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The Declining State of Sushi in America

The Declining State of Sushi in America

Sushi has been decidedly integrated into the American diet. Sure, some people still cast a skeptical eye on sushi, seeing it as nothing more than glorified “bait.” However, sushi maintains a certain amount of popularity and ubiquity from the largest American cities to even the smaller towns and outlying municipalities. If you can’t find a reputable sushi bar, you will be almost sure to find “fresh” sushi packed in clear plastic containers in your local supermarket. But as with wine, coffee, or any other food of varying quality and pedigree, not all sushi is the same and not all sushi is all that authentic.

Take for instance the aforementioned supermarket sushi, even the slightly higher quality version you may find at Whole Foods, while those meticulous rolls may look like sushi, and even taste quite good, they are not at all what the Japanese originally intended when they imported sushi to American shores several decades ago. For instance, the ever-present sushi roll is largely an American invention to make sushi more accessible and acceptable to Americans, and guess what…it worked.

A recent Washington Post article outlines some of the longstanding and developing threats to the authenticity of sushi in the United States, which include a sagging economy, China’s growing hunger for raw fish, sustainability and health issues around fish consumption, and the flagging interest on the part of trained Japanese sushi chefs to come to America to share their skills and product. This used to not be such a problem back in the go-go 80s, when the prospect of relocating to the U.S. was a lucrative prospect and immigration to the U.S. was not such a difficult task – now it is a different story. But the nationality of a sushi chef may be less of an issue than who had trained them. As the pool of skilled and properly trained sushi chefs declines, the end product becomes less defined and subject to prevailing trends and novelties. As the article notes, “one potential outcome of this shallow talent pool is that poorly trained sushi chefs will beget more poorly trained sushi chefs, the culinary equivalent of that repeatedly photocopied handout from college.”

As it stands now, authentic Japanese sushi (that is sushi that hasn’t been Americanized) is only available in a handful of places in the U.S. and many of those places exist at the high-end of dining spectrum, and therefore only the privileged few get the good stuff. Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi, mourns the loss of real sushi and says the loss will continue to occur at mid-grade sushi houses, where the standards have slipped, if indeed there were any to begin with.

But maybe all of this is relatively unimportant (or at least important to a limited few), as the American tradition is more about assimilation and interpretation than authenticity. Americans just seem to prefer the wide-open freedoms of maki rolls, whose big flavors and boundless creativity are more aligned with America’s image of itself, more so than the fastidious fussiness of the true Japanese sushi experience. Does this slippage concern you? Do you feel authenticity should be held up as the highest standard in the States, or is that something for the Japanese to worry about? Is it important for you to have a genuine sushi experience, or do you just want more mayo and tempura batter on your roll?

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

92 comments

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1:12PM PST on Feb 23, 2012

The same article could have been written about the decline of spaghetti, tacos, chow mein, and even hamburgers (just ask the people of Hamburg!). Once any food becomes a fad, it degenerates.

7:54AM PST on Feb 21, 2012

oh yeah... and think about it this way.

Having a sushi chef who's spent YEARS of training in their field make you a California Roll or something of that nature is pretty much equivalent to having Emeril Lagassi make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

7:51AM PST on Feb 21, 2012

@Lois, and once again, we go back to... who's the most likely to have fish that is safe and not dyed or polluted, etc.... a well-trained Japanese sushi chef who is dedicated to his trade would be the answer. Well-trained sushi chefs didn't spend years and years training so they could make you a California roll.

Like it or not, you are MOST LIKELY going to encounter all of the concerns you just described at a non-Japanese owned sushi joint that has terrible nigiri and focuses on rolls. I'm sorry, but this is plain fact. People eat rolls and thus the most affordable (and thus usually most popular) places are going to specialize in rolls and not really care if they're fish is that great or not since their customers can't really tell anyway.

9:11PM PST on Feb 19, 2012

No sushi for me, thanks.

9:05PM PST on Feb 19, 2012

The Americanization of another country's cuisine does not concern me. Does anyone really think that the "Italian" cuisine we get here in any way resembles what you would get if you went to Italy? How about German, Thai, Greek, Mexican, or Korean? Once another country's food reaches our shores, we are naturally going to change it to suit our own tastes and preferences. What's wrong with that? It works the other way around, too. I bet that if you went to a McDonald's in China, you would be astonished at some of the food choices there (although maybe "food" isn't quite the right word for whatever it is McDonald's serves!).

What does concern me, though, is contamination of seafood by pollutants from farms, factories, homes, vehicles, and landfills. Consider the kinds of toxins that we are dumping into the oceans every day: mercury, pesticides, motor oil, crude oil, fertilizers, plastics, manure, medical wastes (including excess medicines that get expelled from your body), dioxins from paper mills, PCBs, garbage of every shape, size, and description...the list is seemingly endless, and the sheer volume of it shows no sign of slowing, much less ever stopping. Fish ingest a lot of these toxins, which are not destroyed by cooking. Sushi is good, but I have to wonder how truly safe it is to eat raw fish these days. This is the issue that should be of concern to us, rather than whether or not sushi has been too Americanized.

3:10AM PST on Feb 15, 2012

Yuck, you couldn't pay me to eat raw fish. Too much contamination everywhere.

9:42AM PST on Feb 14, 2012

Harriet, the thing is that the restaurants that have good authentic sushi tend to have the best fish. Also, the best way to tell if the fish and rice are the best is to eat sushi nigiri style. Rolls cover up so much.

11:03AM PST on Feb 12, 2012

I worry more about the quality of the fish than how Americanized the sushi is. Well trained sushi chefs know a lot about fish and how to buy the freshest, highest quality, etc. Health worries me more than authenticity! Is the fish we are getting from poorly trained chefs going to make us sick?

3:25PM PST on Feb 2, 2012

Yes, they still HAVE nigiri, but the nigiri is terrible at most places...

Typical nigiri problems at most restaurants:
1. Too much rice
2. Bad fish.
3. Bad rice.
4. Fish is very poorly cut.

There are a PLETHORA of restaurants that have a ton of fancy rolls and bad nigiri. There are a few that have great rolls and amazing nigiri. Thankfully I have one of those restaurants near me.

2:06PM PST on Feb 2, 2012

Okay fair point about the nature of American rolls. With more ingredients you can cover the poor ones, unagi sauce goes further... to say nothing of mayo and hot sauce. I won't say those aren't sushi but I'm not keen to try mayo with mine.

I like rolls but then I've also never been to a place that did not serve nigiri so I may not be seeing the worst of this trend. I did go to a buffet place once that served I-can't-believe-it's-sushi and even they had nigiri. So the only time I've seen terrible nigiri it was alongside terrible and very simple rolls.

I also think a Dragon Roll is lot healthier than a lot of other things even so. Fatty, and perhaps too sweet if they overdid the sauce, but fat isn't as bad as people tend to think. It's not a balanced diet in itself but some of that and a salad isn't such a bad way to eat. Now the tempura fried stuff I can't really justify as healthy since it's just a bunch of added empty fat and carbs.

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