Editor's Note - Mr. Terl wrote this when he was in college. More recently, he referred to it as "embarassingly grandiosely titled" though I remain amused by its presumption, and have yet to find a factual error in it. I originally found it through a mention in the Chicago Reader's "Caught in the Net" column several years ago. Since then, he has become a rather more serious writer. Though, as always, I use the word loosely. Check out his work at http://members.nerve.com/mterl/In Michael Crichton's successful 1992 novel Rising Sun, there is
But how did sushi attain a level of popularity
matches that of Chinese food? Before examining sushi's popularity in
America, it is important to understand what it was and is in Japan.
First, however, a quick word on what sushi
is, and on what it is
not. "Sushi" is merely the rice, which is given a distinctive taste and
stickiness through the addition of vinegar. The most commonly consumed
type of sushi in America is nigiri-zushi (the "s" changing to a "z" when
it is the latter part of a compound word; the hyphen is used to prevent
cumbersome words when writing for Americans). Nigiri-zushi basically
consists of balls of the vinegared rice topped with some form of neta
(the main ingredient of the sushi and the one which lends each type its
specific name) such as fish, roe, or egg. Sushi is NOT just raw fish; in
fact, many types of sushi (such as shrimp, eel and crab) are cooked. If
one wanted to order a plate of raw fish in a Japanese restaurant, that
would be known as sashimi, which will also be briefly discussed later.
"The oldest written record we have of sushi
in contained in a
work written during the Nara period (710 - 795 A.D)" (Kumagai 1). This
may be so, but there are currently many theories about precisely how the
evolution itself took place in Japan. What is agreed upon is this: in
its earliest form, sushi was merely a method of preserving fish. The
fish was salted and dried in the sun. Then, in some fashion, people
began adding rice to the fish to aid in the preservation. In her book,
At Home With Japanese Cooking, Elizabeth Andoh states that "a few wealthy
homes must have experimented with stuffing the salted fish with cooked
rice" (68). Donald Richie theorizes in A Taste of Japan that "rice was
packed around the fish fillets and then thrown away before the aging
flesh was eaten" (15). And according to Kenji Kumagai in The Sushi
Handbook "later, rice was used in place of salt to 'cure' or 'ripen'
fish" (1). Whichever of these stories may or may not be true does not
really matter. It is just important to realize that the origins of the
dish are shrouded by time and have become almost the stuff of legend.
In fact, Kumagai also relates a Japanese folk
story about the
possible beginnings of sushi:
A more colorful Japanese tradition of how this method of preserving
was discovered concerns an old fisherman's wife. It is said she saw an
osprey building a nest and placed some leftover rice in the nest. When
the old woman looked in the nest sometime later, she found the osprey had
placed much fish in it. She took the fish home and found it both quite
tasty and that it kept for some time.
Again, this is merely to illustrate how legendary this food is.
minor differences in the origins do not affect the final outcome. It was
discovered that adding rice to the fish not only aided in the
preservation of the fish (through fermentation and the subsequent
creation of lactic acid) but also added a sharp, tangy taste to the
rice. And so sushi was born in its earliest form. It is interesting to
note that in some areas of Japan, sushi is still made in this fashion,
wherein layers of fish and rice are packed into a box and pressed with a
stone, creating a sort of cake (Kumagai 1). This is called nare-zushi.
In fact, the word sushi itself stems from these
roots, as it can
be translated directly as "acidic". But the characters meaning "acidic"
are different from those referring to the delicacy eaten here today. It
was changed to contain the characters for "happiness" and "purpose"
Going out to eat sushi at a sushi bar should,
according to all
experts on the subject, be more than just a meal. It should be an
experience, involving elements of art, Japanese culture, bar etiquette,
and camaraderie as well as gastronomic pleasure. The experience is
described in detail time and again in the publications on the subject
and, using those references as well as my own experiences, I too will
attempt to recreate the experience.
Japanese restaurants are ordinarily extremely
light-colored wood furnishings, Japanese decor and art, and often
traditional rice paper shoji walls separating one section of the
restaurant from another. The sushi bar is a long counter where the
patrons can sit, much like a lower version of the American drink bar, but
beyond the section of the counter where the food will be placed there is
a large refrigerated glass case which runs the length of the bar. The
various neta are displayed in here, and in traditional Japanese culture,
the neta should be displayed artfully in the case as well as when they
are actually served. They will probably be placed so that the colors
offset one another; for example, a white fish such as flounder will
probably be in between the deep pink of the tuna and the bright orange of
Behind the sushi bar stands the itamae, the
sushi chef. His role
in unique to his profession, as he must act as bartender, chef, waiter
and advisor to his customers. The itamae is always garbed in traditional
uniform, and frequently he wears his knife around his waist.
In fancier Japanese restaurants, when the customer
seated at the sushi he is brought a damp, hot or cool towel with which to
cleanse and refresh himself. In front of himself the customer will find
a set of chopsticks, a small dish for holding soy sauce (shoyu, or
murasaki [purple] in the sushi tradition) and, in some restaurants, a
chopstick holder. This last is merely a small stand which keeps the
business ends of your chopsticks from being contaminated by other flavors
on your plate or any dirt which might be on the table.
Then, a tsu (sushi-expert) would probably order
a glass of hot
sake (Japanese rice-wine) before beginning. He would then follow this up
with an order of sashimi -- raw fish artfully cut and displayed -- before
proceeding on to the sushi. Most Americans, however, have not yet
developed the taste for sake, and often skip the sashimi, since they view
sushi as a sort of upscale fast-food. So the average customer, after
sitting down and enjoying a cup of tea, brought by a waitress, would then
place an order of sushi.
Again the ancient Japanese tradition and the
nascent American one
differ. The Japanese or the American tsu would place one (or at most
two) orders at a time, each order containing two pieces of the
nigiri-zushi. An average American, again in a hurry, would order a large
quantity of sushi, either as a combination plate or a la carte, all at
once. Either way, however, the order is placed directly with the itamae,
who write nothing down but starts immediately working.
The creation of sushi is an art. It is
a common Japanese legend
that the truly great itamae-san ("san" is an honorific suffix) should be
able to create balls of rice in which all of the grains of rice should
face the same direction. Most itamae, however, are content to form the
ball in their specific shape, patting it with their fingers to insure its
perfection. The itamae must keep his fingers well soaked in
vinegar-water, because the sushi rice is extremely sticky and difficult
to work with. Then, once the ball of rice (shari) is formed to the
itamae's satisfaction, he sets it aside and begins slicing the neta. The
thickness of the slice also depends on the discretion of the itamae, who
take into account the strength of the fish's taste, the consistency of
the fish, and the aesthetic quality of the sliced neta. Once the neta
has been sliced the itamae puts a small dab of wasabi (potent Japanese
horseradish) on it and sets it onto the shari. For some types of sushi,
such as tamago (egg omelette), he will then secure it with a thin strip
of nori (toasted seaweed).
The two pieces of sushi are then placed side-by-side,
directly onto the counter in front of you (upscale) or on a small wooden
tray which looks like a miniaturized table (more common). Accompanying
them would be two small piles: one of wasabi and one of gari (a pickled,
shaved ginger). At this point, the truly knowledgeable patron will
disregard his chopsticks and use his fingers to pick up the sushi and
carefully dip only the neta, not the shari, into the soy sauce. Dipping
the rice into the soy sauce can cause the carefully formed shari to fall
apart and, because of the soaking power of the rice, draws too much
strong flavored soy sauce into the sushi thus overpowering the other,
more subtle flavors of the neta, the wasabi, and the rice. Most
Americans, it seems, either don't realize this or (very possibly) prefer
the stronger soy taste, and make this common error, which Japanese chefs
view as analogous to "pouring ketchup all over the outside of your
hamburger bun" (Detrick 22).
The tsu would probably now order a sake for
the itamae before
placing his next order. After the customer is done, it is common (and
almost required, in Japan) for the waitress to bring a cup of green tea.
In extremely traditional sushi bars, the itamae has kept a running tally
of the customer's tab in his head, but it is more common for the bill to
be written down.
There are variations, of course. Some
sushi bars will serve miso
(soy bean curd) soup before the sushi, some will offer a small salad of
seaweed or pieces of fish, but the general routine remains the same
The importance of the itamae in the traditional
sushi bar is
still present in Japan, but has not come to America with the rest of the
tradition. For example, the itamae calculating the bill is viewed in
Japan as "part of the art of the itamae," and mistakes in calculation are
part of this:
Just as the finest oriental paintings and ceramics often have
flaw that enhances its value, so a mistake in the bill is part of the
experience of eating at a sushi bar.
But, according to Kumagai, "it is difficult . . . for Americans to take
such a cavalier attitude towards what they consider to be a padded bill.
Americans cannot understand why a sushi bill cannot be calculated with
This is just one example of a tradition that
has not continued
overseas due to the different psyches of the two nations. The main
difference in the way that the outlooks differ is that to the Americans,
a meal is a meal, whereas to the Japanese, "an agreement made with
someone for whom you have poured sake is an agreement to be honored"
(Detrick 16). This is carried over into the heights of the Japanese
The government considers this sort of entertaining so essential to the
prosperity of Japan that its costs are totally tax deductible, amounting
to a sizable subsidy of the restaurant business. The result is an
extraordinary level of quality and personal service unknown and
unaffordable in the United States.
But it is this same personal service which makes the sushi bar so
attractive to Americans: "Deluged as we are in America with impersonal
restaurants and microwave cooking, we crave genuine service and
first-rate food. We have found both in the Japanese sushi tradition"
Even the amount of wasabi a customer puts on
his sushi can
illustrate volumes on his national psyche. According to Kuragai, "The
amount of horseradish used by the average [Japanese] person is still less
than that used by the average American" (60). This is attributed to two
main causes. The first is that the Japanese appreciate the subtleties of
food more, that strong tastes are not as important to them as
complementary flavors and consistencies. The second is, according to Mia
Detrick, in her book, Sushi: "chefs complain that Americans eat it
(wasabi) like peanut butter, thinking it demonstrates their bravery. It
merely makes them numb" (70).
From these examples, it becomes obvious that
Sushi has been in
America long enough for the traditions to begin adapting, but it does not
answer the question of how it came over in the first place, or what made
it so popular.
To answer this question in detail, let us turn
to the cookbooks.
The market has recently been nearly glutted with Japanese cookbooks, so
they seem like a fairly recent innovation. But the truth is that there
have been Japanese cookbooks on the American market since as far back as
1949, if not farther. In that year, Aka Kagawa wrote the Japanese
Cookbook, which was published by the Japanese Travel Bureau.
Kagawa saw potential which was not even close
to realized until
nearly twenty-five years after the publication of his book. He relates
his reasoning in the preface to the 1962 edition:
In the past, so many foreigners have eaten and enjoyed sukiyaki and
tempura, but that is about all. During my childhood, on the shores of
the Pacific, it was my good fortune to know a kind American missionary,
who taught my mother my aunt and myself about Christianity. We often
entertained this friend at our modest Japanese meals, and it still gives
me a thrill of delight to remember how much he enjoyed the chirashi-zushi
and nigiri-zushi we served him.
First off, it should be realized that those "modest Japanese meals"
probably seemed like gorgeous banquets to the American, albeit banquets
without so much food. The Japanese believe that the dishes are as
important as the food itself, and so have an elaborate, attractive set of
utensils and bowls for everyday use that would seem fancy at almost any
occasion in an American home. Kagawa's experience with that missionary
and his later travels convinced him "that there must be many foreigners
nowadays who would enjoy Japanese food, too" (v). His words seem
prophetic in hindsight, but the change hardly came overnight.
Following the publication of Kagawa's book,
cookbook did not appear for ten years, until Tomi Egami wrote Typical
Japanese Cooking in 1959. This book, while presenting many Japanese
recipes, is noticeably lacking in sushi dishes. Instead, it seems to be
pushing sashimi more, as if that was what the Japanese expected would be
more likely to catch hold in America. Kagawa's book was published again
1962, and the next new book appeared a (relatively) scant seven years
In 1969, Time-Life Books published Recipes:
The Cooking of Japan,
by Rafael Steinberg. This book also pushes sashimi over sushi, although
in this case a reason is hinted at. The Japanese apparently did not
understand the American revulsion towards what they considered to be "raw
fish" while they consumed raw oysters, clams, and steak tartare as
delicacies. Steinberg also has a prescient view of what is to come in
nouvelle cuisine when he offers such embryonic fusion recipes as "Boston
Mackerel cooked in Miso Sauce".
The next year, Peter and Joan Martin wrote
Japanese Cooking, in
which sushi is finally mentioned more, although sashimi is still clearly
still being pushed. Sushi was still more prominent in the 1976 Complete
Book of Japanese Cooking by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz. The reverse is true
in Joan Itoh's 1980 Japanese Cooking Now, where sashimi reappears as a
focus. That same year in Elizabeth Andoh's At Home With Japanese
Cooking, both are largely ignored. Both of these authors in 1980 make
references to "how increasingly popular Japanese cooking has become in
this country" (Andoh xii).
It is in 1985, with Donald Richie's A Taste
of Japan and Andoh's
An American Taste of Japan that sushi appears to have clearly come into
vogue. Richie's book, though not a cookbook, features a lengthy piece on
sushi, including the ubiquitous description of a sushi bar visit.
Andoh's book, however, is a cookbook of the first order, and Raymond
Sokolov refers to it in his book Why We Eat What We Eat. At this time,
Japanese cooking has already moved into the fabric of American life as
sushi and as nouvelle cuisine, and Andoh is merely trying to move it into
the home in those forms. It is interesting to notice that, in a complete
reversal, Richie mentions almost nothing about sashimi in his book.
So it was somewhere in between 1976 and 1985
that things started
to happen with regards to Japanese cooking. To find out what it is, we
turn to the newspapers. In a turn of the decade article in The
Washington Post on food fads of the '70s, Marian Burros points out that
many Oriental cuisines (Thai, Vietnamese, Moroccan and Tunisian) became
popular in the '70s, and in a flash of prescience says "Surely Japanese
What was she looking at to make this observation?
New York, of
course. In 1974, a little more than five years before Burros makes her
"prediction", there is an article in the New York Times entitled "Why New
Yorkers Love Japanese Food". The article, is split into two sections:
"The Reasons. . ." and "The Reviews". The first reason that author Jill
Gerston cites is "The 'sophisticated palates' of New Yorkers who are
eager to sample exotic foods". This pioneering spirit of New Yorkers is
repeatedly harped on in the article, and it's not just interstate
jingoism. In Kinjiro Omae's 1981 Book Of Sushi, there is an appendix
listing quality sushi establishments around the world. New York is one
of only four continental U.S. States listed, and it has the second most
with 39, behind, of course, California, which had 107. The pioneering
spirit, while making good newspaper copy, may not be the true reason.
Elizabeth Andoh attributes the sudden upsurge in sushi shops in the late
'70s and early '80s to "the huge influx of Japanese businessmen with
their families" (Andoh, Taste 17). New York and California are the
nations primary business districts, and that dovetails nicely with
Andoh's assessment that Japanese food follows Japanese businessmen.
Over the next 11 years, The Times runs four
more major articles
on the Japanese phenomenon in the United States, and, aside from that
brief, new years day mention, the post does not run a major sushi article
until 1986. Today, Miss Manners runs columns on how to eat sushi
politely and how to use chopsticks (all though she does make some minor
errors) and the post review an average of one Japanese restaurant every
So we've now reached an understanding of how
the cuisine came to
America and how it spread. Why did it catch on with the general public?
The main answer to that can be summed up by the headline of a 1988
Washington Post article: "Japanese Outpace the World in Life
Expectancy". Japanese cuisine, by virtue of being so low meat, is far
healthier than that of the West, and people began to realize it. This is
particularly apropos of sushi, because it was at once a fast food and a
health food, a combination not readily available anywhere else. It
interesting to note, though, that actual fast food sushi chains such as
Genroku Sushi in New York failed miserably. This points to another
reason people became attracted to sushi: the presentation. From the
lengthy ritual of the sushi bar (described above) to the artistic
presentation of the food itself, this was a cuisine with a mystique that
appealed to a populace weaned on greasy-spoon diners and Styrofoam
wrapped hamburgers run out by a machine. The itamae was a real human,
producing beautiful food that it would not be a mistake to call art, and
this was at once wonderful and refreshing to most Americans.
When asked about how they became attracted
to sushi, most members
of the Usenet Newsgroup alt.food.sushi (an internet tool where people
with common interests, in this case sushi, can communicate) most of the
responses involved exotic trips and simply daring souls. It is not
difficult to assume that these daring souls, after discovering their love
for the cuisine (a theme which recurred time and again in their
responses) then introduced their friends to it, and so on.
One response to a question of why and when
sushi caught on so
well was particularly interesting. Stephen R. Lasky, Ph.D. at Brown
University relayed the following anecdote:
I think that one of the direct causes of the Japanese food/sushi craze
was the series "Shogun". Before that I was always able to get a seat at
my favorite Japanese restaurant and could not convince Nakashima-san (the
owner) that he needed a sushi bar. He would always say that it wouldn't
work in America (and that was in Santa Barbara, CA). (The Suishin (named
after a brand of sake) was a good restaurant with traditional tatami
rooms (no wells and real tatami mats) and shoji screens.) After "Shogun"
was aired, business at the restaurant picked up substantially and
Nakashima-san finally imported a sushi chef and an assistant sushi chef,
and opened a sushi bar. That soon filled up and it became impossible to
get a seat at the bar unless you were a regular. In addition, the number
of Japanese restaurants that could be supported by the community rose
from 2 to about 6.
(May 9, 1995)
This seems to be a fairly accurate statement: "Shogun" aired in 1980,
right as the sushi craze kicked into gear. It is ironic as well, since
it was reading James Clavell's original novel Shogun that turned my
enjoyment of sushi into a love for the cuisine and an interest in the
culture as a whole.
One final important point is that the popularity
of Japanese food
in America did more than just lightly alter the rituals of the sushi
bar. It also greatly affected the development of nouvelle cuisine, as
Sokolov points out: "the full efflorescence of nouvelle cuisine was, to
an important extent, an exotic bloom fertilized by new ideas, aesthetic
and culinary, that traveled to France from abroad, in particular from
Japan, and found receptive soil in traditionally xenophobic France"
(225). One of the primary aspects of nouvelle cuisine is the
presentation of the food, the nearly artistic way in which it is laid out
on the plate and the way in which the geometric shapes contrast. This is
a direct influence from the Japanese food tradition. It was not a one
way street, however. One of the most popular types of sushi at all of
the sushi bars I visited was the California Roll, which is crab meat and
avocado rolled with sushi rice and seaweed, sometimes with poppy seeds or
crab roe added. In An American Taste of Japan, Elizabeth Andoh speaks
about this maki-zushi (sushi rolled in seaweed) as a cultural phenomenon:
The California Roll was one of the first recipes to surface and gain
general acceptance in a new era of Japanese cuisines abroad. It
represented one of the clearest, and most delicious, examples of the
current trend to blend American foodstuffs with Japanese technique. This
American sushi has recently been transplanted to Japan's urban centers of
gastronomy, where it has been greeted with pleasure.
(Andoh, Taste 134)
She also gives what is considered by Sokolov to be the definitive recipe
for this dish.
The growth of sushi in America was a lengthy
several decades. The food gained hold because of its aesthetic beauty,
its nutritional value, and its wonderful taste. There is another fast
food sushi chain making an attempt in the United States, Teriyaki Boy.
And if that isn't an indication that this food is still gaining
acceptance in West, I don't believe that anything really would be.
He can be reached at email@example.com,
for any reason at all, and is always looking for
another way to get published.
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