—London, for example—many sushi restaurants are more upscale versions of sushi-on-conveyor.
Japanese and worldwide preferences for o-toro, fatty cuts from Atlantic and Pacific bluefin tuna, have led to overfishing and have raised questions about sustainability of sushi, not only bluefin tuna, but also other species. Because bluefin tuna is a key predator, its depletion may lead to disruptions in ocean ecosystems. These fish, and others, are increasingly caught in large-scale industrial fishing operations or as by-catch when other types of fish are the target. Overfishing has led to drastic depletion of bluefin tuna all over the world. There are various approaches to remedy or slow down this process. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, founded in 1969 to set up quotas and regulate the bluefin catch, has proved largely ineffective. Other approaches focus on educating individual consumers. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program provides resources on sustainable sushi. Some restaurants provide information on the sustainability of the fish choices on their menus; however, in the United States, this approach is complicated by widespread mislabeling of fish. Consumers trying to choose more sustainable choices may not be getting what they expect. A restaurant in San Diego, California, has attempted to deal with this problem by putting quick response (QR) codes codes on its sushi, an approach that may be tried more widely. There are larger questions, including whether this type of effort aimed at changing consumer behavior has much chance of success. Other initiatives to regulate the fishing and production end of the global food chains involving fish—particularly bluefin tuna—may hold out more hope, although they have been unsuccessful so far. The viability of sushi in the future may depend on it.
See also Anti-Globalization Movements/World Trade Organization; Aquaculture/Fish Farming; Authenticity of Cuisines; Commodity Chains; Endangered Species; Ethnic Foods, Marketing of; Fisheries Certification Programs; Fishing Industry; Overfishing and Fisheries Depletion; Umami
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