Little Bit of History Repeating: Salmon sushi

Salmon sushi did not exist before the 1990s, and no one told me. I have taken its “authenticity” (whatever that means) as a Japanese dish for granted, when really we have Norway’s ridiculous persistence to thank for its creation.

In the 1970s, Norwegian farmers became too successful in raising commercial salmon. By the 1980s, they had started filling industrial freezers with the fish. Desperate, the government hired a man named Bjorn Eirik Olsen to find a place to export them.

Because of overfishing, overpopulation and rising incomes, Japan was willing to pay five times the usual price for sushi grade fish, making the country the perfect market. Olsen met with Japanese fish industry executives and unveiled his exciting new proposal: salmon sushi!

The executives were not impressed. In an NPR interview, Olsen recalls their saying, “It’s impossible … It doesn’t taste good … The color is wrong also; it should be redder. It has a smell. And … the head has the wrong shape.”

People in Japan thought raw salmon was not only disgusting, but a health risk. Pacific salmon, unlike Atlantic, contained parasites. Japanese chefs always cooked it. To someone living near the Pacific Ocean, being told to eat a raw slab of salmon was like being told to eat a raw piece of pork. Japanese fishermen thought that Olsen was crazy.

That didn’t stop Olsen. In 1986, Norway launched “Project Japan,” an initiative devoted entirely to promoting raw salmon in Japan. Olsen became responsible for market research. He was going to make salmon sushi a thing if it killed him. The question was, how? He couldn’t exactly market Norway’s raw salmon as “not poisonous.”

Instead, Olsen made advertisements displaying Norway’s clear waters. Those did not work. Project Japan then developed ads targeting importers, distributors, market chains, restaurants and consumers. They even had the Norwegian ambassador to Japan serve salmon to guests, and they organized a promotional visit by the Norwegian Crown Prince and Princess. Nothing worked. 

After a decade of rejection, Olsen faced pressure to give up on his salmon sushi dream. He couldn’t. He figured he just needed to make one big sale.

Olsen contacted Nishi Rei, a popular frozen food brand that sold dumplings, chicken nuggets and squid. Olsen offered them 5,000 tons of raw salmon for cheap if they would sell it as sushi and just give it a chance. Nishi Rei said yes. 

“It was a day of happiness … there was a feeling of making history,” Olsen said.

Once Nishi Rei sold raw salmon, it seemed more normal to eat it. One Tokyo resident, Tadashi Ono, remembers trying it in the ’90s: “Yeah, at first time I said, eh, but, you know, second time, maybe, third time, OK, you know? … It’s actually buttery. It’s creamy, melt-in-your-mouth. You know, it’s very soft meat.” 

Now, restaurants all over Japan offer salmon sushi (although it tends to be more popular outside of Japan. It’s mild, fatty and kids like it — perfect for America). After 10 long years of Norway’s incessant asking and advertising, Japanese markets and consumers, with their strong culinary traditions, heaved a huge sigh and said, “fine.”

A note to my readers:

Norwegian support for raw salmon is still going strong. Click the link for a salmon sashimi-inspired interpretive dance sponsored by the Norwegian Fisheries Council. Another dance for nigiri is set to the tune of Swan Lake. They made my day.




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