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The 4-S Rule

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by a team from CNN on sustainability issues in the sushi industry. This clip is me explaining what I call the “4-S rule” – a simple, if somewhat crude, guide to eating in a more sustainable fashion at the sushi bar (oh, and a small correction to CNN’s byline – I am a co-founder of Tataki Sushi Bar, but I don’t actually own the restaurant.)

 

As I discuss in the video, there are four adjectives, each starting with the letter S, that form the eponymous rule. If a sushi bar patron bears these descriptors in mind while he or she orders, it can markedly diminish the environmental footprint created by dinner. This is not a perfect system – there are exceptions to each of the four “S” words – but by and large, it does help one to order a more sustainable sushi meal overall.

Skipjack tuna served nigiri-style with gobo, scallions, and a shiso leaf. The skipjack is the smallest tuna found in the sushi industry, and has both the lowest average mercury content and the highest reproduction rate.

The first word is SMALL. Smaller fish are generally lower on the trophic scale (food chain), grow more quickly, die younger, and breed in larger numbers. These biological survival tactics are employed by many fish to help them withstand heavy predation — they play the numbers game and simply create as many offspring as possible so a few manage to escape the yawning maws of hungry predators.  In essence, these are the kind of fish that are designed to be fed upon. Their physiology and population dynamics are generally more resilient to our fishing pressure and protein demand than top-of-the-food-chain carnivores, such as large tunas, swordfish, and sharks. Moreover, smaller fish generally have less mercury accumulation in their systems than these apex predators due to their shorter life spans and less voracious appetites.

Examples: Sardines (iwashi), skipjack tuna (katsuo), horse mackerel (aji)

Wild coho salmon, sashimi-style. Alaskan coho is well managed, healthy for consumers, and seasonally available.

The next word is SEASONAL. Seasonality is key to sustainability. If we are to reduce our carbon dependency and rekindle our connection with the ocean, we need to be more aware of where we are and what time of year it is when we order our fish. A good rule of thumb is to order off the specials board rather than the laminated menu when possible – any items on a year-round menu are unlikely to be sourced on a basis of seasonal awareness. It was our demand that certain intrinsically seasonal products be available to us year-round that gave rise to environmental missteps like conventional salmon farming. This category also offers us the added opportunity to take advantage of seasonal vegetables and fruits, which innovative chefs often incorporate into their specials.

Examples: Wild salmon (sake), Dungeness crab (kani), spot prawns (ama ebi),

Pacific saury prepared over wood charcoal.  Saury are a cold-water schooling forage fish and have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Pacific saury prepared over wood charcoal. These cold-water schooling forage fish have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The third word is perhaps the most surprising – SILVER. Eat sushi that is served with a silver skin still on it. This category of fish is known as hikari mono in Japanese, and contains mackerels, halfbeaks, shads, and similar fish. These animals tend to be loaded with omega-3s as well as being low in mercury, and can be sourced from many well-managed fisheries. An added bonus is that the hikari mono are some of the most treasured fish in the repertoire of a traditional sushi chef; a menu featuring these items will often prove to be an unforgettable culinary experience.  I highly encourage all sushi-goers to explore the world of hikari mono – you just may find your new “absolute ultimate all-time favorite” sushi item.

Examples: Mackerel (saba), Pacific saury (sanma), Spanish mackerel (sawara),

Kumomoto oysters on the half-shell with momoji oroshi. Oysters are high in protein and easy to raise in low-impact farms.

The final word is SHELLFISH, and I’m speaking specifically of bivalves and mollusks. Not only are these creatures excellent sources of protein, but they are considered by many to be delicacies and aphrodisiacs. Bivalve and mollusk aquaculture has sound environmental benefits as well: it tends to involve relatively low-impact farming methods when compared to other types of fish farming, such as tuna ranches or salmon farms. As filter-feeders, animals like clams, scallops, and oysters can be grown without the use of any additional feed.  This reduces their dependence on marine resources and eliminates the kind of inefficient protein use that we find in operations like hamachi and unagi ranches.  These mollusks also grow quickly, and can be raised in cages and bags that require no dredging or other types of seabed alteration during harvest.

Examples: Oysters (kaki), mussels (muurugai), geoduck (mirugai)

That’s about the size of it. Small, seasonal, silver, and shellfish – a quick-and-dirty road map to a more eco-groovy sushi experience. There are, as I mentioned earlier, numerous exceptions to this rule, but it serves as a fairly reliable lodestone for those who are interested in shifting their sushi dining habits toward a more sustainable paradigm.

Oh, and one final quip: as it happens, the letter S occurs exactly four times in the term “sustainable sushi.” Remember that to keep the 4-S rule in mind.

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Sustainable sushi in the news, Summer 2009

A quick shout-out to all the journos and bloggers that have been covering the sustainable sushi issue in the past couple of months:

Massive gratitude to Allison and Son of Sushi Day for a trio of pieces covering the Mashiko launch in August (an overview of the event, an interview with Chef Hajime Sato, and an interview with me.)  Thank you so much for your incredibly supportive and generous sentiments.

Patrick Robinson of the West Seattle Herald did a nice write-up of Eat Local Now!, a extremely well-attended Seattle event that included Chef Hajime of Mashiko and other local entrepreneurs.

Hajime was also recently featured on the Food Network’s Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, where he lovingly prepared a local Puget Sound delicacy — sea cucumber — for a squeamish host.  I don’t yet have a link to a video clip, but will put one up as soon as I am able.

There’s little out there that excites me as much as the Japanese media’s growing interest in the sustainable sushi movement, and Dani Rippingale of the Tokyo Weekender has kick-started it with her excellent piece on the modern sushi industry and our dwindling resources.

Check out Peter Smith’s excellent article for the GOOD Blog highlighting ten people, projects, and ideas that are making a difference in the world of food — sustainable sushi is number one!  Thanks Peter!

A heartfelt thank-you goes out to Bryan Walsh for including the founders of Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar (Kin Lui, Raymond Ho, and myself) in Time Magazine‘s Heroes of the Environment 2009.  We are humbled and flattered beyond words.

The Chic Ecologist had a nice shout-out to sustainable sushi, especially to the work being done by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Seafood Watch program.

Chris Mikesell of the University of Hawaii has jumped into the sustainable sushi world head-first in his thorough investigation of sushi and tuna awareness in Hawaii.  Great work.

Immediately after learning of the Time Magazine award, I was interviewed mid-gush by Jacqueline Church of the Leather District Gourmet, who was her usual wonderful self.  Thanks Jackie for believing in us from the very beginning.

On the same note, one my my personal heroes, Eddie Kohan of Obamafoodorama threw us kudos as well in a congratulatory follow-up piece on her consistently poignant muck-raking website.

Fist-bumps to the newly bluefin-free Jane Black of the Washington Post for her insightful and provocative piece on sustainable sushi for Hemispheres, United Airlines’ in-flight magazine.  Interviewees include Bamboo Sushi’s Brandon Hill and the lobster sex god Trevor Corson.  I got a couple of words in as well.  Best part is: I’m going to be flying on United in about a week, and I finally have a reason to be excited about getting on a plane.

The good people at the UTNE Reader picked up John Birdsall’s article on sustainable sushi (originally for Edible San Francisco) — they even gave it a byline on the cover of their 25 anniversary issue!  UTNE’s Julie Hanus wrote an excellent supporting piece as well, with some great accolades for both Tataki and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Thanks!

Did I miss anyone?  Do you know of a journalist or blogger that’s interested in this topic?  Maybe a chef who’s pushing sustainable seafood on his or her menu?   A sushi bar or grocery store that’s considering making the switch?  Please let me know!

It’s wonderful to see all the ground that the sustainable sushi movement is gaining in the conventional media, the blogosphere, and in popular culture.  Hopefully this will lead to more entrepreneurs, chefs, and business owners taking the plunge.

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The Vanguard – Part 2: Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar

Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar was the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the United States. When it opened in February 2008, however, it was to deafening silence from the culinary scene.  Little money was available to spend on advertising and fanfare; chef/owners Kin Lui and Raymond Ho had already put themselves deep in debt merely through attending to the bare necessities that came with opening a restaurant.  Although I was lucky enough to be involved in concept and development, I certainly wasn’t able to bring any money to the table.

The vision behind the restaurant was simple – to prove that sushi and ocean conservation did not necessarily run at odds in one another, and that in fact one could do honor to the art form and hold true to the pursuit of excellence that is part and parcel of the cuisine, while at the same time respecting and nurturing the bounty of our oceans.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Not in our house

There were some major challenges right out of the gate.  The five most popular sushi items in the United States – open-containment farmed salmon, farmed shrimp, longlined yellowfin tuna, farmed Japanese amberjack, and ranched freshwater eel were all unequivocally unsustainable choices.  They all had to go, as did the biggest moneymaker of them all: bluefin tuna.

An even bigger challenge has been the lack of a full kitchen.  Tataki has had to cope with this since day one.  Frankly, though, it has only served to show how much more a hypothetical sustainable sushi chef could do with a full suite of tools.

The Tataki menu has evolved over time, but not a single one of the aforementioned products has ever blemished its pages.  This has been a struggle in some ways, but in others, it’s actually proven surprisingly easy.  An example?  Replacing farmed salmon.

I can't believe it's not eel!

I can't believe it's not eel!

Since farmed salmon was never an option for us, Tataki has always offered arctic char in its place.  We expected some degree of resistance from our customers, but it has never materialized.  The char was instantly popular among our diners and to this day remains one of the restaurant’s best sellers.  We bring in wild Alaskan salmon as well, but as this is a seasonal product, it is a delicacy that we are not able to offer on a daily basis.

Eel was replaced with faux-nagi, Chef Kin Lui’s brainchild.  This sablefish-based dish delivers the deep, dusky sweetness and fatty texture of unagi, but doesn’t rely on an overfished product.

The chefs eschew bluefin toro in favor of the sweet, supple belly flesh of local pole-and-line albacore.  Hamachi was never an option either, due to the state of stocks and the rapacity of the industry.  Instead, Tataki’s offers farmed Hawaiian kanpachi (as well as wild amberjack, depending on the season.)

Welcome back, vegans

Welcome back, vegans

Tataki also boasts a thorough vegetarian selection.  It seemed to us that vegetarians had been severely marginalized when it came to sushi — how many cucumber rolls can you eat before the experience becomes unbearably mundane?  Moreover, vegetarians are, by definition, sustainable seafood supporters insofar as they would never order bluefin, eel, farmed salmon, or other dangerous options.  Kin and Raymond put a tremendous amount of thought into designing a menu that offers both vegetarians and vegans alike a plethora of animal-free delights.

The vast majority of Tataki’s customers are thrilled about the options.  Sure, we have the odd one or two patrons that lament our lack of unagi or toro, but we’ve found that the gains vastly outweigh the losses.

While the restaurant’s popularity has continued to grow, nothing could have prepared us for a recent event that both flattered and humbled us to no end.  In its October 5th issue, Time Magazine declared Raymond, Kin and myself “Environmental Heroes of the Year” in honor of our work with sustainable sushi.

Our little corner of the industry

Our little corner of the industry

As ecstatic as we are about this award, it is actually our hope that our little operation will soon be forgotten amidst the dozens, even hundreds, of other restaurants and grocery stores that make the switch to a more responsible method of selling sushi.  A niche restaurant may command a distinct market share, but it will not change the world; it cannot save the oceans.  A vanguard restaurant, however, defines itself by the slow demise of its individuality.  We at Tataki will know that we’ve succeeded in our mission when, from an environmental perspective, there is nothing to distinguish us from any other sushi bar.

The concept of sustainability is ballooning within the public consciousness, and with each passing day, the ideals of a sustainable lifestyle penetrate further into our daily existence.  For all of us in the Tataki family, it has been and continues to be a true honor to play a role in the development of sustainable sushi.

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9 comments

Seeking input

Posted by Casson in News and Announcements
Help a brother out?

Help a brother out?

I need to ask you all for a small favor.

For the past nine months or so, I have been working on building sustainablesushi.net into an informative website where people could obtain up-to-date scientific information on the sustainability of their favorite sushi items, as well as express their views on various phenomena growing out of the realms of sushi and ocean conservation.  I’ve been thrilled to watch the readership of this blog display slow but steady growth throughout that time.

Moreover, sustainablesushi.net has attracted individuals that represent the leadership in a number of the fields related to this subject — marine biologists, commercial fishermen, aquaculturists, and even sushi chefs have found their way to the website.  These folks represent a wealth of information that we can all benefit from.

So... how 'bout them sardines?

So... how 'bout them sardines?

That being said, I’ve been slow to foster more discussion in the form of comments.  This is a bit of a letdown as I strongly believe that the best way to grapple with the complicated issues addressed on this website is through open discussion and debate.  Unfortunately, I feel that I have largely failed to create an environment where readers feel comfortable adding their views and engaging in conversation with me and with one another.

As such, I have decided that it would be best to open the floor up to my readership.  The multiple choice question below represents some of the ideas I’ve already had.  Please feel free to suggest more than one option.

All I ask is that you bear two points in mind:

  • I maintain my own website
  • I know virtually nothing about how to maintain my own website

With that caveat, I’d love to know your thoughts on the following questions:

1) What are the best/worst parts of this website?

Also:

2) What would encourage more reader participation and discussion on this website?

  1. Enabled anonymous postings (no need to login to post a comment)
  2. Video updates (VLOG entries)
  3. Increased focus on restaurants (provide matrix for readers to conduct and submit sustainability-based reviews)
  4. Blog articles to close with question(s) designed to kickstart discussion
  5. Other (feel free to suggest something)



Thanks so much for your input.  This website is still in its formative stages, and while I’m certainly very proud of how far it has come, I have no doubt whatsoever that there is still a tremendous need for improvement.  After all, sustainability is dynamic… and websites need to be sustainable as well.

I look forward to your comments.

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