Salmon sushi isn’t Japanese — Suede Sunday

There is little doubt that the birthplace of sushi is Japan. The Japanese started preserving fish in fermented rice around the 8th century. Granted, Nobu might please the taste-buds more than the early forms of sushi, but nonetheless, Japan is where it all started. One of the most common raw fish used in sushi today, however, isn’t native to Japan. The picture gives it away, but yes, uncooked salmon on sushi is not Japanese, but rather a Norwegian creation.

In the 80’s, Norway was facing a large Salmon excess. Norwegian waters were yielding so much salmon that the government was forced to intervene. Industrial freezers were used to store tons and tons of the pink fish. The government also looked towards increasing exports as a way of lessening the surplus of salmon. Logically, they looked at one of the biggest fish consuming countries, Japan, to market their salmon. Bjorn Eirik Olsen was hired to head the project. What may surprise you is that this was a job that was going to face many obstacles.

The reason exporting salmon to Japan proved problematic was not the fact that Japan themselves had a large abundance of salmon. Rather, it was because raw salmon was not eaten in Japan before the 80’s. Unlike salmon from Norwegian waters, Japanese salmon posed much higher threats of parasites. Thus, if eaten in Japan, always cooked. When Olsen proposed marketing raw salmon to Japanese consumers, many Japanese fish industry executives reacted abhorrently. Olsen not only had to convince the fish companies that Norwegian salmon was safe and tasty to eat raw, but he also had to convince the Japanese consumers.

Olsen’s first approach was to market the origin of the product. He tried to make Norwegian salmon synonymous with Norwegian waters: pure, clean and safe. This method of marketing did little to win over the average Japanese consumer. What did work, however, was partnering up with Nishi Rei. They were established in the frozen food industry, specializing in dumplings. Olsen negotiated with Nishi Rei management and convinced them to buy 5,000 tons of Norwegian salmon for cheap and sell it to Japanese consumers as sushi. The partnership with Nishi Rei is what brought raw salmon sushi to the Japanese mainstream. It changed the mentality from absurd to normal. So, next time you’re at your local sushi restaurant about to bite into a freshly prepared salmon roll, think about a group of Norwegians flying over to Japan in the 80’s to present the idea to fish executives.