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?