While eating sushi the other night at one of my favourite seafood restaurants in Cape Town, watching plate after plate of sushi combinations coming out the kitchen, I got to thinking if this is just one restaurant in one town in one country what really is the state of our oceans…? Then by chance I came across an article in TIME magazine about a sushi chef who has opened up America´s first sustainable sushi restaurant that offers a menu that goes easy on endangered seafood.
For Kin Lui, the realisation came from a newspaper article. The Hong Kong-born Hawaii-raised sushi chef read a piece about the rapid decline of the bluefin tuna – perhaps sushi lovers´ favourite item, whilst taking a break whilst on shift at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. That was when Lui made the connection between the steady disappearance of fish from the ocean and the meals that he had spent a career preparing.
Sushi has grown from a working-class food in Japan to a globe-spanning industry – enough that in the U.S. alone, 225 million restaurant meals served last year included sushi, 11% more than the year before. To meet this demand, fisherman are fast emptying the seas. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the population of species like wild blue-fin tuna has fallen by 90% in 30 years. Sushi chefs – and lovers (like myself) – have to face the fact that our grandchildren´s idea of sushi might be jellyfish on rice!
Lui and his partner Raymond Ho decided to establish a truly sustainable sushi restaurant. Most of the best-selling sushi items have been knocked off their menu for being unsustainable including farmed shrimp, farmed salmon, hamachi, long-lined tuna. The result was Tataki, America´s first sustainable sushi restaurant. The menu at the 24-seat San Francisco restaurant is screened for its impact on the oceans. Instead of ubiquitous shrimp or farmed salmon, you´ll be served substitutes like wild Arctic char, which has the taste and feel of salmon yet is far more plentiful, or sardines, a fish low enough on the food chain to be sustainable.
The restaurant has proved to be a hit; with lines of waiting diners stretching out the door on Friday and Saturday nights. A similar restaurant has now been opened in Seattle. As Lui and Ho show, for sushi lovers, the first step to saving the oceans is to think about what goes onto your plate – and into your stomach. So hopefully you´ll think twice before your next order of blue-fin tuna sashimi – I know I will.