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.