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Japan Is Launching a Program to Fight Back Against Bad Sushi

Japanese cuisine is infiltrating every corner of the Earth at an impressive rate, with 89,000 Japanese restaurants worldwide as of last year. But there's one problem: a lot of it is bad.
February 3, 2016, 6:00pm

The sushi craze in the United States took off in the 1980s, and it hasn't let up since. Take New York City, where you'll find some of the best sushi outside Japan—but also stark reminders that not all sushi is made equal. Fifty-eight percent of New York City sushi restaurants sold mislabeled fish in one 2012 study, with as many as 13 different types of fish being passed off as "red snapper." The same study found that 94 percent of "white tuna" sold wasn't white tuna at all—it was actually escolar, a type of snake mackerel (how appetizing) that has, ahem, "purgative effects" in even small quantities.

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You can find pre-packaged California rolls, rainbow rolls, and suspiciously bright-red tuna rolls made with sickly sweet grainy rice in grocery stores and gas stations across the country, but their resemblance to the real thing seems, at times, to be only in name. In an effort to take back what it means to make and call something sushi, the Japanese government is launching a global quality initiative and certification program to improve sushi and Japanese cuisine around the world.

As anyone who's ever watched a master sushi chef at work (or seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi) can attest, real sushi isn't just food; it's a form of art. Some sushi chefs spend years making nothing but rice before they're even allowed to put knife to fish. The attention to detail and respect for ingredients is second to none. Visiting Tsukiji Market, the Mecca of seafood in Tokyo where chefs buy their ingredients, is something of a religious experience. (Get there before it moves later this year.)

That approach to sushi-making and ingredients seems lost on a lot of foreign sushi chefs, and the Japanese Cuisine Skills Certification Guidelines hopes to fix that, or, at least, to allow conscious consumers to choose a Japanese-certified sushi restaurant. The program will issue certificates of recognition to sushi chefs who travel to Japan to learn how to handle seafood, present dishes, and interact with customers in the Japanese way.

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The certificates will act sort of like a Japanese-food Zagat system. Some aspects of the certification course, which will be operated by private restaurants and other institutions, will focus on basic practices like food safety.

"The aim of this program is to simply provide guidelines for cooking techniques of Japanese cuisine since Japanese cuisine often involves handling of raw ingredients such as raw fish and needs special hygienic attentions and knowledge," The US Embassy of Japan told MUNCHIES by e-mail.

But it isn't just food hygiene that's the problem. Japanese cuisine is infiltrating every corner of the Earth at an impressive rate, with 89,000 Japanese restaurants worldwide in July 2015—1.6 times more than two years prior.

And while Japan is happy to see its food culture spread globally, standards aren't always up to snuff. CNBC reports grievances such as Parisian waiters slamming sushi dishes on tables, upsetting presentation. The Japanese Cuisine Skills Certification Guidelines hope to instill an appreciation for washoku, a culinary philosophy concerning an approach to ingredients and preparation. Washoku, like French cuisine, is considered an "intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO.

"It is interesting and exciting that local chefs invent dishes that [they] would have never created in Japan, like California rolls," Akiko Katayama, the host and producer of Japan Eats! on the food-focused Heritage Radio Network, told MUNCHIES.

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But, Katamaya, who aired an episode dedicated to washoku last October, says there are certain dishes that, without following the basic guidelines, simply aren't the same.

"For instance, I heard about a non-Japanese owned restaurant that served 'miso soup' made with hot water and miso," Katayama said. "Where is dashi, which is the essence of the dish? This soup should not be called miso soup in my opinion. Calling California Rolls 'Japanese' makes sense to me, because the recipe is based on the traditional techniques."

And perhaps a traditional Japanese approach to food safety would have been better than some ill-fated attempts made by food agencies here in the US that have tried to act as sushi police.

"The NYC regulations to require sushi chefs to wear gloves are nonsense, because they would not keep chefs' hands or cooking surface[s] cleaner at all, and probably the opposite," Katayama says. "The traditional method of constant wiping and washing with vinegar almost never caused food poisoning in the long history of sushi-making in Japan."

The program is still in the planning stages to be launched later this year, but an initial proposal suggested "gold" status for chefs who work two years or more in Japan, "silver" for six months training, and "bronze" for a shorter tenure. Hopefully, when the new system arrives, it will help you to choose your sushi with confidence.