Explore Tokyo

Scandinavian Soot Stymies Salmon Sales

What's New — By Alex Resnik on April 21, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Tokyo’s world-renowned sushi and fresh fish industries are a marvel of the modern world. Take a trip to Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market and you’ll come to understand how hawkers and dealers move over 4,000 tons of fish every day, six days a week (and usually before lunch time): efficiency, cooperation, and ruthless competition. The Japanese motivational proverb, “Asa meshi mae” (“I’ll have it done before breakfast”) comes to mind, as does the sheer extent of global coordination involved in feeding Tokyo’s pescatarian hordes.

Imagine trying to supply the world’s largest fish market with enough, say, tuna to sate the hungry masses: when one cog in the global machine breaks down, the entire system can sometimes fall apart. This past week the system didn’t so much fall apart as blow right up when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted and spewed clouds of ash into the atmosphere, grounding all air travel and effectively stopping all exports of Norwegian salmon to Japan. Thank God it wasn’t the tuna.

Image: stevecadman/Flickr

Although salmon might not be at the highest echelon of fishes in the sushi chef’s repertoire (like the vaulted toro, fatty tuna), it is an important and very common menu item at any sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Rolled up, served as sashimi, or topping rice nigiri-style, salmon (and its roe, known as ikura) is loved and appreciated across the islands of Japan. Here’s the rub: although wild salmon swim the seas around Japan, they are not as plentiful as they used to be. Indeed, most salmon you buy at any restaurant in Tokyo was most likely caught in Norway, flash frozen, and shipped by air to Tsukiji. Fishmongers cite the wider availability and more delicate flavor of Norwegian Atlantic salmon as main selling points.

As Japan supplies a whopping 90 percent of its salmon from the Scandinavian country of Norway, the Icelandic ash cloud is bringing a storm that could disrupt everything from salarymen’s snack time to tourists’ tasting sets. Stocks of the frozen salmon are running low – very low – and Tuskiji wholesalers are scrambling to fill the gap, buying up New Zealand exports of salmon as fast as they can. Will Japanese consumers swallow this salmon switch, or will they smell something fishy afoot? Only time will tell.

It’s interesting to note that the Japanese did not eat raw salmon or ikura before the availability of refrigeration, mainly because of health risks (salmon can carry certain disease-carrying parasites). Only more recently have Japanese chefs adopted the fish and its eggs into sushi cuisine.

Tags: Eyjafjallajokull, iceland, ikura, Japan, nigiri, norway, salmon, Tokyo, Tsukiji, volcano
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