Top sushi restaurants in the US may charge $200 for top quality, sushi grade fish, expertly prepared, tasty and beautiful to look at. Scarcity of high quality fish, the extra handling that elevates fish to sushi grade that takes more time and the training and capabilities of the sushi chef all contribute to making the product expensive.
Although it’s the most popular ingredient, sushi is not necessarily a fish dish. The word “sushi” refers to foods that use rice seasoned with vinegar. One form of sushi comes in a roll wrapped in seaweed, such as the tuna roll or the cucumber roll. Some sushi are deep fried and some are mounds of rice hand pressed with wasabi and other ingredients such as tuna or shrimp.
We have always had that natural curiosity about where our fish come from, especially now, after seeing pictures of the New England “Codfather”, whose 40 boat fishing fleet mislabeled the catch for several years and put the owner in jail. How many of his mislabeled fish did we all buy?
Sushi origins go back to 4th century China when salted fish were placed on cooked rice. Vinegared rice caused the fermentation of the fish, giving it a longer life. In 9th century Japan it caught on and by the 1800s, Japanese sushi makers reduced the fermentation time. New ways to prepare the fish and improved refrigeration brought sushi to the US in the 1980s and 1990s. Today we don’t just have raw fish wrapped in rice and seaweed. There are vegetarian versions of sushi, cooked seafood for the risk averse.
How will rampant fish fraud affect sushi lovers who enjoy the works of art presented by sushi chefs? DNA testing has made it possible to find out whether substitutions are being made. The high prices are OK if you can afford it and get what you’re paying for. Not OK if you’re one of the unlucky diners getting escolar substituted for tuna. Known to cause serious digestive upsets, escolar is often used instead of more expensive tuna. Another risk is the parasites some fish have that could find a home in your intestines when you eat these fish. Wild salmon is sometimes substituted for farmed salmon. The chances of the farmed salmon having parasites is about zero, while the wild salmon is more likely to have them.
Inside Edition, a TV news magazine, tested sushi from 25 New York and California restaurants. Sixty-eight percent of the samples were a cheaper variety of the fish ordered. When former Alaska fisherman Randy Hartnell, now owner of Vital Choice, a fish mail order company, visited the Fulton Fish Market with Dr. Andrew Weil, they found wholesalers selling farmed salmon labeled “wild.”
Oceana, an ocean advocacy group, found restaurants and supermarkets mislabeled seafood often (always a cheaper fish substituted for a higher price fish). A scientist at Oceana says that 90% of the seafood eaten in the US is imported and that less than 1% is inspected by the US government for fraud. There are only 90 NOAA inspectors to cover the entire coastline of the US, so it’s no surprise that a lot of imported seafood goes uninspected.
The New York State Attorney General’s office investigated claims of mislabeling and found the substitutions were typically cheaper than the product consumers thought they were buying. Five supermarket chains were responsible for more than half the mislabeling. What do wholesale seafood sellers gain by selling mislabeled fish? At the local level they can get four times the value of catfish sold as grouper. When the product comes into the US, the seafood sellers save millions of dollars in tariffs not paid.
Oceana DNA tested cod, halibut, snapper, tuna, salmon and sole, the species that historically have had the highest rates of substitution. This study, done in Canada, found 44% of the fish were mislabeled.
Unless you’re a fisheries biologist, it’s not easy to identify some of the species. On the fish list there are more than 200 species of snapper, some of which have red skin. Of the seven pictured snappers, not one is a true red snapper.
Sushi grade fish identifies those fish considered safe to eat raw. There are FDA guidelines for a variety of fish that, after the fish are caught, must be followed to kill parasites living in the fish. They must immediately be bled and gutted when they come in the boat and be flash frozen within eight hours of leaving the water. Tuna is so popular as a sushi ingredient because it’s highly resistant to parasites. The tuna category includes albacore, bigeye, Bluefin, bonito, skipjack and yellowfin tuna. Wild salmon should be avoided as a sushi ingredient because part of a wild salmon’s life is spent in fresh water where more parasites are found. Farm raised salmon are on a parasite-free diet. Farmed fish in general have a lower risk of contracting parasites and are considered safer to eat raw.
High end sushi restaurants require fish that have had the highest quality handling from the minute they are landed. A United Kingdom fisherman, Chris Bean, has built a business supplying high-end London sushi restaurants and giving training workshops to US fishermen on the ike jime Japanese fish killing method. Inserting a spike directly into the brain above the eye causes instant brain death. The fish relaxes and the fish blood retracts to the gut, which produces a better colored and flavored fillet.
Are sushi rolls high calorie? Not if they’re just rice and veggie rolls, but if you add cream cheese or mayonnaise or fry the sushi, that’s going to add calories. Each sushi roll has about a cup of rice that will add 200 calories before you total up the rest of the ingredients. The sushi rice is prepared with sugar and rice vinegar. Most of the sauces have sugar in them and the soy sauce is very salty.
If you decide to try making your own sushi, you can check shopping lists and recipes online. Recipes for sushi can be found at Makeyourown.com, Allrecipes.com and Cookinglight.com. Some stores sell packaged sushi. Costco has a machine that makes theirs. Whole Foods does a big prepared sushi business. If you’re lucky and live near a Whole Foods or a Wegmens you will find high quality, fresh fish that are well taken care of. Wherever you buy fish you want to look for the signs of freshness – firm flesh, scales that are intact, clear eyes, no slime and a smell of salt water rather than a fishy smell. You’ll want to bring a cooler and get the fish in the cooler as soon as you can to preserve the freshness.
It’s a good idea before you try making sushi yourself to go to a restaurant where you can watch the sushi chef work. Notice the tools he works with, all the very sharp knives, all the things you’ll need. If you buy farmed salmon to use in your sushi you may notice thick ivory bands that indicate a high fat content that will give the sushi a soft buttery feel in your mouth.
While waiting for computer repair at Tech Boys in Patchogue, I spoke with Jesse Gutman who said he’s been a sushi fan all his life. His father’s best friend is Japanese and Jesse has had every kind of sushi ever made. He has his favorite places to eat it where he believes he’s getting what he orders and has never tried making it at home. What he loves is the freshness of the fish – “It’s all about freshness,” he said.
It’s quite likely that there’s a close connection between a diet heavy in raw fish and vegetables that the Japanese eat and their extreme longevity. They not only live longer, they’re living better than we are. In their upper 80s they can often be found working part time at jobs that have nothing to do with their prior careers but offer them a productive way to spend time Looking at the big picture, maybe some of the components of sushi like the rice and sauces with sugar, are not at the top of the healthy eating list, but overall, if you can eat something that looks pretty and tastes good, what’s not to like about sushi?