Sushi and the global economy

Sasha Issenberg provides a fish's-eye view of tuna's path from the sea to your dinner plate

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Stories of how food makes it to your dinner table tend to be less than appetizing in this age of free trade and free-range chicken. From "Fast Food Nation" to "The Omnivore's Dilemma," learning about what we eat titillates the mind more often than the tongue. If this can be called a trend, Sasha Issenberg's The Sushi Economy is a notable exception: During the 2-1/2 weeks I spent reading it, I ate sushi six times.

Issenberg traces the rising tsunami that is the sushi trade from tuna fisheries where prize bluefin are caught, to sushi stalls on the Tokyo streets to high-fashion American restaurants. To him sushi is an exceptional manifestation of today's global economy: cross-cultural, unbranded, and with a link to the environment so fresh that it quivers. But even more distinctive, he notes, is the engine that drives this booming economy: personal tastes instead of corporate plans.

"In the sushi economy, power does not flow downward from the boardrooms of multinational corporations, and culture does not radiate outward from decisions made in Hollywood studios, New York newsrooms, or London agencies," writes Issenberg. "Instead the agents of change have been individuals who have – largely through personal migrations, both temporary and permanent – created unlikely linkages across hemispheres in an era of new mobility."

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To show the path of the raw fish as it journeys across global tides, Issenberg focuses his lens on a cast of intriguing characters: a vigilante who seeks out tuna-fishing pirates on the Mediterranean, a second-generation auctioneer in the Tsukiji fish market, and world-famous sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa who, after moving to the US, pioneered a new wave of innovative sushi creations.

Entrepreneurs play their part, too, such as the savvy shipping merchant who figured out how to freeze-package a fish so it can survive an overnight flight or the Texas chef who taught himself to speak Japanese by apprenticing in sushi restaurants and watching anime for years.

Fresh fish and the global market

"The Sushi Economy" not only documents the fascinating evolution of the global taste for sushi and the trade that made it possible, it also dives fearlessly into intersecting topics such as the development of US-Japanese trade relations, internment, the exportation of American fast-food culture, and the assimilation of foreign foods in the US market.

While tracing these parallel histories, Issenberg loads a reader's plate with sushi trade subcultures, from an annual tuna toss in Australia to the hierarchical, near-misogynic culture of modern sushi chefs.

The author seems most concerned with the biggest players in the sushi economy – the reader gets only a superficial sense of what happens to the striving sushi chefs who never make it or the communities that suffer the fate of declining fish stocks. Issenberg posits that sushi consumption around the world tracks with corporate wealth as a symbol of the modern economy. But his focus remains on those profiting from the sushi business rather than on those marginalized by the accumulation of that wealth.

While this is not another book on how to make and eat sushi, the reader does get a few gems of wisdom. For example, a top chef reveals that the people who sit at the sushi bar get the best cuts of salmon, whereas those sitting in the dining room – or ordering California rolls – will most often be served an inferior piece of meat from the salmon's tail. Accounts of delectable sashimi dishes and rolls could leave even reluctant sushi fans salivating.

Issenberg's training as a journalist explains his palatable writing style, and his analysis of market relationships and asymmetries will satisfy devote globalization junkies of the sort who display Thomas Friedman prominently on their bookshelves. He sprinkles the book with witticisms and colorful metaphors: In Los Angeles the sushi lunch culture is as ubiquitous as "valet parking and empty flattery," and tuna aquaculture is capable of turning "one of nature's most peripatetic and rapacious eaters into a spoonfed baby in a crib."

During the moments he compares Japanese retailers to matryoshka dolls or fish market auctioneers to "a battalion of street-corner Santas," the book transforms into a whimsical travelogue, though at times weighed down with detail.

Changing hands nine times

A fish destined for a sushi roll might change hands nine times in two different hemispheres before reaching your dinner plate. Issenberg leads us through the intricacies of these transactions, pointing out that to eat sushi is to display "an access to advanced trade networks, of full engagement in world commerce."

His exploration of the global economy from a fish eye's view does not paint an entirely encouraging picture. Yet he doesn't predict what will happen as the industry's supply of bluefin tuna deteriorates – nor does he explore what's happening to the other fish species that play a role in the sushi economy.

Issenberg gives us a taste of the intriguing stories to be found in the global marketplace for sushi, but he leaves us to develop our own ideas about the future of our global appetite.

Bina Venkataraman is a graduate student in public policy and an intern at the Monitor.

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