The Sushi Invasion

By Jen Chan

Like Yoga pants and Rap music, a dish consisting of raw fish resting on top of a tiny ball of vinegar-infused rice is invading pop culture. Sushi, a Japanese ethnic specialty stemming from the ninth century, has recently exploded in popularity across the globe. In Vienna, sushi is dished out in casual food stalls on every corner of the city. Meanwhile, in Paraguay, the sophisticated Sushi Club Restaurant features fried California rolls as a menu item.  Undoubtedly, sushi fever has also taken hold in the United States, but how? And to what extent?

Bite Sized Beginnings

50 years ago, picking up a random slab of raw fish meat, pointing at it, and telling Americans to eat it would have been met with shrieks of horror. While describing Japanese cooking in  1929, the Ladies Home Journal, attempted to delicately dance around the subject of raw fish with a tiny disclaimer:  “There have been purposefully omitted… any recipes using the delicate and raw tuna fish which is sliced wafer thin and served iced with attractive garnishes. [these]… might not sound so entirely delicious as they are in reality.” [1]Post WWII, magazines such as Holiday and Sunset  finally mentioned sushi, but also avoided the subject of unappetizing raw ingredients. Their Americanized substitute recipe consisted of cooked shrimps on top of rye bread [1]. Truly authentic sushi didn’t arrive on the American shores until 1966.

Kawafuku Restaurant, America’s first sushi bar

When Norito Kanai opened America’s first sushi bar, Kawafuku Restaurant, in Los Angeles, he expected to attract Japanese businessmen and expats[2]. Instead, he started a wave of Japanese food fandom across the nation.  Within the next ten years, sushi bars were stationed in Hollywood and Washington DC. Creative American innovations, such as sushi rolls with rice on the outside and cooked crab, allowed hesitant beginners to jump on the sushi bandwagon[3]. The number of sushi restaurants in the United States quadrupled between 1988 and 1998[4] as chefs creatively churned out “Rainbow Rolls and California Maki”. Rising demand for healthy alternatives to red meat in conjunction with Japan’s increasing economic power created a golden opportunity for the food to flourish.

The Current State of Sushi: On A Roll

Americans changed from awkwardly ignoring truly authentic sushi to bombarding it with a level of affection that is almost baffling. Boasting a range of fanfare from pillows to memes, sushi is slicing through America with a cult-like following.  As Theodore Bestor states in his Washington Post article, “From an exotic, almost unpalatable ethnic specialty, then to haute cuisine of the most rarified sort, sushi has become not just cool, but popular[1]”.  Zagat verified his claim in their 2012 “Top Rated Restaurants Across America” report.  Remarkably, out of the Top 20 rated restaurants, four were Japanese sushi restaurants [5] .  Even rappers and pop stars are tying sushi into their lyrics.

Clearly, Americans are also putting their money where their mouth is. Currently, the sushi restaurant industry alone is generating billions of dollars annually. To be exact, American sushi bars reeled in $2.1 billion in revenue during 2014 alone[6].  According one of the world’s largest industry research sources, IBIS World, there are approximately 4,200 Japanese restaurants available in the USA and total profit is $150.5 million[6] .  These numbers are predicted to rise in the near future, with projected growth of 2.3% annually for the next five years[6] . This is a remarkable feat for a cuisine that was virtually unheard of half a century ago.

The Wrap Up

Sushi radically transitioned from a specialty food into a mainstream cultural icon of the 21st century.  Through cleverly adapting the dish to fit local tastes, an entirely new eating concept has rolled through the US.  Now, the FDA is frantically trying to stop Americans from gnawing on random slabs of raw salmon due to potential parasite problems[7],  but that is another story.

‘Till next time, as the rapper Junior M.A.F.I.A says in “Gettin’ Money,” “I be eatin’ sushi.”


[1] Bestor, Theodore C. “How Sushi Went Global.” Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. LLC Foreign Policy.121 (2000): 54-63. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 19 May 2015.

[2] Avey, Tori. “Discover the History of Sushi.” PBS. PBS, 05 Sept. 2012. Web. 19 May 2015.

[3] Carman, Tim. “Sushi Standards and the American Way.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 24 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 May 2015.

[4] Feng, Cindy Hsin-I. “The Tale of Sushi: History and Regulations.”Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 11.2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 19 May 2015.

[5] “20 Top-Rated Restaurants Across America.” 20 Top-Rated Restaurants Across America. Zagat, 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 May 2015.

[6] Brennan, Andy. “On a Roll: A Rebounding Economy Will Help the Industry Recover from Recessionary Lows.” IBISWorld. N.p., Dec. 2014. Web. 19 May 2015.

[7] Matsumoto, Marc. “The Myth of Sushi-Grade.” PBS. PBS, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 May 2015.

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