Sunday, August 03, 2008

"The Sushi Economy" by Sasha Issenberg

"More than any other food, possibly more than any other commodity, to eat sushi is to display an access to advanced trade networks, of full engagement in world commerce. It also demonstrates faith in the local authority of safe food-handling, a vote of confidence in the responsibility of government and the credibility of local business. ... Consumption of sushi has become an indispensably conspicuous display of a modern economy." [p 267]
On the plane coming to Hawaii Friday, I read The Sushi Economy. This quote summarizes one of the most important points of the book: the global reach of sushi -- no matter where you eat it, you are eating fish that came from around the world.

A more accurate title for the book might be The Tuna Economy, as most of the economic material is about fishing for tuna to supply sushi bars -- the development of air transport to bring fish to Tsukiji market in Tokyo, the development of a global market for sushi bars, the development of tuna farms, global stress on tuna fisheries, attempts at regulation, falsification of origin papers, etc. I would like to have learned more about a few of the other components of sushi -- like rice, whose importance to sushi cuisine was scarcely noted. In fact, if I hadn't read Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish, I wouldn't even have been conscious of this omission.

Despite the technicality of much of this, the book held my interest, especially the point that sushi is a totally global food phenomenon, constantly changing as it moves from market to market, yet viewed as somehow more authentic than other global cuisines. "The narrative of a perfected past debased by the homogenizing pressures of integration is a convenient fiction embraced by reactionaries of all stripes. Yet sushi's history shows a foodstuff always in flux, remaking itself over centuries due to shifting pressures of economics and culture." [p. xxi]

Finally, a point that I found fascinating connects to another book I read recently, D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture. I was struck by the way that Suzuki described the Japanese love of nature, which I felt really was more a love of gardens and of human control of nature: even when it's a love of Mount Fuji! Issenberg quoted a Japanese economist as saying this: "Most Japanese don't think of aquatic products -- fish or seafood -- as part of wildlife. ... For the Japanese, fish are something to eat." [p. 247] As a result, it's difficult to convince the Japanese consumers or government that their demand for fish, especially for large tuna, puts unbearable pressure on the sea. (Not that Americans or Europeans are that much better on the whole.)

In a way, the conclusion one draws from the book is sad: tuna is vanishing as are many other sea products, and the collective ability of governments and other organizations to take effective action is very weak.

1 comment:

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

There was an article in The Week, I believe, (although it may have been yesterday's Times) about jellyfish and tourism and the fact that jellyfish are appearing everywhere and are the cockroaches of the seas, indicating that the oceans are in serious trouble.