During the past 20 years, sushi restaurants have sprung up in cities across the U.S. Included in the mix are traditional corner sushi restaurants, hipster bars flaunting innovative fusion cuisine, and combinations of the two paired with flashy displays and a bustling night life.
At Tengu in Santa Monica, California, Chef Shunji Nakao creates a colorful mikuno roll packed with fresh crab, avocado and seared albacore. He adds a splash of color with a crispy shallot and carrot topping and a hint of ponzu, a green Japanese citrus chili paste. As with most art forms, knowing the basics of the tradition allows an artist to truly innovate. Nakao says he prefers traditional sushi, but he knows the fusion sushi rolls get the biggest buzz in the U.S. Having studied under the world-renowned Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, creator of the sushi fusion concept, Nakao offers specialty rolls like the mikuno roll to delighted American customers looking for an exotic dining experience.
Anne Lee, co-founder of Sushi Twist, experiences the same dynamic at her New York City restaurant. "It's really hard to really do traditional [sushi]," she says. "Now you have to set yourself apart to either a much healthier or high-end palate."
Lee founded Sushi Twist with her mother, Rosemary, in 2005. Like Nakao, Lee notices the majority of her customers splurging for the flashier specialty rolls that focus less on traditional Japanese tastes than on mixed flavors and flair. Their fusion includes toasted rolls, sushi topped with mozzarella cheese, Korean-Japanese mixes and even healthy, no-carb sushi wrapped in cucumber skin instead of sushi rice.
"We're trying to match the traditional with the contemporary, like the music, décor and the food," Lee says. In a sink-or-swim restaurant industry, sushi has become about offering a unique dining experience unparalleled by other restaurants. "It needs to be a little different to give people a reason to come back," Lee says.
As the debate between the sushi traditionalists and non-traditionalists continues, sushi in the U.S. is an ever-changing ecosystem of authentic Japanese ingredients altered by the changing trends around it. In The Sushi Economy, author Sasha Issenberg explains the globalization of sushi and how it's grown popular in the U.S.
According to Issenberg, the early '70s was a revolutionary time for sushi, particularly as young Japanese sushi chefs traveled to bustling West Coast ports to start their own restaurants. These chefs that pioneered the new sushi frontiers were introduced to new ingredients and a combination of appetites--ranging from Japanese business travelers to American locals. Thus, the chefs began developing fusion dishes like the California roll and spicy tuna roll, which in turn are served as "American style" sushi in Japan today.
"The influence will go both ways," Issenberg says. "Often, what we think is traditionally old [such as spicy tuna rolls] is actually incredibly modern. I think sushi will continue to change in that way."
Sushi may have inundated nearly every corner of the U.S., but globally there's still plenty of room for growth. Sushi restaurants tend to open up where urbanization and economic growth occurs. The reason, according to Issenberg, is that the areas becoming more worldly and luxury-oriented are the places that attract Japanese business travelers. And since sushi seems to follow global development, Issenberg predicts that China will be the final sushi frontier, being a widely untapped market ripe for the next sushi craze.
In the U.S., however, the evolution of sushi will continue to be a product of its environment--advancing with the local tastes and popular trends. In areas where sushi is most established, Lee says the traditional and the non-traditional are likely to branch off into extremes. "There is more catering to people who don't like raw fish," she says, noting the growing popularity of Nobu-style fusion restaurants. "[But] in New York City, you can get away with more of the traditional Japanese."