Sunday, July 11, 2010

Money & Business

The Lessons of Sushi

By David LaGesse
Posted 5/20/07

To see how technology and trade change lives, look at the once lowly bluefin tuna. Sport fishermen on the Atlantic coast once paid to have their tuna buried, after they'd hung them up for the bragging photo. Thirty years later, buyers pay thousands of dollars for each bluefin, whose fragile red flesh is cooled through Japanese science, packed in Norwegian leakproof containers, and shipped on American jumbo jets to be consumed within days at Tokyo restaurants. In short, sushi and the people who trade it have become a textbook illustration of the benefits and perils of globalization-or so argues Sasha Issenberg convincingly in his engaging book, The Sushi Economy.

A Philadelphia-based journalist, Issenberg traces sushi's roots in 19th-century Tokyo, where it stayed before bursting out at a few California restaurants in the 1960s. Sushi's charm as a lesson in global trade stems partly from the quaint nature of its chefs and traders, operating in manners unchanged for a century while a modern web moves their product from salt water to mouth-watering. Issenberg gives life to the trade through myriad participants, including a bidder at Tokyo's frenetic Tsukiji fish market who depends on personal relationships to lessen the risk in buying untested, untasted luxury goods, and an American sushi chef in Austin maintaining a knife-edge balance between menu items and supplies.

Sometimes too much detail stalls the illustrations, but Issenberg's enthusiasm-this is mostly a celebration of globalization-propels the story forward. Sushi, he tells us, is no less than a cultural barometer for developing economies, "a declaration that we are confidently rich enough not to be impressed by volume and refined enough to savor good things in small doses." Good, that is, unless you're a bluefin.

This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.

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