Philadelphia journalist Sasha Issenberg’s new book, “The Sushi Economy” (Gotham) is one of the most fascinating pieces of food journalism we’ve come across in a long time. Described by its publisher as “a riveting combination of culinary biography, behind-the-scenes restaurant detail, and a unique exploration of globalizaton dynamics,” the book asks two questions: How in the world did an obscure Japanese specialty food transform into California rolls and Philadelphia rolls? And how did the combination of raw fish and vinegared rice turn into a billion dollar business?
Issenberg’s website lists his favorite sushi restaurants, including picks in both Bosnia and Center City. Tonight, Issenberg will be speaking at the Barnes & Noble on Walnut & 18th and he’s also appearing at a tasting/signing hosted by the Raven Society at Haru on Wednesday, May 9th.
We recently spoke to Issenberg about the tuna black market, Brazilian-style California rolls and sushi in Philadelphia. Interview after the jump.
MP: Where did the idea for this book come from?
It started with a magazine story, and a modest curiosity of mine: I wanted to know where sushi came from, and how it got to my plate in Philadelphia.
MP: How do you think the popularization of sushi and Japanese food in the United States compared to that of other “ethnic” cuisines like Chinese and pizza/Italian food?
Unlike most other foreign cuisines that caught on in the U.S., sushi has been always seen as a healthy, diet-friendly food. Part of the reason it became so popular in Los Angeles was that sushi, unlike most other Asian foods, matched the values of California cuisine: fresh ingredients, often served raw, lightly treated.
MP: You mention To-Yo Sushi in Northeast Philadelphia as an example of sushi being adapated to Russian-American tastes. There’s also the the trend of Brazilian and Peruvian influenced sushi restaurants in the States as well (Sushi Samba, Nobu, etc.). What was the most novel take on sushi that you encountered while writing the book?
I was delighted in Brazil to come across California rolls with mango in place of avocado—it’s partially a matter of the produce that’s available locally, and also a function of the Brazilian sweet tooth—and especially excited when I took my seat at a sushi bar in Singapore and was served a California roll with both avocado and mango.
MP: Reading the book, I was surprised by the world of fish smuggling and the sale of fish on the black market. Not so much how common it is, but how so much of it has been fueled by the globalization of the fish market. Do you think that international fishing agreements and greater regulation have had a major effect?
There are plenty of treaties and international regulations, but rarely the mechanisms to have them enforced. Globalization has created made all sorts of activity—especially cross-border commerce like human-smuggling, money-laundering, the drug trade—particularly lucrative, and the black market in tuna is pretty emblematic of the problems involved. Individual national governments are in a weak position to stop the crime, and no one has figured out how to design an international enforcement agency that works.
MP: What do you think your average sushi-eating American would be surprised about the most in your book?
I think people would be surprised to learn how much the sushi experience—which is presented to us as though it is a venerable part of Japanese culture—is thoroughly modern, and influenced more by international commerce than the wisdom of the ancients.
MP: You’re from Philadelphia. How do you think the sushi restaurants of the Delaware Valley compare to those of other regions you visited while writing this book?
The first thing Americans need to appreciate is that they are eating the best sushi in the world outside of Japan: often better ingredients, prepared more expertly, at better prices than anything I’ve seen in Europe or Australia or elsewhere. The sushi offerings in Philadelphia are rather disappointing, though, and the reasons coincide with some of the city’s economic-development failings: we’ve never drawn significant Asian immigrants or large-scale Japanese investment, which means that the flows of labor and taste and money (especially from Tokyo corporate expense accounts) that have nurtured some of the best sushi bars around the world have largely passed us by.
MP: Why do you feel Canada is the birthplace of modern sushi?
I tell the story of an event in the summer of 1972 remembered as “the day of the flying fish.” That morning, four bluefin tuna were sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market—fresh from having been caught off Canada’s Atlantic coast a few days earlier. That represented not just new innovations in cargo technology, but a change in how we eat: now anyone who’s willing to pay for it can eat nearly any product from around the world as though sitting in the place where it was caught or slaughtered or harvested. And no dish exploits that new opportunity more than sushi.
MP: What was the most exciting place you visited in conjunction with writing the book?
I spent a few days in Port Lincoln, on the southern coast of Australia, trying to understand how a small fishing town became the wealthiest city in the southern hemisphere by inventing the business of ranching tuna.
MP: The Sushi Economy combines food journalism and business journalism to an unusual degree. What books influenced you while writing it?
I had Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” in my mind often as I reported the book, just because he managed to show how people made business decisions in a sphere where people rarely think or speak in the language of business. As I moved among fishing docks and markets and cargo terminals and kitchens, I, too, was dealing with people who were making incredibly sophisticated business decisions but weren’t always comfortable talking about them that way.
MP: Sushi pizza. Pro or con?
Sure, why not?