The Economy | Sushi: A fusion cuisine that illustrates globalization

Posted: March 28, 2007

I've enjoyed sushi since 1979, which was about when the Japanese delicacy first started turning up in Middle America.

But it wasn't until the other day, when I had sushi with Sasha Issenberg, that I realized I had been happily chowing down all these years on an unsung symbol of global commerce.

You may think of your tekka-maki as merely an exotic snack from Japan, something traditional to the Far East. But that's not the half of it.

As Issenberg explained, passing the soy sauce, what you're getting with wasabi and pickled ginger is really the toothsome end of a worldwide supply chain, an intricate network of which Japan is only one part.

Issenberg, a Philadelphia writer and Swarthmore grad, is an authority on sushi, having spent 15 months researching it for his book, The Sushi Economy, due out next month.

And while he's happy to talk of sashimi in Sapporo or how to find unagi in Uruguay, his real point is that sushi transcends geography.

While those little fish-and-rice concoctions may indeed trace their roots to 19th-century Tokyo street stalls, the stuff that millions eat today is actually a modern reinvention.

Sushi as we know it began about 1970, when Japanese air shippers needed something to send back home in the cargo planes that crossed the Pacific laden with radios and other exports to the West.

They discovered Canadian fishermen were routinely throwing away North Atlantic bluefin tuna - fish that could fetch tens of thousands of dollars if brought fresh to Tokyo's massive seafood market.

At the same time, Norwegian engineers were developing leak-proof, refrigerated containers. And in Japan's booming economy, consumers were willing and able to spend more for top-grade seafood.

Just as hamburger joints proliferated in postwar America, sushi restaurants spread around Japan. Innovation abounded, such as conveyor-belt sushi bars, where diners picked food off plates as they rolled by.

As Japanese firms expanded overseas, sushi came too, taking root first on the West Coast, then spreading from Australia to Austin, Texas. Japanese sushi chefs - trained to slice fish and roll rice just so - found themselves in growing demand, and some, like Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa, founded sushi empires.

The market begat suppliers as well, specialty distributors who could work fast and flexibly enough to move tuna from the open ocean to dining rooms half a world away in a few days.

Beyond the physical logistics, the market developed new supplier-client relationships and an entire pricing mechanism that could cope with the uncertainties of the deep-sea fishery - "one of the last areas in which human beings remain hunter-gatherers," as Issenberg relates.

How all this happened - so successfully that you can probably find a plate of fresh sushi within 30 minutes of wherever you are - illustrates the power of markets as clearly as anything I can think of. As Issenberg writes:

"In sushi, no one controls all the information." The market "isn't administered by any bureaucracy or enforced by any legal code; it is an informal series of arrangements that have emerged through experience."

Those arrangements are still emerging, moreover, as sushi entrepreneurs reinvent the product for scores of local tastes and conditions.

My favorite neighborhood sushi joint serves Philly rolls named after local sports heroes, but you can also find Cajun, Tex-Mex, South American and dozens of other styles. The variations spread so fast and wide that even the Japanese now dine on what has to be considered fusion cuisine.

It's a great story, and it's instructive even if you're one of those people who wouldn't eat sushi on a bet.

Globalization isn't a top-down process, dominated by mega-corporations and international treaties. At heart, it's just what happens when goods, people and ideas are free to move around the world.

And the result, like the stuff served up at a good sushi bar, is likely to be both surprising and delightful.

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