Tokyo: Sushi made with deer meat? How about a slice of raw horse on that rice?
These are some of the most extreme alternatives being considered by Japanese chefs as shortages of tuna threaten to remove it from Japan’s sushi menus—something as unthinkable here as Texas without barbecue is in the US.
So when global fishing bodies recently began lowering the limits on catches in the world’s rapidly depleting tuna fisheries, Japan fell into a national panic.
Nightly news programmes ran reports of how higher prices were driving top-grade tuna off supermarket shelves and the conveyer belts at sushi chain stores.
At nicer restaurants, sushi chefs began experimenting with substitutes, from cheaper varieties of fish to terrestrial alternatives and even, heaven forbid, American sushi variations such as avocado rolls.
“It’s like America running out of steak,” said Tadashi Yamagata, vice-chairman of Japan’s national union of sushi chefs. “Sushi without tuna just would not be sushi.”
The problem is the growing appetite for sushi and sashimi outside Japan, not only in the US, but also in newly wealthy countries such as Russia, South Korea and China.
And fishing experts say that the shortages and rising prices will only become more severe as the population of bluefin tuna—the big, slow-maturing type most favoured in sushi—fails to keep up with worldwide demand.
Since the start of last year, the average price of imported frozen northern and Pacific bluefin has risen more than a third, to $13 (Rs598 then) a pound, according to Japan’s Fisheries Agency.
The tuna shortage is also having a more concrete effect on menus at Japanese sushi bars. Fukuzushi, a mid-price restaurant in a residential neighbourhood in Tokyo, is having a tougher time finding high quality fish at reasonable prices.
The restaurant’s owner, Shigekazu Ozoe, 56, says the current situation reminds him of 1973, during a scare over mercury poisoning in oceans, when customers refused to buy tuna. At that time, he tried to find other red-coloured substitutes such as smoked deer meat and raw horse, a local delicacy in some parts of Japan.
“We tasted it, and horse sushi was pretty good,” he recalled. “It was soft, easy to bite off, had no smell.”
The only drawback, he remembers, was customers objecting to red meat in the glass display case of his sushi bar.
“One customer pointed and said, ‘You have something four-legged in your fish case? That’s eerie!”