– Rocky Aoki, founder of the Benihana in The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 1973
What a difference time makes. Today, Americans by the millions have to satisfy a sushi craving on a regular basis. That might even be more pronounced near the coast. As one who remembers the days when it was a hard-to-find curiosity – only served in the very few Japanese restaurants, and rarely ordered by American customers – the amazing popularity of sushi is the most unexpected development in this country’s dining habits, and proof that they are always changing.
For years, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Hawaii were probably the only places with restaurants serving sushi. These were very few in number, and catered primarily to Japanese-Americans and traveling Japanese businessmen. Sushi was found beyond those cities by the late 1980s following the torrid love affair American consumers were having with Japanese electronics and autos. In fact, Americans’ desire for sushi is directly related to that high tech commerce.
In the early 1970s, a Japan Airlines employee named Akira Okazaki was looking for a profitable way to fill the empty cargo holds, which had contained mostly electronics on the inbound flights. He managed to convince fishermen on Prince Edward Island to fish more assiduously for bluefin tuna. Though prized in Sicily and the Mediterranean since antiquity, it was seen only as a sport fish or nuisance elsewhere. There was not even a commercial market for it until the late 1950s. It was not nearly the favorite fish for the Japanese, either. For tuna, they had preferred the yellowfin variety, and other fish with white or light-colored meat. This was due in part to widespread influence of Buddhism, whose adherents did not animal meat. But, the generation who grew up with a greater exposure to beef after the Second World War more so enjoyed the red-fleshed bluefin, and the stocks around Japan had been depleted.
Okazaki’s gambit was a success. In a couple of years bluefin accounted for 90% of the cargo on these flights back to Tokyo. The Gulf of Mexico, including south of Galveston, is one of its principal spawning grounds for this Atlantic bluefin, the largest in the world. It had the added benefit that it could be ready to be eaten in Tokyo restaurants in four days, when its texture and taste were at its peak. In the time before refrigeration fishermen would bury the odd bluefin for four days before being consumed for that same reason. The availability of the bluefin from the north Atlantic – and from elsewhere in the world – help stoke a Japanese craze for this fish that they would pass on to Americans, and the rest of the world. In January, 2011 a record was set as a 754-pound bluefin sold for $396,000 in Tokyo, well over $500 per pound.
Michael Lo, whose family has owned Yamato on 61st Street in Galveston since 1987 and served sushi that long, said that their most popular nigiri sushi – the familiar style with fish sitting atop rice – is the fatty stomach from the bluefin (toro), which is considered the tastiest part of the fish. It comes in only once a week, and it is fairly pricey, $10.95 an order. But, it is delicious. A guide to eating in Japan from the early 1970s, wrote that the bluefin is “one of the favorites of foreigners who try sushi for the first time.” It is because of its clean, meaty flavor – once off-putting to the Japanese – that Americans readily enjoy, and a big reason why sushi took off here. Eric Hyatt, once the executive chef at the Landry's Red Sushi and Hibachi Grill on the Kemah Boardwalk, called it, “beginners’ raw fish.” “Everyone understands it,” and it is very easy to like.
Because of evolving tastes in Japan and later here, bluefin has become overfished internationally. But, it can be gateway to other, equally satisfying fish and not endangered fish. Tastes are always changing, and even broadening.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Galveston Daily News.