Salmon is a prime ingredient in today’s sushi and sashimi. The immediately recognisable orange meat is a staple of nigiri, hosomaki and uramaki sushi styles, but this wasn’t always the case.
The history of salmon in Japanese cuisine is more meandering than you might expect, having transitioned from completely unappealing to a common favourite within a few decades. And who do we have to thank for this? Norway.
Salmon was not a natural sushi choice for Japan. Species from their Pacific coastline often harboured parasites, naturally making it unappealing for raw consumption, and the meat itself was considered too lean and not delicate enough for sushi and sashimi. It wasn’t until Norway began exporting its salmon in 1974 that this preconception about the fish was changed. Salmon was only eaten in Japan cooked and was regarded as a low-quality dish. Seeing an opportunity, Norway sent a trade delegation offering to export its own, better salmon. The attempt was successful and trading began in the 1980’s.
The fish’s popularity didn’t take off immediately however, as the Japanese didn’t find the fish’s size, the meat, or the
smell to be appetising or comfortable for their palette.
Norway later turned to Japan in 1985 with a view to use their established relationship to their advantage. The government was now subsidising fishing and Norway had become desperate for new markets, their surplus overstocking freezers by the tons.
They approached Japan once again with a trade initiative named Project Japan. The progress with this initiative was slow but ultimately worthwhile when a decade later in 1995, a Japanese company named Nishi Rei was approached with an offer: 5,000 tons of salmon extremely cheap, for the promise it would be sold for sushi. The influence of this company was so great, that when they began selling the frozen Norwegian salmon, the consumption of the fish raw became gradually normalised, steadily morphing Japan’s image of the fish into something much more palatable.
Even today, many Japanese sushi chefs still avoid salmon as the change in conception was so recent. This doesn’t stop it being a global favourite however. Popular to the western palette for its oily texture and delicate flavour, it helped spread Japanese cuisine across the globe, making sushi and sashimi more broadly accessible, and with its high levels of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, it’s popular with the health-conscious and athletic among us.
Demand for salmon now only continues to increase, which makes present farming methods ever more important and considered.
We plan to explore this more in our next blog post.
See you there!
Author credits Vic Cooper & Joshua Mullings.