The sushi boom in Europe and the US is met with concern by experienced chefs, who say amateurs lack proper raw fish handling skills.
As Japanese sushi conquers restaurants and homes around the world, industry experts are fighting the side-effects of the raw fish boom: fake sushi bars, over-confident amateurs, poisoned consumers.
Once a rare and exotic treat, seaweed rolls and bites of raw tuna on vinegared rice are now familiar to most food fans.
So familiar, in fact, that many hobby cooks in Europe and the United States like to make them in their own kitchens.
But chefs and sushi experts at an international restaurant summit in Tokyo warned of a lack of awareness in handling raw fish among amateurs and some restaurateurs who enter the profitable industry without sufficient training.
“Everybody thinks: ‘sushi is so expensive – I can buy cheap fish, fresh fish, I can make it at home.’ It’s not true. Not every fish is suitable to eat raw,” chef and restaurateur Yoshi Tome said.
Tome’s restaurant, Sushi Ran in Sausalito, California, was awarded a Michelin star and he often advises customers on preparing Japanese food.
He sees himself as an educator as well as a chef, and believes that more and better training opportunities are needed to prevent food scandals that could hurt the entire industry.
“I get these questions all the time – people call me: ‘Hey Yoshi, my husband went to fish a big salmon, we’re looking to eat it as sashimi. We opened it and a bunch of worms came out. Can we eat it?”‘
His answer: you cannot eat it as sashimi; but you can throw away the affected parts and cook and eat the rest.
In fact, Tome said salmon, which is prone to parasites, should never be eaten raw but be cooked, marinated, or frozen before being consumed.
He described another case in which an inexperienced restaurateur in the United States served raw baby crab.
This lead to cases of food poisoning and prompted a recall of that type of crab.
Tome serves the crab deep-fried at his restaurant and says it is perfectly safe if prepared the right way.
“Here in Japan, some people eat raw chicken, chicken sashimi. But we know chicken can have salmonella, so in the US nobody eats raw chicken,” he added.
Japan’s bureaucrats drew criticism and ridicule a year ago with a plan to create a global “sushi police” that would assess Japanese restaurants overseas.
Since then, there has been a change of tactics, and the emphasis is now on education and advice rather than uninvited checks.
Ryuji Ishii, who runs the Advanced Fresh Concepts Franchise Corp, the largest supplier of fresh sushi to supermarkets in the United States, finds that education is important not just for food safety purposes.
Ishii is rolling out his ready-to-eat sushi range in Wal-Mart supermarkets, having opened almost 90 sushi stalls since last September.
They are planning some 400 stores in total. But bringing raw fish and seaweed to middle America takes some work – Ishii cautiously described the sales as “decent”.
“The challenge is, we have never dealt with that market. So far, we’ve been dealing with a very upscale market, high-end supermarkets,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the two-day summit, organised by the Organisation to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad.
“In order to become really mainstream, we have to overcome the Wal-Mart consumers,” Ishii said.
“We need more time to educate the consumers.”
He tries to tempt shoppers with samples of the most popular type of sushi in the United States: the California Roll, made with avocado.
Purists might argue that the California Roll, a US invention, is not real sushi anyway, but Ishii says it allows customers to have a first taste of Japanese food and then get hooked on more exotic items – the ones that include raw fish.