Adam Express, a tiny takeout restaurant on Mount Pleasant Street NW, may have the best California rolls in the District. When business slows, you can hear owner Boo Hyung Bae sing a subtle, soulful melody as she lays down fresh avocado, diced cucumbers, nori, and rice, tosses in a fat morsel of imitation crab, and begins rolling. As she cuts, sings, and starts again, her husband, Ryuk Hyo, plays maitre d’, welcoming walk-ins with a smile. That’s Adam Express even when it’s busy, which might explain why the place is so hellishly slow.
But it’s not speed we want, anyway. It’s convenience. The couple serves these savory rolls, the most American of what we popularly call sushi, in a neighborhood of whites, blacks, Central Americans—and virtually no Japanese. They’re Korean, as are their specialties: bulgogi, pajun, and woodon, whose flavors inspire something like euphoria. What’s more noteworthy is that Koreans and Japanese are bitter, centuries-long rivals, and food is a central part of their respective cultural chauvinisms.
The thriving sushi market is a testament to globalization, for better or for worse. It’s part of the same global economy that allowed Japanese distributors to import fresh, fatty bluefin tuna belly, toro, from the northeastern United States and Canadian coast in the ’70s, starting the international sushi craze after new, abundant transport technologies made fish a profitable resource to exploit in the first place. It’s really why we can have raw sea urchin at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. Moreover, it’s why there’s a “Sushi Belt” of some repute in Towson.
Two books by reporters attempt to answer questions about the modern world’s fixation with so seemingly primitive and simplistic a cuisine. Sasha Issenberg’s The Sushi Economy and Trevor Corson’s The Zen of Fish both ask “When? Why? How? Where?” But it’s the questions they don’t ask that define the books, the sushi market they describe, and to an extent, their vision of the global economy itself.
Issenberg, a contributor to Philadelphia magazine and Slate, among other publications, positively celebrates the economics of raw fish. Economy attempts to be a portrait of the global sushi industry’s supply chain, painted with as much simmering enthusiasm as can be inspired by what is essentially one long econ problem set. But the book’s tone never matches Issenberg’s stated enthusiasm, and it doesn’t spend enough time engaging with the joys of sushi. Issenberg practically burns through the demand side on Page 1 of the preface—a “fix” reference, phrases like “parade of small joys” and “soft, evanescent tuna,” and the obligatory eyes rolling in ecstasy. That’s about it. Except to catalog the business decisions of high-profile chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa, Issenberg keeps pretty much out of the sushi bar.
But he has plenty of business stories. Issenberg describes the bright ideas of Japan Airlines employee Akira Okazaki, who in 1971 paired Japan’s growing appetite for soft, fatty foods with the previously useless surplus of tuna caught off New England and Canada; the awe-inspiring chaos of Tokyo’s Tsukiji (roughly, “squeegee”) fish market, where hundreds of species meet thousands of buyers in a frenzy of fish guts and 10-foot tuna; the acuity of California restaurateurs who replaced pricey tuna with the equally buttery but far cheaper avocado in the namesake roll; and the delicate trust between merchants, fishermen, shippers, and a fickle public—because “sushi-grade fish is only as good as the last person to own it says it is.”