Fear of Sushi

There were not one but two Op-Ed articles in the New York Times yesterday about sushi. Two! It always amazes me how fast sushi has become mainstream in the U.S. in particular and 'the West' in general, but I guess this is some sort of proof.

The two articles are Chicken of the Sea by Stephen Shaw (the author of a dining guide to restaurants in Asia) and Sushi for Two by Trevor Corson (author of a book about sushi). While I agree in the spirit of their arguments (Americans or eh, 'Westerners' should be more adventurous with their selection of fish at a sushi place, and that some people are overly scared of the raw fish used for sushi), I sort of wonder what planet they are living on.

For one thing, don't we all know that many Americans are simply scared of their food? If it's not parasites in raw fish, it's something else - trans fats, cholesterol, fat, carbs, alcohol, 'germs' in general, chemical anything. I've been through various food scares in the past in other countries (such as near-hysteria levels over e.coli on raw vegetables in Japan some years ago) but to me, when it comes to an almost constant fear of the harm that food can do to ones body Americans are really up there. There are not a few people who cannot get any kind of enjoyment out of food - to them food is merely fuel, an evil necessity. If these people could just ingest some manufactured nutrition bars and nutritional supplements that are guaranteed 'safe' and 'healthy' I'm sure they will. (It's also the land of ligitation. Some of my European friends laugh at the big bad warning labels on bottles of wine and such that appear on bottles meant for the American market and things like that, but ultimately it's a matter of covering everyones' legal asses.)

In such a climate, it's really no wonder that at least a segment of the American population is scared of raw anything, let alone raw fish. One of the writers makes the argument that raw shellfish, which is a part of the 'American' diet (while sushi is 'foreign'), is a cause of more food poisoning than raw fish consumed with or as sushi, and that that's illogical. Of course it is, but human beings are just illogical when it comes to food: it's easier to dismiss a food that is newer to ones eating habits than something one has grown up eating.

When it comes to pregnancy and food safety it's hard for most people to be totally rational or be willing to experiment. While mothers in Japan eat raw fish in the form of sashimi or sushi without worrying, I can't really blame mothers in America or elsewhere for being cautious. Even though I don't have kids, I tend to be over-cautious about eating sushi, simply because there are a lot of so-called sushi chefs out there who just don't know what they are doing.

Which leads to the other point that Trevor Corson makes, about the need for Americans to diversify their sushi fish selection, and for the sushi chefs to educate them about it. I am guessing Mr. Corson lives in a big city with a good selection of really good sushi restaurants? Does he know that increasingly, the neighborhood sushi restaurant is manned by 'sushi chefs' who couldn't tell you much if anything about different kinds of fish? If your neighborhood sushi restaurant has things like 'dragon roll' on their menu, chances are this is the case. Sure, it's a great idea to try different kinds of fish other than tuna. When I go to a good sushi restaurant, I only have tuna twice (once as toro and once as akami, the lean cut of the fish); the rest of my selection is made up of different kinds of neta (the stuff that goes on top of, around or in the rice), of fish and beyond (pickled cabbage sushi is great). But there is a scarcity of good sushi places. Until just 15 years ago or so ago, most sushi places outside of Japan were expensive, special places, generally with chefs who knew their craft. Nowadays, while you can still get that specially prepared sushi from a master, the sushi that most people eat is a version that is dumbed down. (And Japan is not immune to this phenomenon either - there are places to eat sushi on all levels, and the safety of the fish at some of the cheaper all-you-can-eat, conveyor belt or 'floating boat' and other places has been called to question.)

In any case, I don't really think that Americans inhaling more than their share of tuna is really the major reason for tuna scarcity; it's just the explosion of the popularity of sushi all over the world.

So if you are a sushi lover, what to do? This is what I do anyway: I try to stay away from cheap sushi unless the neta is cooked or vegetable based. If I want to be more adventurous I go to a really good sushi place with a real itamae-san. I do have the advantage of speaking (and er, being) Japanese, but even the most English-challenged itamae-san likes an adventurous eater.

The most basic thing to remember though is: good sushi is not cheap, even if you aren't gobbling up tons of toro. If it's cheap it's not good, because that means they are cutting corners somewhere - with the quality of fish, the quality of chef, or both.

Filed under:  essays japanese sushi

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I've been living in Japan for about a year now. I've certainly been exposed to many more kinds of nigiri than I eat at home... buri, bincho maguro, sake, tai, kanpachi. These have become my go to fish. What else am I missing? What else do you recommend?

You didn't mention if you've tried shelfish, but if not you may want to try all kinds of those - awabi (abalone), miru-gai, aka-gai, to name just a couple. Ika (squid) raw with salt and lemon or yuzu, shirauo (tiny little fish), etc... Also some special cuts like engawa (the bit of fin muscle on a halibut). Also on the non-fish side, umeshiso (umeboshi and shiso) is a standard, but you can also get, depending on where you go, pickles (usually hakusai (chinese cabbage) pickles or cucumber or carrot or burdock). Individual sushi-ya will have different specialities. Really the best way to go is omakase at the counter, making sure your itamae-san knows you want to try everything!

My husband and I have been classified as "The Food Snobs" by our friends and family. Simply because we aren't afraid to try new things. We are very new to the world of sushi and have fallen head over heels for it. You commented that the best sushi is usually the most expensive. Our question is how do we know what expensive is? We have tried a couple places so far and the first we paid about $15 for a roll. It was alright but we were not that impressed. The place that we find ourselves going back to has a great itamae-san and we pay about $9 a roll. The Nigiri we order is about $1.75 a piece. We are kind of land locked here in Utah and can't find many other sushi restaurants. But if these are considered cheap prices for sushi then we can't wait to travel somewhere to find out what we are missing out on.
Also I love your site! I have made oni-giri following your instructions many times and my husband is in heaven each and every time. Thank You!

Kimberly, if your favorite sushi place has a good itamae-san that's the most important thing. I'm sure he knows what neta (the fish and other things that go with the rice) can be obtained for a fair price in Utah, and charges accordingly. You're very lucky!

I thought about what you had to say about fear of food for a couple of days, and I think you have hit something right. The sad thing is that I believe we have rightly learned to be afraid of certain things, namely the more processed foods. If you don't check to be certain, you could be eating anything. If you just want something like tomato paste, you have to search through can after can to find one that is not loaded with sugar. And if you're a vegetarian who leans towards veganism, it can be even worse.

It's unfortunate, though, that this fear has been extended to food in general. Because we've been trained to be afraid of fat (due to the use of it in processed foods), things like avocados, olives, eggs, good cheeses, and other high fat whole foods are simply lumped in with everything else. But when it comes to enjoying food, I know that once I'm out of the grocery store and I know that everything I have is something that is not loaded with crap, there go all of my worries.

Katie I agree, with careful shopping you can come out of the grocery store knowing you're going to be eating 'good' stuff. I guess the problem for a lot of people is making the time and effort to cook... which is really a shame.

I just don't understand how some people don't take pleasure in cooking. It's really just another art form, one that you have rightly pointed out to be one that is experienced once and then gone, never to be had in the same form again. And cooking good food does not have to take a lot of time if you think things through, like starting rice or pasta first then moving on to things like vegetables.

I wrote a blog entry awhile back about globalization causing the tuna scarcity problem in Japan, so your entry struck a bell. I, myself, love sushi too much to give it up though!

I'm a sushi novice, so I was curious to know what is wrong with a Dragon Roll? I think its usually soft-shell crab, if I'm not mistaken. Sorry for being clueless, I dye my blond roots regularly. :)

There is nothing wrong with a dragon roll, but it's not traditional/authentic sushi, but an invention of sushi restaurants (that don't necessarily have Japanese people running it) in America I think. (I don't think it has softshell crab in it..it has fried shrimp and other things I think, but I haven't had one in ages so i'm not totally sure.)

I love kaiten-zushi, but now I'm scared to eat it...

I know this is over two years old but I'm sure you'll get it anyway via notifications.
Personally cooking and eating yummy and varied food is one of the most important things to me, and I'm an american. I wouldn't be happy with a nutrition bar. :p
(And also, I'm not fond of tuna. I like crab the best. :) )

On the other hand, my experience is that the japanese are generally quite cool about food problems... A colleague of mine once mentioned that she would like to eat thin-sliced raw chicken right now, and I asked whether she wasn't afraid of a salmonella-poisoning. She shrugged, and said she never had one before, but her sister did, and so what, she likes raw chicken anyway.

I'm quite relaxed myself where food safety is concerned, and my digestion is normal, but somehow evertime I'm in Japan I end up alternately taking pills against diarrhoea and dried plums against constipation most of the time... (might be linked to my tendency to start the day with sushi, though.) And judging by the consumtion of Yakult (and the look of some toilets, concerning the other side of digestive issues)by the locals, this seems to be no "not used to the cuisine"-problem...

By the way, my impression was that there's a lot more foodscare going on in Japan where imported stuff is concerned. The news seem to regularly want to give everyone the impression that the chinese are trying to kill them with their less-than-edible export goods.