Japanese Food – Great Choices & Questions of Sustainability

Jun 12th, 2009 | By | Category: Food

In the past week there has been some great food news for travelers to Japan and other developments that could be confusing for those concerned about the impact of their food choices on the environment.

The good news is that for those travelers wanting to taste all of the great regional specialties in Japan a new guide has been published in English that will help make it a whole lot easier to do so.  Etsuko from Tokyofoodcast tells us all how we can get our very own copy of the just released Japan’s Tasty Secrets that will be given out at Narita, Chubu and Kansai international airports, as well as at travel fairs hosted in Asia, japan sushiEurope and the United States.  Japan’s Tasty Secrets includes information on over 100 dishes including local favorites and more traditional fare.

Etsuko could have written the book herself and wrote about most of these treats in her Regional Foods of Japan series for The Nihon Sun without knowing about the book!   If you don’t already have Tokyofoodcast bookmarked then you are missing a lot of great information on the food and sake scene in Japan.  Etsuko loves food and offers a lot of great information and information on how to get out and taste the foods that are unique to Japan from a local perspective.

Japan offers her visitors more than just great sushi!

Despite the wide variety of Japanese foods highlighted in Japan’s Tasty Secrets, sushi is probably one of Japan’s most famous food export and maguro (tuna)the most commonly recognized sushi fish.

This week also marked World Ocean Day (June 8th), designated by the United Nations as a day to reflect upon our relationship to the ocean.  As one of the world’s main source of food there is great concern about the decrease in the population of some of the fish, particularly tuna, used in great quantities on Japanese tables and around the world.

“The U.N. reports that 75 percent of seafood species are maxed out or overexploited and catches of nearly a third of these species are less than 10 percent of what they once were. Ninety percent of the big fish — sharks, tuna, swordfish — are already gone, according to a 2003 study in Nature.”
Source: CNN, Commentary: World’s biggest fish are dying

Many different organizations publish guides on how to choose more sustainable options the next time you visit your favorite sushi bar but all have limitations, especially when you are in Japan and have limited language skills.   The guides (listed below) are prepared primarily for the North American market and include conflicting advice for consumers that would be very difficult to implement without a lot of effort.  That is not to say the effort isn’t worth it, it’s just not that easy to put into practice.

For example, sake (salmon) is a considered a sustainable sushi choice IF it is caught wild in Alaska but is best avoided if it is farmed.  Uni (sea urchin roe) is to be avoided if it came from Main but is a good choice if it came from Canada.  Most cuts of tuna are to be avoided with the exception of shiro maguro (albacore tuna) caught via trolling or by pole in the US and Canada.

I have yet to see a sustainable sushi guide for Asia in general, or Japan specifically, and would imagine that the recommendations would differ quite a bit from those mentioned above.  My guess is that Alaska salmon might not be considered sustainable when served in a Tokyo sushi shop simply due to the environmental impact of getting it here and some fish are more abundant in the waters of Japan than elsewhere in the world.

My limited language ability makes it hard for me to ask my local sushi chef where the fish I am eating comes from and my knowledge of the answer that will appease my concern about the sustainability of that fish is limited in English or Japanese.

I don’t have the answer and suspect that I am not alone in wishing for a resource that would make it a little easier to navigate my sushi choices in Japan with an eye on the sustainability of our oceans and the fish in them.  For now, I’m left with the guides below and a lot a questions:

Sustainable Sushi and Fish Guides

The Blue Ocean Institue offers an Ocean Friendly Sushi Guide
The Environment Defense Fund affers a Pocket Sushi Guide & a list of Smart Sushi Choices
The Monterey Bay Acquirium offers a selection of Regional Seafood Watch Pocket Guides as well as a Sushi Guide (PDF)

Image Credit:  Flickr, Sushi and Fresh Wasabi

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  1. If you’re lucky enough be visiting more rural parts of Japan you can be pretty much assured, staying away from larger chain stores, that you’ll be getting local produce. Often choice will be limited to the area’s specialities, but that won’t make any less enjoyable. In fact one of the most memorable sushi dishes I ever had was in a restaurant in a shipping village right at the tip of Ise Shima, near Goza Shirahama. There wasn’t anyone around, and there was only one thing on the menu that day Tekone-zushi, the local fisherman’s dish.

  2. Thank you, Shane! Thanks also for the sustainability information. But, how about uni from Hokkaido?

  3. Just to let you know, there is a website and a book (Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time, by Casson Trenor) dedicated to sustainability in the sushi industry. http://www.sustainablesushi.net

  4. @Brett I agree that your are more likely to get seasonal and sustainable food options in rural areas and by staying away from the larger chain stores. That’s why i frequent my local vegetable stand in Chiba.

    @Tokyofoodcast Your question “how about uni from Hokkaido?” really brings this point home. This sounds like a sustainable choice as it is local to Japan at least but as a foreign resident with limited language skills there is no information available to us on what is and isn’t sustainable here.

    @amber Thanks for the link - the virtual sushi restaurant on the site is fun but again it’s a resource that is primarily geared towards the North American market so is of limited help to those visiting Japan.

    Thanks to all for your comments. I’m probably not as environmentally conscious as I should be but this is one area that has me a bit stumped and frustrated due to the lack of available information that goes beyond a sensationalized headline.

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