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March 25, 2006

'The Raw Truth' — Sushi Expose in Today's Wall Street Journal

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The Wall Street Journal's Weekend edition appears to finally have achieved escape velocity with today's superb lead article, in its Pursuits section, by G. Bruce Knecht.

Knecht takes the fish by the gills and dives deep beneath the placid surface to bring up from the deep truths and facts purveyors of some of the country's most expensive raw fish might well have preferred remain on the sea bottom.

What with Julia Moskin's classic outgassing back in 2004 in the New York Times about carbon monoxide–treated–tuna, today's article is sure to have American sushi lovers' baggies in a mega–twist.

Here's Knecht's story, with an accompanying table deconstructed [click to blow up and make readable] and interspersed between the paragraphs.

Long story short: just say no to the spicy tuna roll.

Following the article is an accompanying boxed sidebar with a few words to the wise to help you get the best possible shot at great raw fish.

    The Raw Truth

    Gassed tuna. Frozen salmon. The sushi business is booming -- but diners don't always know what they're getting. Where the fish really comes from, and how to spot the good stuff.

    At Tama Sushi on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, Calif., chef Katsu Michite serves raw fish that some consider among the best in town.

    It's $12 for two small pieces of bluefin tuna.

    Just down the road is Todai, a big sushi chain where $14 buys a full lunchtime buffet, including all the fish you can eat.

    Despite the big price gap, the two restaurants have something in common: They get much of their fish from the same supplier.

    Sushi -- one of the fastest-growing segments of the restaurant business -- is now firmly in the mainstream, served everywhere from military canteens to 7-Elevens, and in all 50 states.

    Even Tony Soprano and his wife, Carmela, ditched the scaloppine for yellowtail in the season opener of "The Sopranos."

    But at a time when other kinds of restaurants are inundating diners with details about where their pork chops spent their youth and what farmer harvested their veggies, sushi is curiously out of step.

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    Even at top-of-the-line establishments, menus rarely say anything about where the fish comes from.

    It turns out just a few suppliers stock most of the sushi restaurants in any given city.

    One of the more popular cuts, yellowtail, almost always traces its origins to the same fish farms in Japan regardless of price.

    "Yellowtail is yellowtail," says Choi Pak, a wholesaler who supplies Tama Sushi and Todai.

    Even in the same restaurant, quality can vary.

    Spicy tuna rolls, another staple, are often a way to disguise less-than-top-quality tuna.

    Other servings of tuna, whether on a bed of rice or as sashimi, may not be as fresh as they look; its rich red color may indicate it was caught days ago -- or that it was "gassed" to give it a rosy glow.

    And even fish described as fresh may well have been in the freezer for a while, which the Food and Drug Administration recommends to kill parasites.

    Restaurateurs and distributors say the quality of fish varies -- and prices reflect that.

    When a bluefin loin arrives at a wholesaler, for instance, it is examined and priced based largely on its color and fat content.

    This process is inherently more subjective than, say, pricing beef, which has already been given a grade by inspectors from the Department of Agriculture.

    To some extent, sushi restaurants put their faith in their suppliers, trusting that higher prices correspond to higher quality.

    A small number of high-end places with agents who buy for them at markets in Japan rely on the judgment of their buyers.

    Some chefs, like Mr. Michite of Tama Sushi, go to their fishmongers every morning and pick out the fish they want.

    "Experience decides everything," says Mr. Michite. "I've been doing this for 45 years."

    At Todai, a spokesman says the company orders by fax and sends back fish deemed inadequate.

    He adds that Todai benefits pricewise by ordering in volume.

    The number of Japanese restaurants, nearly all of which serve sushi, more than doubled in the past decade, to 9,182 last year, up from 4,086, according to Japanese Food Trade News, while sushi sales hit $2.8 billion, up from $1.1 billion in 2000.

    Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm, expects growth to continue at 10% to 20% annually for the next five years -- by contrast, the overall restaurant industry is growing at 5% a year.

    Mr. Pak, the Los Angeles fish wholesaler, says he's selling 30% more sushi than he did a decade ago; it's the fastest-growing segment of his business.

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    Sushi owes some of that popularity to the perception that it's healthy.

    But tuna, perhaps the most popular sushi fish, may contain high levels of mercury.

    "A lot of people think sushi is a health food, but it isn't if you eat tuna sushi twice a week," says Eli Saddler, a public health analyst with GotMercury.org, an environmental advocacy group that tested sushi from five restaurants in California earlier this year.

    Mercury, which occurs both naturally and from industrial sources, is absorbed by marine food chains.

    It's most concentrated in top predators, such as swordfish, shark and tuna.

    In GotMercury's test, 25% of the tuna samples were close to the FDA's limit of 1 part per million; 75% had more than 0.5 part per million of mercury, the maximum many countries consider safe.

    Every sample exceeded Japan's 0.4 parts-per-million standard.

    Coverage of the test has generated controversy in California, where fish restaurants and retailers that employ more than 10 people are required to post warnings about mercury.

    Activists say the warnings should be nationwide and the FDA should do much more testing.

    Understanding the sushi hierarchy can make for smarter ordering.

    For example, chefs often reserve the best-quality seafood for sashimi, which is served without a bed of rice.

    Spicy tuna rolls are often at the bottom of the hierarchy.

    And that healthy red color that makes the tuna look as if were swimming an hour ago?

    This may be the color of tuna that has been gassed, or as it is sometimes called, "smoked."

    After the fish is cut into loins or filets and before it's frozen, it's exposed to carbon monoxide, which binds with hemoglobin to prevent the flesh from turning from red to brown to gray.

    Joe Gumpel of Gotham Seafood, a major New York distributor, says he sells gassed fish, mostly to cruise-line customers, but says, "It misrepresents the product.

    You can't tell when it was caught, and you don't know that it went into a factory for enhancements."

    In our survey of 50 top sushi restaurants (above and below), single pieces of yellowtail ranged from $2 at Suehiro in Salt Lake City to $5 at Morimoto.

    But unlike tuna, which comes from all over the world and varies in color and fat content, yellowtail generally used in sushi is quite uniform.

    Chefs and vendors say that nearly all yellowtail used in sushi is farm-raised in Japan.

    Star sushi chef Masaharu Morimoto, who recently expanded from Philadelphia to New York, agrees, but says that his is fresher than other restaurants may be able to buy because he gets shipments from Japan four times a week. (He says he also uses buri, a kind of wild yellowtail, on the rare occasions when he can get it.)

    Then there's that omnipresent modifier "fresh."

    Most sushi fish has been frozen at some point.

    The state of the art is flash freezing, in which the fish are frozen so quickly in super-cold chillers that the moisture in its flesh does not crystallize and the fish isn't mushy when thawed.

    Kee Chan, the owner of Heat, a sleek, high-end sushi place in Chicago, says all of the fish he serves is fresh, although he also acknowledges that much of it has been flash frozen.

    "Once it gets to us," he says, "it's fresh."

    To confuse things even more, experts say that some seafood that's been frozen is superior.

    "I've seen an assembly line where eels are alive at the start of the process, then stunned, filleted, vacuum-packed and frozen," says Robert Wholey, who owns Pittsburgh's biggest seafood distributor.

    "That's as fresh as you can get."

    One way to ensure quality, according to some chefs, is to order direct from Japan.

    New York's Masa, with its $350 prix-fixe dinner, is generally regarded as the country's most expensive restaurant.

    Its chef-owner, Masayoshi Takayama, has what amounts to a personal fish shopper in Japan.

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    An agent buys for him at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and directly from fishermen at the port of Chiba, then rushes the fish to the airport to catch a nonstop flight to New York, JAL's flight 006.

    As soon as the fish clears Customs, the driver of the van who will bring it to Masa calls with an estimate for his arrival time.

    Mr. Takayama claims fish caught near Japan feed on superior plankton.

    "Good plankton is as important to fish as soil is to crops," he says.

    That's "pure nonsense," says Daniel Pauly, the director of the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre.

    Still, the quality of the fish sold at the Tsukiji market is widely admired by industry insiders.

    They point to the enormous volume of fish sold there (about 2,000 pounds of marine products every day), the high standards of the domestic market, the exacting way fish are butchered and handled, the temperature controls and the hygienic standards.

    That's why sushi chefs like Chris Kinjo of Atlanta's MF Sushibar buy much of their fish in Japan and air-freight it to the U.S. at a cost of $3 to $4 a pound.

    A broker working for Mr. Kinjo shops at Tsukiji and ships fish on a nonstop Delta flight to Atlanta three times a week.

    New York's Jewel Bako also gets most of its fish directly from Japan.

    So do both branches of Morimoto.

    But the fish at most sushi restaurants arrives by routes so complicated that even many chefs admit that they do not know exactly where it came from.

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    Most acquire their fish from several local suppliers.

    Some are affiliates of large importers like New Jersey-based True World Foods, which has branches across the country, and Yama Seafood, which supplies 300 restaurants, mostly in the Northeast.

    Other wholesalers are local businesses.

    All typically buy fish that comes from many places around the globe.

    Some of the tuna sold at the Atlanta affiliate of True World Foods, for example, is caught in the Pacific, landed in Southeast Asia, then shipped to Latin America enroute to Atlanta; salmon is flown in from fish farms in Chile or Scotland.

    Long Island-based importer Bob Sedano, who supplies tuna to Gotham Seafood and several other New York wholesalers, says he buys fish "opportunistically" from all around the world.

    So apart from that Japanese-farmed yellowtail and California sea urchins, you can rarely be sure where the fish on your vinegared rice has been swimming.

    But you can count on the rice: Nearly all of it is grown in California.

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March 25, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Comments

wow. i always thought the "never on sundays" guideline was a myth as most fish is frozen in the hull of the fishing ships in order to kill parasites, and therefore, much of the fish in a sushi restaurant is frozen.

Posted by: hornsofthedevil | Mar 26, 2006 6:39:38 PM

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