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The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy Hardcover – May 3, 2007
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This debut from a promising young investigative reporter at Philadelphia magazine depicts gleeful, gluttonous globalization in all its glory. Visit Tokyo's world-famous Tsukiji fish market, experience the weird world of tuna-tossing in Southern Australia, and relive the birth of modern sushi in Prince Edward Island. Fans of Japanese cuisine and popular economics alike will find much to love in this delectable nonfiction adventure. --Jason Kirk --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this intriguing first book, Philadelphia-based journalist Issenberg roams the globe in search of sushi and takes the reader on a cultural, historical and economic journey through the raw-fish trade that reads less like economics and more like an entertaining culinary travelogue. In the years since the end of WWII, the practical protein-and-rice delicacy once unknown outside Japan has become so commonplace that the elements of its trade affect a far-flung global network of fanatics, chefs, tuna ranchers and pirates. While the West reached out for things Japanese, from management techniques to Walkmans, the growth of the market for quality fish, especially maguro, the bluefin tuna beloved by sushi eaters everywhere, paralleled Japan's rise from postwar ruin to 1980s economic powerhouse and into its burst-bubble present. Issenberg follows every possible strand in this worldwide web of history, economics and cuisine—an approach that keeps the book lively with colorful places and characters, from the Tokyo fish market to the boats of North Atlantic fishermen, from tuna ranches off the coast of Australia to the sushi bars in Austin, Tex. He weaves the history of the art and cuisine of sushi throughout, and his smart, lively voice makes the most arcane information fascinating. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Sushi was, at one point, just a local Japanese street food and the tuna fish that is most commonly used for making it, was sold at scrap value. However, currently, this fish is one of the most expensive ones in the market while sushi has found its way to the best Michelin star restaurants, scattered all over the world. The book traces the sushi’s journey from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most luxurious dishes on the menu in the 21st Century.
Being an experienced and a credible journalist, Issenberg, has brought the same curiosity and an interesting writing style to this book. The vivid and detailed narration takes into account every aspect of the sushi business – right from the catching and transportation of fish to serving that sushi on the plate! Readers will be able to vividly imagine the Tsukiji fish market and the religious arrangement of the dish on the plate. It’s all out there for the reader to imagine, smell and taste.
The book vividly discusses the Tsukiji fish market that covers 57 acres in the capital city of Japan and trade worth $6 billion are annually carried out over here. Along with that, it beautifully narrates how the sushi has changed over the years – from taking birth in the 19th century to being revamped when Japanese planes came back with North Atlantic Bluefin Tuna instead of flying back empty. Meant for the foodie, the economist and the hungry reader as well, this book is nothing less than a delight to read.
What sets this book apart from most of the other sushi guides is that it is not just a bland narrative on the development of sushi into a globally loved dish, but also takes into account the tiny details like kitchen scenes in the restaurants as well as how it has taken advantage of globalization to enjoy the enviable position that it has today. A bonus is that this book also discusses the economics of sushi deeper than many others out there on the bookshelves.
This review was originally written for 27Press.com.
This book review of The Sushi Economy is divided into four sections. The first section provides a summary of the book divided into four subsections; the logistics of tuna, the culture behind the cuisine, a detailed study of the fish industry, and the future of sushi in the global setting. The second section discusses the context of the book in relations to other media that discuss the same topics of the globalization of food. The third section presents the books shortcomings and ways this book could be improved. Lastly, the conclusion ties the threads that run throughout the entire book and offers areas of further interest.
Introduction to Book
This book explains the worlds of Sushi addiction; the history, the methods, the culture, the economics, the illusions, and the globalization that makes it all possible. The stories of the chef highlight what the consumer sees, and hides the distribution and marketing of tuna across the globe. Sushi as a modern delicacy belies the evolution of the cuisine from many different styles in Japan, to that of Tokyo, to that of the world within a few hundred years. What holds the process of catching, raising, buying, shipping, and cheffing together is trust. Loyalty binds each link in the chain of tuna to mitigate the risks of uncertain global supply and demand.
The Freight Economy
The advances in transporting tuna across the globe was Japan's attempt to solve the 'one-way' problem created by the Japanese importing cheap goods by ships and exporting expensive goods by air. Advances in refrigeration and aviation, plus the risk-dispersing selling method of the Tsukiji auction house provided raw seafood that solved local supply issues. This turned the Japanese trade deficit into a surplus in the decades following World War II. The changes to the Yen and Dollar resulted in a golden age that allowed Japan to indulge in extravagance. This is not isolated to the Japanese, and has happened before, as Issenberg provides the historical example of the Dutch weakness for flowers blooming "into a full-fledged mania for tulips (Issenberg, 2007 Pg 38)." As global supply satisfies local demand in Japan, the cuisine of sushi has come to be a part of their national identity; there are stories of traditional ways of catching tuna, family legacies in selling the fish. and generational knowledge of blade making that morphed from Samurai Sword to Knife making. This book discusses the history of Japan's rice eating taking shape out of the styles of China, Korea, and Southeast Asia- places where rice was also prevalent. This suggests that globalization has been occurring for thousands of years, and what makes something Japanese is still foreign. Tokyo style sushi developed recently- over the last couple of hundred years. This suggests that traditions can be invented, evolve, and discarded at any time. The rate at which this occurs shows that people embrace that which is better, as "forty to fifty years after the birth of nigiri sushi, it became more popular than udon or soba (Issenberg, 2007 Pg 66)." As Japanese culture changed over the course of a few centuries, the introduction of the American love for fat turned the ok tasting tuna (Marlin was considered a better fish) into a wonderfully fatty protein that raised the price of tuna into the luxury bracket, setting up the next part of the book.
The Food Economy
Originally sushi outside of Japan existed to give a sense of home to Japanese immigrants. American's embraced sushi for two reasons: the perception that raw is healthy, and it was a foreign luxury. As American culinary tastes changed to accept raw food, Issenberg posits that fusion sushi displays an appreciation for the Japanese aesthetic. The beauty of this aesthetic is how it fits any setting or place, as it can "adapt to a pullulating city's shifting moods and attitudes, its alternating affections for high culture and low (Issenberg, 2007 Pg 99)." What drove the inventiveness of chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa and Tyson Cole was the necessity of using local ingredients to match the taste of the customers they served. Both chefs provide rags to riches stories that challenge the concept of what is traditional and what is necessary the world evolves. With the increasing globalization of sushi at the end of this section, the chefs faced a new problem. Maintaining the illusion that they are close to the fish and not a part of the global economy was becoming increasingly difficult. The truth is they are slaves to unpredictability of the market and nature, setting up the next part of the book.
The Fish Economy
This section deals with the economic situations that occur as a result of the overfishing of tuna. Issenberg spends time talking about farming and freezing of tuna to move away from the economic risk to buyers and sellers. The issue with tuna is that its skyrocketing price and low barrier of entry represent a tragedy of the commons. Access to the common area of the sea is hard to regulate, and ICCAT, the international governing body in charge of the Atlantic Bluefin, is largely ineffective and "might as well stand for the International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas (Issenberg, 2007 Pg 234)." The dark side of globalization is piracy and destruction of the tuna populations; the difficulties that arise when tracking pirates is the concept of borders and what constitutes a place of origin. Something caught in Turkey, shipped through Indonesia, and cut in China might be considered Chinese (Issenberg, 2007 Pg 250). The public is hard pressed to track all of these places and know exactly where it is food comes from.
The Future Economy
This brief section discusses that tuna as a global business. Globalization has the potential to eliminate culture, but local differences based on preferences do exist. Economic and business savvy can be overridden by human emotion. The chef Ueno described it succinctly when he was chided for importing seafood into Tsukiji- "'Pride,' he says, using a rare English word (Issenberg, 2007 Pg 259)." This shows that globalization mixes cultures together, but it is prevented from taking away people's identity.
The Sushi Economy goes into great detail about global economics that is missing from a documentary on the same topic entitled Sushi: The Global Catch. This film opens up with a samurai flashback noting the similarities between samurais wiping a sword and sushi chef wiping a knife (Hall, 2012). The theme of the samurai tradition is presented in The Sushi Economy as an emblem of lineage and respect for the past even in today's changing world (Issenberg, 2007 Pg 112). What the documentary does provide is a detailed depiction of tunas role in the oceanic ecosystems and how sustainability addresses overfishing.
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World is an NPR talk that provides similar talk of globalization by following a different food product- the banana. The third part of The Sushi Economy explains the difficulties of breeding tuna from conception, and this segues into how bananas are cloned. The reason that organic bananas aren't sold in huge numbers is because of the latitude and temperature required to grow them. The cost and availability of land that serves this purpose is too expensive to compete with the 69-cent-a-pound clones found in the supermarkets (Koeppel, 2008). Because tuna can similarly flood the market and distort true costs, the globalization of resources ravages the ecosystem.
Shortcomings and Improvements
While the book discusses in great detail the economics behind tuna and sushi, the environmental impact of overfishing on ecosystems is not explained. Sushi: The Global Catch explains the impact removing an apex predator (such as tuna) has on sub-predators and every chain beneath it (Hall, 2012). Going further in-depth on sustainability and alternatives to tuna would start the discussion on how to fix the problems tuna eating is causing the environment.
Similarly, the book ends on the note of the rise of China, but does not go into detail on how to prevent a rising China, India, and Russian taste for sushi affecting tuna in the same way as the Europeans and Americans did. Looking towards the future would be a book end that stimulates interest and change.
Issenberg looks to the past of sushi and tuna to make claims about innovation being born out of necessity. Overcoming obstacles and limits helped spark the transformation of sushi to a global phenomenon. As tuna interacted with many different people and locations, it created "gold rushes" to cash in on the boom (Issenberg, 2007 Pg 173). The ability for livelihoods to change is something that has is not new to sushi and the mixing of cultures is an ongoing process. The Sushi Economy is collection of experiences that show the speed globalization adds and how tuna is a perfect representation of how society changes.
Hall, M. (Director) (2012). Sushi: The global catch[Web]. Retrieved from [...]
Issenberg, S. (2007). The sushi economy globalization and the making of a modern delicacy Issenberg, Sasha (2007-05-03). (US Kindle ed., p. 38, 66, 99, 112, 173, 234, 250, 259). New York, New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Koeppel, D. (2008, Feb 18). Interview by C O'Dowd [Audio Tape Recording]. Bananas: The uncertain future of a favorite fruit. Npr. Retrieved from [...]