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With sushi restaurants ruling Center City, one's left wondering just when â€” and how â€” the Japanese tradition of pairing raw seafood with vinegared rice became so popular. Local writer Sasha Issenberg, who began investigating the local sushi market for Philadelphia Magazine, turned this very curiosity into a microhistory. His The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy (Gotham) follows fish through a complex network â€” from being caught in the Atlantic Ocean to ending up on a Tokyo lunch plate three days later.
"I think most people think of sushi as a sensory experience that removes them from the hectic modern world," says Issenberg. "My [goal] was to go beyond that and show the invisible wall that makes the meal possible." He takes a prismatic approach to the topic, individually profiling bigwigs like Nobu founder Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Tyson Cole, a Caucasian man who improbably became a sushi master in, of all places, Texas. The Sushi Economy also explores how the food has sated our finicky palates over the years. For example, Issenberg points out that fatty-cut toro tuna was "once seen as low-quality." Now, it is a delicacy that even the Japanese â€” who once appreciated only lean, white fish â€” have a yen for.
Another part of the book follows how evolving public opinion of sushi has led to clashes between mass-market consumers and traditionalists. The elitist backlash is partially motivated by the California roll, the popular combination of cucumber, avocado and imitation crab stick. While the ubiquitous supermarket special draws the ire of purists, Issenberg's research revealed that the roll was developed in Los Angeles in the 1960s at the behest of Japanese business executives who knew their sushi. "We get sold [the idea] that people were eating [sushi] a certain way for a millennium â€” until someone ruined it," explains Issenberg of the misunderstood variation. He adds that his book aims to "restore credibility to the California roll, and challenge the idea of authenticity that makes people feel guilty for ordering it."
Issenberg would rather write about sushi than roll it â€” he admits he simply doesn't have the discipline. "There was very little participatory journalism in writing The Sushi Economy," he says. "So many people I spoke to had long, sharp, dangerous knifes â€” I was not ready to mess around with them."
In case you're wondering about Issenberg's favorite sushi bar (and you know you are), it's Sagami in Collingswood, N.J., where he enjoys yellowtail for its firm-but-oily texture.