Is Sushi Dead?

Tonight on my way home from a lecture I ate in a popular Japanese restaurant in West L.A. The chef/owner joined me, and we fell into talking about the state of fish.  This is a man with 30 years experience in the Japanese restaurant business in Los Angeles—sushi, bento, ramen, robata, teriyaki combos, you name it. He didn’t want to be identified, but trust me, you’ve eaten his food.

While I ate his food and sipped his cold sake, he drank iced green tea bobas.  I was eating a piece of grilled local yellowtail, telling him how much I liked the flavor of a relatively local fish. 

“Sushi is over,” he said, pretty much out of the blue.  “The price goes up and the quality is going down.  It got too popular.  Everything is farmed, now in Japan even tuna is farmed, and it is all fatty, not fatty and lean, like in the wild.  Here people will eat farmed salmon, but in Japan no one eats salmon sushi—it has parasites.”

The problem, he said, is that there is almost no more good wild fish left.  When he first came to the States, 98 percent of tuna was sold in Japan.  Now everybody wants tuna, including China and India and Russia.  The wild stocks are crashing, and there;‘s no point in pretending what’s left can sustain all the gazillions of sushi restaurants.

He himself is moving away from sushi toward other Japanese foods: izakaya, ramen, robata, fusion. It’s time to teach Americans to eat parts of chickens and pigs they never tried before, to get them accustomed to beef heart and chicken combs like they got accustomed to sea urchin roe and eel.

He was going on and on about getting Americans to appreciate Japanese chicken like they appreciate Japanese fish.  One brand, Jidori (it translates as “ground chicken”; i. e. free range,” in Japanese, ji= ground and tori= chicken) is raised on farms around Central California and has a deep, rich flavor, could please even the most dedicated eel-eater.

The man wasn’t being sensitive to the fate of the oceans, or nostalgic for the last big eye tuna—just practical.  But he was attuned to the problem now, before it’s too late—a businessman paying heed to those who are listening to what science and nature are saying. The more we love food, the more we have to obey nature: one ties us inexorably to the other. The technology that helps us track and kill the last tuna also helps us get and spread more complete information on the fate of our fisheries, and gives people like this chef the chance to make the right decision for his business, before it’s too late.