If you’ve ever wondered just how Americans developed their love affair with sushi, ramen, and other culinary exports, a new collaborative Japanese-American documentary, Wa-Shoku: Beyond Sushi, is here to feed your curious mind (and make you really hungry).
The film dives deeps into the art and aesthetic of traditional Japanese culinary culture (wa-shoku), focusing on the intersection of presentation, taste, and heritage that goes into every step of Japanese food preparation, as well as the ways it has translated to American culture (read: ramen burgers).
While sushi and sashimi are widely discussed, the film also offers insights on sake, tofu, ramen, and Japan’s obsession with umami, profiling luminaries of Japanese cuisine in the United States like the legendary Nobu Matsuhisa, Tyson Cole of current Texas hot spot Uchi, and Katsuya Uechi of Izaka-ya in Los Angeles.
Most importantly, the movie explores the influence of Noritoshi Kanai, the 92-year-old chairman of the importing company Mutal Trading Co., and the person credited with almost single handedly introducing sushi to the United States in the 1960s.
We chatted with Kanai (and his daughter/translator, Atsuko Kani) about his initial difficulties securing an American market, his favorite sushi spots, and what the future holds for raw-fish industry.
What excited you about sushi? What made you think it could be successful in the United States?
Noritoshi Kanai: I wanted to export Japanese food to the United States, and I wanted to export what was good. I spent 10 years, almost, to find out that sushi [was the best choice]. We tested many kinds of Japanese food, but most of them were not successful. I found the best food [to export] must be absolutely different than Western food. Fundamentally, Western food is based around wheat, meat, and wine. Compared with these basic foods, Eastern food’s number one food is rice, number two is fish, number three is soybeans, and number four, instead of wine, people make sake from rice. I found sushi the [best] food to show this difference between Western and Eastern food.
Photo: Yelp/Eli G.
Atsuko Kani: There was a failure before he came to the subject of sushi. He first thought, “What would be the easiest product for mainstream Americans to consume?” He thought it would be rice crackers and biscuits. He thought he was going to retire and be rich from doing that. Americans were familiar with [crackers], even though the Japanese had refined them. They were popular for a while but in two or three years, Nabisco came in under him and took away the whole market. From then on, he said, “I am going to look for something that no American [company] can copy. I’m going to look for something vastly different.” That’s when he decided on sushi. He started thinking about food in a more philosophical way.
What were some of the challenges with getting Americans to be receptive to sushi?
NK: 100% of Americans did not know sushi. Even Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people said, “Sushi cannot be loved by the American people.”
Rice you can get in the United States, and rice vinegar we could easily import. But the fish must be fresh, and to get fresh fish is very hard in the United States. Sometimes, frozen fish would be available, but the Japanese people knew that the fish used for sushi must be fresh. I’d freeze Japanese fish in Japan and bring to the United States. In Europe, they like eating fresh fish—English, Germans—so this was a big help.
How do you think sushi culture in the United States could still improve?
NK: People want to know different kinds of cooking ways. In the future, this tendency [will] not change. People want to know its principles.
Photo: Liz Barclay
AK: My dad believes that in the upcoming years, the culinary world that’s divided into East and West will start taking more interest in each other. Japan is an island country, and they import everything from ideas and technique, to food itself. They have lots of Western foods already. In Western-style cooking, though, one of the key words is “umami” now, but it has a different definition in the East. The two cultures will work together more, preserving their own cultures but bringing out something new.
What does the future hold for sushi?
NK: American people take real pleasure in eating sushi, but fundamentally it is expensive. The conveyer-belt sushi that is very popular in Japan and is only starting now in the United States. In the future, sushi will be divided into more expensive sushi and the low-grade sushi. Low-grade sushi is changing remarkably. I think, for myself, that kind of sushi is not sushi. In the future, there will be a bigger [gap] between high-class sushi and cheap sushi. Cheap sushi is going to keep pricing down because they are using cheap ingredients. I’d like to get more real fish that’s fresh and clean with the real taste.
AK: My dad sees that sushi works, it’s a marketable item. In order to manage growth, though, we’re seeing stores competing based on price and ingredients getting cheaper and cheaper. In order to sustain the real definition of sushi it cannot become the very cheap packaged sushi. It can’t be the norm. It has to be the real sushi that exists in the Japanese market, where it’s not an item that you eat every day; it’s for special occasions and is very pricy based on the freshest ingredients you can catch on that day.
One of Noritoshi Kanai’s favorite spots, Sushi Ken. (Photo: Yelp/Christine A.)
There’s a technology in Japan that allows fish to be quick frozen now on the ship [when it’s caught] to negative 60 degrees. Once you lower the temperature at a quick rate like that you don’t damage the cells. When you defrost it, the cells are still alive. By definition, if you use this system, it’s like a fish being defrosted in the United States was caught an hour ago in Japan.
Where is your favorite place to eat sushi?
AK: There are two places he likes. The one place is Sushi Ken in Torrance, California. The other one is in Little Tokyo [Los Angeles] and is called Mako Sushi. The reason he likes these sushi places is that they are the traditional sushi style, which means not the hand rolls but fish on top. Therefore, you can critique the chef’s skill and the flavor of the fish being served. When you do a roll, the flavors are all masked by sauces, so that’s why he prefers the traditional sushi places.
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