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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Did You Know #7 - The Origin Of Salmon Sushi

No, no, no… this isn’t the story of the first Japanese chef who, 3,000 years ago decided to stick a slice of raw salmon onto some vinegar-ed rice and call it salmon sushi… no… this is the story of how gaijin/foreigners created one of the most beloved and eaten of Japanese sushi… and it all began in 1974, finally culminating in 1995 when the Japanese finally understood that sushi can still taste good even if it was created by a gaijin.

In 1974 Norway sent a delegation from its shipping and fisheries industry to Japan in an effort to sell the Japanese on the idea that they should purchase Norway’s fish. I'm going to call this the RAW Expedition. You older (and smarter folk) will probably understand my joke.

The trade was seen as two-fold:
1) Japan gets a great fish to eat, and Japan gets to make a few bucks;
2) Now that we are doing business together, we can become good friends.

Excluding perhaps some disco dancing and an exchange of meishi (business cards), nothing happened.

However... in 1980, Thor Mowinkel became the first Norwegian salmon exporter to Japan when his salmon was served to a confused Japanese customer as fried fish.

One of those men in that original Norwegian delegation went back to Japan in 1985 (is this now the RAW II Expedition), when he—Thor Listau—was Norway’s Minister of Fisheries. He brought 20 people with him who were representatives of Norway’s seafood exporters, ministers and organizations.

They met with the Japanese - again trying to sell them on the idea to purchase more Norwegian fish, but again probably met with a lot of promises involving the word "maybe" or "we'll see", but definitely no agreement in place.

Returning home, Listau created Project Japan, an initiative that he hoped would spark a Norwegian seafood industry in Japan.
By Odin's beard! This is Thor Listau, the man who helped instigate the creation of salmon sushi. Apparently a lot of people in Norway are named Thor.
Of course Project Japan wanted to sell the Japanese every type of fish Norway fished, in particular the capelin, a fish from the smelt family (yummy!). Actually, I have no idea what a capelin tastes like, but I do know that whomever smelt it, dealt it. 

Thanks to continued work by Project Japan - dialogue, friendship and probably some graft, Norway increased it's quota of fish to Japan by a large amount over the next few years.
For example, in 1985, Norway exported about US $60 million in seafood products to Japan, which was about one percent of Japan’s total imports, and about seven percent of Norway’s seafood exports.

Project Japan was a success, as by 1991 Norway was now exporting about $220 million in seafood to Japan.

Included in those exports to Japan, or imports by Japan, salmon was making inroads in the country, with the Japanese sudden;y discovering that it is a pretty damn tasty fish when cooked just right.

I can recall back in 1990, how a junior high school student asked me if I liked salmon. Assuming he meant to eat, I said yes, and the whole class nodded—as if getting their information from me confirmed that Canada does indeed have salmon, and that yes, I do liked to eat the same fish they liked to eat. Yes... the Japanese and the Canadians were more similar than the Japanese had ever thought.

What I did not realize at that time, however, was that salmon was still new to the Japanese market.

Salmon was not used in sushi at that time. No one ate raw salmon. The big fish used in Japanese sushi back in 1991 was tuna and sea bream.

I had no idea. Yes, I ate a lot of sushi when I was in Japan, but truthfully, nine times out of 10 I had no idea what the heck I was eating. I just knew that it was usually pretty damn tasty.

Even while I was in Japan, the Japanese ate salmon - enjoyed it even... but they only ate it grilled, or as part of kirimi, a type of dried and salted fish dish.

At no time was salmon even considered for use as a main sushi ingredient.

So… why would the Japanese eat every single type of thing in the ocean - and eat it raw, but be reluctant to eat raw salmon from those friendly Norwegians or Canadians?

Well… there was a concern that the Pacific salmon could contain parasites, and were too lean a fish to use in sushi… so yeah, if you cook it, you kill the parasites… and lean is lean, but I have no idea why that means you can't use it in, unless being too lean means it doesn't slice properly or have enough flavor.

Fat provides flavor. Don't we all fell a bit better about ourselves now? I have taste. Good taste.

The Japanese also felt that the Pacific salmon was inferior to the Atlantic salmon in size and in taste.

There was also the fact that in Japan, the Japanese fishing industry protected its own.

From the moment the first Pacific salmon was shipped to Japan in 1980… until 1995…. the Japanese kept telling Project Japan that the Japanese would not eat raw salmon.

The thing is, the salmon Norway was sending to Japan was a subspecies of Pacific salmon... it was the Norway salmon... a larger fish that actually has more fat than its Pacific relative... it also lacked those pesky parasites that the Japanese were afraid of.

Apparently eating raw horse or raw cow liver ain't no big thang. I ate both, disliking the flavors tremendously. But parasites... I can only assume there were no parasites in that cow's raw liver.

Oh yeah... the Norway salmon was actually just farmed Pacific salmon.
Part of Norway's fisheries department, a farmed Norwegian salmon named Thor.
All Norway had to do was convince the Japanese that the Norwegian salmon was different from the Pacific salmon.

And then… after doing a heavy promotion specific to Japan's many chefs, a few brave Japanese sushi chefs began to buck tradition and see if salmon could be eaten raw, and used as a main sushi ingredient. This is 1995.

Well... if people are paying big bucks at a fancypants restaurant, odds are you could put poop on a nice plate, drizzle it with some vinaigrette and tell them it's the newest taste sensation, and everyone would eat it and tell everyone else that it was delicious.

But, thankfully it wasn't poop, and was instead raw salmon sushi... customers tried the Japanese sushi chef preparation, and they liked it.

Needless to say, sushi chefs in Japan and elsewhere were soon using raw salmon as a main sushi ingredient… and it’s all thanks to Norway. And Thor.

Hey Japan... how do you like your gaijin-no sushi?

Andrew Joseph

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