Issue 11.5: October/November 2008

The Moon and the Turtle

story by Deborah Boehm
photos by Monte Costa

Tuna from Palau?

Alaskan sea urchins?

Spiny lobster from New Zealand?

Kampachi from Kona?

Geoducks from Washington?

Japanese octopus?

It’s Saturday night at Mitch’s Sushi—an estimable restaurant masquerading as a funky industrial-district dive—and the gregarious, white-bearded South African proprietor Douglas “Mitch” Mitchell is taking inventory of the evening’s raw materials: seafood so fresh and so fine that some gastronomes swear that this tiny hideaway serves the best sushi in Honolulu.

“We do endeavor to provide the freshest fish,” Mitch says, striking a pose next to a life-size photograph, circa 1936, that shows Ernest Hemingway in macho-fisherman mode, dwarfed by a gigantic black marlin. “I tell all the Japanese girls that’s me,” Mitch laughs.

The doors open, and within seconds the place is packed. Customers peruse the unusual specials chalked on a blackboard: jellyfish, sea cucumber, Japanese anchovy. Two solemn-faced, Tokyo-trained sushi chefs crank out impeccably crafted nigiri (bite-size pieces) and maki-zushi (rolls), reaching into an exquisitely arranged display case for ingredients from all over the world. “It’s a hole in the wall,” Mitch says fondly as he surveys his lively domain. “But what a hole in the wall!”

At the other end of the spectrum is plush, spacious Nobu Hawai‘i. With its prime Waikiki location and patina of privilege, Nobu is unabashedly upscale. The dining room’s gilded tapestries echo the Midas touch of the restaurant’s Tokyo-born co-owner, Nobu Matsuhisa, a superstar chef turned international mogul. Nobu’s neo-Japanese cuisine sparkles with subequatorial verve thanks to his youthful cooking stints in Peru and Argentina, and Honolulu’s two-year-old Nobu Hawai‘i is one of twenty-one ¨uber-trendy, thriving restaurants in
sixteen fashionable locations, including Milan, Mykonos and the Bahamas.
The sushi bar at Nobu is as long as a stretch limo, and the display case is a shimmering work of art. Even the most erudite aficionado might be hard pressed to name all of the edible gems it holds, but executive chef Toshiyuki Sasajima knows his palette by heart.

“Tuna, of course,” he says, his index finger a pointing blur. “Freshwater eel, baby abalone, sea urchin, yellowtail, bitterling, octopus, amberjack, crab, scallop, jackfish, prawn, pike, Atlantic salmon, whiting, sweet shrimp, mackerel, Japanese flounder, monkfish, shad, snapper, silver beltfish, salmon roe, black caviar, Kumamoto oyster … to name a few.” Chef Sasajima can reel off the provenance list with equal ease: Japan, Hawai‘i, California, Washington state, Alaska, Australia, New Zealand and on and on and on.


 

Nobu and Mitch, with their shared passion for superior ingredients flown in from all over the world, have created two of the brightest stars in Honolulu’s teeming sushi pantheon—although Shuji Abe, the former master chef and kaiseki wizard at Waikiki’s Furusato Restaurant, suggests a different astronomical metaphor.

“In Japan we say that sushi restaurants and the food they serve are like the moon and the turtle,” says Chef Abe, who is now a busy caterer for tea ceremonies, tour agents and the Japanese consulate. “The moon is very high and the turtle is very low.” In other words, when it comes to sushi, there is indeed a spectrum: On one end, it’s luxe, pricey haute cuisine; on the other, it’s festive, affordable fast food. And that wide-ranging flexibility is part of sushi’s international appeal.

Once a cultural curiosity and fodder for stand-up comedy (“Raw fish on tepid rice? What am I, a cat?”), sushi has become phenomenally popular over the last three decades as non-Japanese diners have developed a sophisticated appreciation for sushi’s ambience, artistry and fresh, subtle flavors. The craze has spread over the entire planet, with hundreds of thousands of outlets from O‘ahu to Oslo to Guadalajara. China and India are the newest frontiers, while the Israeli city of Tel Aviv recently vaulted into the No. 3 spot on the per-capita-hotbeds-of-sushi list, behind Tokyo and New York. Tel Aviv (population: 382,500) boasts more than 100 sushi eateries, at least twenty of them kosher.

Nearly all sushi restaurants—whatever their location and wherever they might fall on the continuum—feature the same basic menu. Conventional wisdom says that any sushi place worth its shoyu should stock an assortment of fish (red, white and “shiny”) along with a sampling of crustaceans, bivalves, squid, octopus and eels. Some gurus believe a minimum of twenty menu options is de rigueur, while others maintain that quality trumps quantity. Either way, the business of sushi provides a vivid demonstration of the pan-global marketplace in action.

These days, the undisputed big fish in the sushi pond is the northern bluefin tuna. Its Latin name is Thunnus thynnus, but sushi lovers know it as maguro: the source from which the finest—and most expensive—toro, chutoro and otoro flow. This taxonomy of sushi-grade tuna equates to good-better-best, which is to say fatty-fattier-fattiest. “Excellent maguro is more delicious than beef,” says Shuji Abe, explaining why tuna, in its lightly seared form, is often called “steak of the sea” or “the other red meat.” (But be aware that “maguro” doesn’t always mean bluefin; the word also refers to the leaner, less coveted species of tuna, such as yellowfin and bigeye.)

It’s hard to believe—especially when you hear that Tokyo’s poshest sushi spots are charging $30 for a single bite of top-tier otoro—but until around 1970 most people outside of Japan considered red-fleshed tuna inedible by humans. Sport fishermen, after posing for a commemorative photo on the pier, would pay to have a giant tuna’s “useless” carcass hauled off to the nearest dump. When refrigerated air transport became more efficient, foreign-caught bluefin tuna—including the superb Boston maguro—became a sought-after commodity, first in Japan and then, as tastes adapted, everywhere that sushi was sold. As recounted in The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg, “The average price for bluefin tuna paid to Atlanti fishermen rose by 10,000 percent” between 1970 and 1990, and in January 2001, a 440-pound Pacific bluefin was auctioned for a record $174,000 at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.

The prized northern bluefin—dubbed “the samurai of fish” by Harvard anthropologist and sushi scholar Theodore Bestor—is caught wild in Japan, Micronesia, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and elsewhere. It’s ranched (that is, young tuna are trapped or netted, held in pens and fed on mackerel and sardines until they mature) in Spain, Turkey, Japan, Australia and Mexico. But for every action there’s a reaction, especially in the increasingly precarious ecosystems of earth and ocean. Sushi’s extraordinary popularity has already begun to have environmental consequences, and bluefin tuna are currently on the critically endangered list, largely due to illegal overfishing in the Mediterranean. According to sources including the New York Times, the Guardian, Science and 60 Minutes, our oceans could become “where the wild things aren’t” as early as 2050 if a rigorous conservation plan isn’t implemented and convincingly enforced very soon.


 

At the boisterous pre-dawn fish auction at Honolulu’s Pier 38, there are rows of silvery-scaled plenitude fished from the sea: tuna, marlin, swordfish, ruby snapper, moonfish. Amidst this bounty, the looming environmental threat of declining fish stocks seems simultaneously far away—there are fish everywhere—and very close—there are fish everywhere. On a typical day there might be 80,000 pounds of fish to auction off, and everything is gone by noon. A few years ago, though, 175,000 pounds of fish turned up one record-setting morning, and the frantic auction went on for fourteen and a half hours.
Five days a week, rubber-booted buyers slosh around in the huge, bracingly chilly auction hall evaluating that day’s catch for (1) freshness, (2) texture, (3) fat content, (4) oil content, (5) clarity and (6) color. For that last, buyers prize a deep-hued flesh called yokozuna, as in “sumo grand champion.” And speaking of champions, Hawai‘i residents are second only to the Japanese in annual raw-tuna consumption (including imported bluefin), and they eat twice as much seafood as the typical US Mainlander.

The international waters plied by Island-based boats yield a bountiful supply of four major types of tuna: yellowfin (‘ahi), bigeye, skipjack and albacore. “It’s very rare to see a bluefin at the auction, and it’s always exciting when we do,” says Brooks Takenaka of Hawai‘i’s United Fishing Agency. “If any of our longliners do bring one in, it was probably caught somewhere way out in the Pacific, not close to the Islands.” Takenaka adds, with proprietary pride, that the Hawaiian longline-fishing industry is one of the best-regulated programs in the world.
According to a recent spate of media reports, the same can’t be said for some of the fleets that throng the Mediterranean, and ships from Libya, Croatia and Spain have recently been accused of intentionally under-reporting their bluefin catches. There are international treaties and quota systems to ensure that overfishing does not occur, and most countries do seem to obey the rules. The problem with renegade scofflaws is clearly one of greed meets temptation: One giant purse-seining net
can snare 300 tons of bluefin, a haul that’s worth around $2 million on the open market.

David-versus-Goliath watchdog organizations such as Greenpeace and WWF are attempting to monitor the Mediterranean, with limited success. They have also proposed a boycott of wild-caught bluefin, but that notion has caught on in only a few places so far, including England’s Marks & Spencer department stores (760 worldwide). Despite the media coverage, most people still seem unaware of the potential for eco-disaster that is sparked when finite supply is overwhelmed by infinite demand.


While maguro—the “red” fish—is every sushi bar’s best-selling delicacy these days, if a moratorium on tuna fishing ever does go into effect even temporarily, there are plenty of alternatives on display in that artfully arranged glass case.

Hirame, also known as halibut, flounder or fluke, is one of the most sought-after whitefish for sushi, along with sea bream, snapper and sea bass. Reciprocity in action: Imported Japanese flounder adorn upscale nigiri in the United States, while exported American hirame (farmed or wild-caught in North Carolina and California) seduce Japanese gourmets. Another notable whitefish farming success is Kona Blue kampachi, raised on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. In keeping with its “sustainably delicious” motto, this young enterprise is producing sashimi-grade yellowtail that has chefs breaking out the heavy-gauge superlatives: “Melts on the tongue!” “Fish of the future!” “No detectable mercury!”

Saba (mackerel) wears a mercurial chain-mail coat, and it also has one of the highest methyl mercury counts in the edible-fish kingdom; it leads the “Must Avoid” list for pregnant women along with swordfish, shark and tilefish. Other prominent hikarimono (“shiny things”) include sardines, gizzard shad and horse mackerel, all distinguished by their oiliness, intense flavor and silvery-blue skin—and their relatively high concentration of mercury.

Although raw fish is sushi’s marquee item, the delicacies lumped under the umbrella term “seafood” have their partisans as well, and several are major players on the global market. Uni (sea urchin “roe”—actually male and female reproductive organs) is a high-ticket, slightly esoteric morsel now exported from the west coast of the United States and Canada to the tune of millions of dollars annually. As recently as 1975, American urchins were considered worthless, kelp-gobbling pests and were routinely smashed to bits by hammer-wielding divers. Now Pacific divers carefully snare the spiny creatures for shipping to sushi suppliers all over the world, including Japan. A more recent development is the Japanese mania for urchins from the icy waters off the Maine coast, which are gustatory doppelg¨angers for the renowned and far more costly Hokkaido uni.

The long-necked clams known as geoducks (mirugai) from Puget Sound, near Seattle, are another offbeat, widely exported item. Geoducks are the world’s largest burrowing clams; they have few predators apart from man, and they can live happily in the mud for as long as 150 years ... if they’re lucky. A female geoduck can produce five million viable eggs in her lifetime, so the species is in no danger of being clammed out.

The crème de la crème of shellfish is awabi (abalone), the second most expensive sushi topping after bluefin tuna. Eight species are harvested off the Pacific coast, and abalone is now being farmed, nascently, on the Big Island. Japan is way ahead: There, sea farms produce 16,000 metric tons of abalone annually. Awabi, incidentally, is the only sushi component that’s
pre-cooked in sake, and only the male of the species should be eaten raw, or alive.


 

Sushi is decidedly seafood-centric, but there are some authorities who believe that rice is the most important part of the equation. “The rice comes first, and then what goes on top of it,” says Koji Imai, the visionary behind Manhattan’s artisanal sushi showplace, Megu—adding, in an interview with the Times, that the ideal proportion of topping to rice is one-to-four. Chefs tend to be secretive about their rice-cooking recipes, but a typical ratio is seven parts vinegar, five parts sugar and one part salt; some pros toss in a strip of konbu or a splash of sake as well. The preparation of sushi rice is a semi-mystical process that, purists say, should take exactly seventy minutes from start to finish. (If you’re cooking at home, use only short-grain sushi rice, never long-grain aromatics such as jasmine or basmati.) Due to a complex subsidy-and-tariff system, Japanese rice costs five times as much as its California clones, Koshihikari and Sasanishiki, so the only place you’re ever likely to encounter genuine Japanese-grown rice is in Japan.

Maki-zushi (rice and fillings rolled with sheets of nori seaweed) is America’s favorite form of sushi, while Japanese prefer nigiri. Gone are the days when sushi neophytes peeled off the “icky” casing, complaining that it looked like tarpaper. (It was the early American squeamishness about nori that inspired the “inside-out roll,” with the seaweed tucked away under a layer of sesame-speckled rice.) Japanese consume two billion sheets of nori every year, while hundreds of millions more find their way to the United States. Cheaper grades from Korea and China sell for around six cents a sheet, while delicate, spring-harvested Japanese nori can fetch a dollar a sheet. Nori contains glutamic acid and inosinate, two molecules that conspire to produce the so-called “fifth taste,” umami—translated, variously, as mouth-wateringness, savoriness, complexity and free-floating deliciousness. (The other four palate sensations are sweet, salty, sour and bitter.)

Whether for mercury-related, philosophical or ecological reasons, more and more eaters are starting to discover the delights of vegetarian sushi. Beyond the universally familiar crunch of kappa-maki cucumber roll and the mellow richness of avocado, there’s a colorful realm of flavors. Most sushi chefs will gladly conjure up a roll of nori-cloaked rice with some combination of pungent shiso (beefsteak plant) leaves, crushed ume plums, Japanese-style oshinko pickles, spinach, shiitake mushrooms or spongy, sweetened kanpyo (gourd) strips, which some sushi mavens like to order at the end of the meal for dessert. Then there’s the infamous natto-maki (fermented soybeans, often rolled with green onions), an acquired taste that many people choose not to acquire. If you can get past the snail-trail texture, natto is a proteinaceous powerhouse with a uniquely earthy aroma and taste. And if you ever want to impress Japanese colleagues with a show of cultural assimilation, casually ordering a natto-maki should do the trick.

Vegetarian or otherwise, sushi is clearly here to stay. Indeed, the iconic hamburger could only be a couple of mad-cow scares away from being dethroned by take-away sushi as the world’s best-selling rapid repast—and Japan’s most successful culinary export. HH