FRONTLINE: 60 Seconds

Sushi Scribe Sasha Issenberg

Sushi Scribe Sasha Issenberg

In his new book, The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy (Gotham Books, 323 pages), local writer Sasha Issenberg unravels the invisible web of fishermen, vendors, air transport, restaurateurs, pirates and smugglers that have transformed a Japanese street snack into coveted cuisine. Connoisseurs, trade scholars and curiosity seekers will be spellbound by his insights—like the revelation that sinking your teeth into a great piece of sushi has as much to do with your proximity to an airport as it does with getting to know the man behind the sushi bar.

MLT: Globalization has had an impact on nearly all businesses across the world, so why focus solely on the raw fish industry?
SI: It really started five years ago, when I set out on a journalistic mission to find out where sushi came from. I’d been eating sushi since I was a kid and considered myself fairly knowledgeable. When I really got into researching the story—and tasting more fish—I realized I couldn’t name where or how a particular fish was caught. There’s this invisible web of people out there who’ve been creating this mysterious marketplace. It’s a real study in global trade.

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MLT: You refer to sushi, as we know it today, as an invention of the 20th century. What was it like before now?
SI: Nigiri sushi—fresh fish packed into rice, made to order—was sold as a street snack in 19th-century Tokyo. Cooked fish was more valuable than raw. The Japanese favored leaner fish; tuna was sold as cat food or tossed with soy to cut the oily flavor. It wasn’t until the Japanese saw Americans eating thick pieces of steak that red, fatty tuna became a luxury food.

MLT: Most of us think we know what constitutes premium sushi and sashimi. But what don’t we know?
SI: “Fresh” is an abstract concept that overlooks when a fish was caught and how long it takes to get from sea to sushi bar. East Coast tuna is the closest to just-caught; it can be in a restaurant within two to three days. So many places get their fish from the same vendor—around here it’s True World Foods—so saying one serves the freshest has more to do with what happens after it’s purchased. We don’t see chefs having any unique skills, but most of what we appreciate about sushi is in their hands. Quality can diminish quickly if fish is not handled properly or inventory sits.

MLT: Some varieties of tuna cost more than $100 per pound. How much do concerns about over-fishing and mercury levels affect pricing?
SI: Mercury levels have had little effect on value. The demand for tuna especially—and willingness to pay top dollar—is high. There’s definitely a fear for certain species and a long-term threat to our supply, but ranching is helping to combat this. Of course, this presents other issues, mostly about what the fish are fed. The biggest problem is piracy, which is rampant in places like the Mediterranean.

MLT: Were there drawbacks to eating sushi in 14 countries?
SI: Yeah. I ate some pretty bad sushi. There were a couple of days I had sushi twice before noon and thought I’d never want to see it again.

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