Nourishing the Planet’s Victoria Russo recently spoke with Mark Hall, an independent filmmaker based in Austin, Texas, who produced the 2012 documentary, Sushi: The Global Catch. Inspired by the prevalence of sushi in seemingly unlikely places, from Warsaw, Poland to football games in Texas, Hall created the film to track the global implications of the international raw fish industry and to better understand the consequences of sushi as a global phenomenon.
How did your interest in the sushi industry begin? What inspired you?
I have always enjoyed eating sushi, and actually got my inspiration for the documentary while doing some non-film related work in Poland a few years ago. I was working with a group from the Ministry of Agriculture in Warsaw to assist a private organic cooperative with small farmers. When we broke for lunch, I was shocked by the fact that they proposed going for sushi. I later discovered that there were about 30 to 40 sushi restaurants in Warsaw at the time, and I was struck by how much of a global presence sushi had become in such a short amount of time. The original idea for the documentary focused largely on the lengthy global supply chains that support our growing desire for sushi, but as we delved deeper into the filming, we realized that there were significant economic, social, and environmental consequences of the growth of the sushi industry that needed to be addressed.
How did sushi grow from being a traditionally Japanese dish to a global favorite?
The Japanese pride themselves in inventing and maintaining a strong cultural tradition of making sushi. In fact, while I was in graduate school in Japan some of my Japanese friends would tease foreigners by daring them into eating sushi, because Americans at the time were not used to eating raw fish. By introducing sushi to the world, the Japanese opened something of a Pandora’s box. Now the rest of the world loves it, and it is making it more difficult for the Japanese to access the dish that they created and love. While filming “Sushi: The Global Catch,” I received a letter telling me that the first sushi restaurant in Rwanda had just opened, and I was amazed by how globalized eating sushi has become.
How has sushi changed since it has been exposed to the global market?
As sushi has grown in popularity, we have lost a sense of the cultural origins of the cuisine. In Japan, sushi started out as a meal intended for special occasions. Now, it is accessible in most parts of the world—even in gas stations. There has been cultural dilution, and non-Japanese chefs have created variations on the dish that the Japanese themselves would not even consider sushi. There are California rolls, Philadelphia rolls, and in my hometown of Austin, Texas, they even serve a Longhorn roll that has ribeye steak and candied jalapenos in it.
The film includes a segment about a school district in Texas that serves sushi at football games and various events. When you can get a good-sized sushi meal for around $10, sushi becomes more available to those working with a lower budget. The Sushi Popper, a portable package of sushi on a push-up stick, recently entered the global market and is redefining how sushi is understood. It makes it easier to buy, ship, and serve sushi in vending machines, airplanes, and schools. We need to consider the implications of sushi’s global supply chain.