Episode 651: The Salmon Taboo : Planet Money In Japan, salmon used to be garbage fish. Today, it's a delicacy. How one Norwegian with a lot of extra fish changed the tastes of a nation.
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Episode 651: The Salmon Taboo

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Episode 651: The Salmon Taboo

Episode 651: The Salmon Taboo

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Just a quick note - today's show originally ran in 2015.


GOLDSTEIN: I've been going to sushi bars since I was a little kid. But in all that time, I have never been on the other side of the sushi bar. I've never been back where the chef stands.


Last week, we made it back there, thanks to chef Shimao Ishikawa at the sushi restaurant Jewel Bako in Manhattan.

GOLDSTEIN: What's the most popular fish you sell?

SHIMAO ISHIKAWA: Popular fish?


ISHIKAWA: Tuna is popular, yeah.

JIANG: Tuna - they've got lots of tuna.

GOLDSTEIN: And then second-most popular?

ISHIKAWA: Second is - now - salmon.

GOLDSTEIN: The salmon?


GOLDSTEIN: It's the second-most popular?


GOLDSTEIN: He's been a sushi chef for 40 years or so. And, you know, as you'd expect, he has served and eaten basically everything. Sea urchin - of course he's eaten sea urchin.

JIANG: Poisonous blowfish?

ISHIKAWA: Sure, he's got a special license in Japan to prepare poisonous blowfish.

JIANG: But in all his years as a sushi chef, he's never, ever had a single bite of raw salmon.

ISHIKAWA: I will not eat salmon, no.

JIANG: Wait - never?

ISHIKAWA: Yeah, I never eat salmon, you know.

GOLDSTEIN: So never - you've never even taken one bite of raw salmon?

ISHIKAWA: (Laughter) No.

JIANG: Can we get you to try it today?

ISHIKAWA: (Laughter) Tomorrow, manana.

GOLDSTEIN: Not that long ago, everybody in Japan was like Ishikawa. Nobody ate raw salmon. It was like eating raw pork or something. It just wasn't done.


GOLDSTEIN: And then a few people, halfway around the world, launched a plan to change that.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

JIANG: And I'm Jess Jiang.

Today on the show - how hard could it be to get a nation of sushi lovers to eat raw salmon?

GOLDSTEIN: Pretty hard.


GOLDSTEIN: When we talk about international trade, you know, we often tend to talk about things like tariffs and quotas. And there's this idea that if you get rid of those things, get rid of those barriers, then new products just come rushing in across borders. But clearly, that is not always the case.

I mean, sometimes you have to spend years and years and years working and begging and trying to convince an entire country that whatever thing you have a lot of, whatever thing you want to sell, is something they should want to buy. Like, take for example, salmon in Norway.


BJORN EIRIK OLSEN: (Speaking Norwegian).

JIANG: Hello, can you hear us?

The other day, we were trying to connect to this studio in Tromso, on this little island in northern Norway. And we overheard them talking about us in Norwegian.

OLSON: (Speaking Norwegian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Norwegian).


OLSON: Hello.

GOLDSTEIN: Does PLANET MONEY translate as money planet? Isn't that right?

OLSON: (Laughter) Yes. Yes.

GOLDSTEIN: This is Bjorn Eirik Olsen. And when we talked to him the other day, he told us that back around the time he graduated from college - this was a few decades ago - Norway had a problem. The government had been subsidizing the Norwegian fishing industry for decades. And basically, they'd been paying people to fish. And, of course, when you subsidize something, you get more of it.

OLSON: It's not a very clever way of using money because the more you use, the worse the situation gets.

JIANG: The government says, OK, let's wind down these subsidies. But we're not going to screw over our fishing industry. Let's figure out a way to get the rest of the world to buy our fish.

GOLDSTEIN: They look around the world, and they see one country in particular that really loves fish and that needs to start importing more fish - yes, Japan.

JIANG: At the time, salmon sushi is not a thing - not in Japan, not in Norway. Sure, it's cured or smoked, but a hunk of raw salmon? No.

GOLDSTEIN: And, in fact, the idea of salmon sushi just began as this tiny, little, little thing at the Norwegian Embassy in Tokyo. They were just playing around with ways to serve Norwegian products in a Japanese style.

OLSON: They just tried - let's try to have a little bit salmon - raw - just in the embassy - try that. And the chef and the ambassador said, this tastes quite nice.

JIANG: Around this time, Bjorn gets hired by the Norwegian government to sell fish to the Japanese. He used to be a fisherman. He speaks Japanese. He's kind of the perfect guy for this mission.

GOLDSTEIN: And he figures, yeah, sure, we could sell salmon cheap in Japan. People in Japan already eat salmon grilled. But when people buy fish to use for sushi, they're willing to pay a lot more for it. Sometimes, people pay five times as much for the same kind of fish if it's going to be used for sushi. So if he can get people in Japan to eat salmon sushi, it'll make all that Norwegian salmon much more valuable.

JIANG: So Bjorn goes to Tokyo. And he gets a bunch of Japanese fish industry executives into a conference room, and he unveils the next big thing - salmon sushi.

OLSON: And they say directly over the table, it's impossible. We Japanese do not eat salmon raw. And we say, well, yes, but it's good. It tastes good. No, they say, it doesn't taste good. They say the color is wrong also; it's too light red, it should be redder. And they say that it has a smell. And also, of course, they knew the shape of the salmon, and they said that the head has the wrong shape, and the gills look wrong. Everything is wrong. So everything was wrong, everything - the taste, the smell, the texture, the color - everything.

GOLDSTEIN: What did you think when they said that?

OLSON: This is completely crazy. Because, I mean, we're human beings. We're not Japanese, but we have taste, and we have feeling in our mouth. It's delicious, and I think every Japanese also must feel the same as I do.

GOLDSTEIN: Of course, what you taste when you bite into something isn't just like a chemical reaction. It's not just the fundamental molecular properties of the thing you're eating. You taste all the baggage you're bringing to it.

OLSON: The more I started to dig into it, the more I became aware of the importance of perception.

JIANG: Bjorn's big challenge was this - he was going to have to change the perception of an entire country of people, people who thought the color or the shape of the head of salmon was all wrong.

GOLDSTEIN: And if you want to change perception, if you want to get people to buy something, what you do is not a mystery. You launch an ad campaign. And so Bjorn and his colleagues figured, all right, we'll start doing some TV commercials.

JIANG: Maybe have a cute cartoon character.

GOLDSTEIN: Did you have a mascot, like, a dancing salmon or something?

OLSON: We had but it was very silly. It was a Viking.


OLSON: Yes. Yes. It was a Viking with a helmet. And it was, like, a funny drawing with a big head, and it said, Norwegian seafood.

GOLDSTEIN: He actually sent us a picture of the Viking - of the mascot. And, I have to say, it's like if you were to imagine what some outsider trying to pander to a Japanese audience would come up with, it's kind of that, right? Like, it's this super-cute little boy Viking with this great, big head and, like, big eyes.

JIANG: And a huge, giant fork.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, like as tall as he is. And so the Viking - surprise - didn't work. Partly because there was this, really, bigger problem about getting Japanese people to eat raw salmon. And that was - they were afraid that raw salmon had parasites.

JIANG: People in Japan were used to eating this kind of salmon that tended to have parasites in it and would make you sick if you ate it raw. Bjorn says the salmon from Norway was totally different. Parasites just weren't a problem.

GOLDSTEIN: But it's not like Bjorn could just run an ad in Japan that said, don't worry, our salmon is parasite-free.

OLSON: We didn't want to mention it at all because if you say that my fish has no poison, then you say, there's no parasite, there's no bad things in it - so then people will associate that.

JIANG: Yeah, the first thing I'll think of is - is there - there's poison?

OLSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Why do they say this? Why do they keep saying this? So we didn't say that at all.

We concentrated our information to the consumers about the cold, pure Norwegian seawater and, of course, just putting the pictures of fjords, mountains, ice and traditional fishing boats. Then you gave the impression about something that is pure and fresh.

GOLDSTEIN: Pure and fresh - not enough to get Japan to start eating raw salmon.

JIANG: After years of ad campaigns, Norway's salmon still hadn't taken off in the Japanese sushi market. And the country's fish industry - the wholesalers or the supermarkets and distributors, they just wouldn't buy it.

GOLDSTEIN: It didn't matter whether ordinary people were worried about parasites or whether they loved the Viking mascot or hated the Viking mascot. If the big companies that controlled the fish business weren't convinced then salmon sushi wasn't going to go anywhere in Japan.

JIANG: And back in Norway, their Norwegian salmon industry was getting desperate. The glut was getting so bad that they start filling industrial-sized freezers with tons and tons of salmon.

GOLDSTEIN: The Japanese wanted to buy some of that salmon, but not for sushi. They wanted to sell it cheap for grilling.

OLSON: There was lots of companies that wanted to sell it out on the market for grilling, et cetera. And they said, no, we don't want it there.

JIANG: Bjorn says there was a lot of pressure for him to give up - to just sell the salmon to whoever would buy it. But he thought, he just needed one big deal, one company that would believe in his idea of salmon sushi.

GOLDSTEIN: In a minute, Bjorn gets a break.


GOLDSTEIN: So Bjorn is trying to find somebody in Japan to buy into his dream of Japanese people eating raw salmon. And there was this one company called Nishi Rei that he had been building a relationship with for years.

Everybody in Japan knows this company, they're like Kraft or Stouffer's or something in this country. They sell frozen food - you know, dumplings, chicken nuggets, squid.

JIANG: Bjorn told them, I will sell you 5,000 tons of that frozen salmon for really cheap. All you have to do is sell it in the grocery stores as sushi. Just try it.

GOLDSTEIN: Nishi Rei said yes. Bjorn had a deal.

OLSON: It was a day of happiness. I remember that, and it was like, I mean, being in the heaven, if you see what I mean. Just the happiness, I mean, that was shared. You have a history of many hundred years of sushi consumption in Japan. And this salmon was not a part of it. There was a feeling of making history.

JIANG: Once Nishi Rei started selling salmon for sushi, the idea of salmon sushi just seems more normal somehow.

GOLDSTEIN: It would be like, if - I don't know. If, in this country, say, Dannon started selling yogurt with raw pork at the bottom.

JIANG: Oh, God.

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, you know, look. Think about it this way. Like, I'd look at it and think, OK, definitely not something I would have come up with. But I've been eating Dannon yogurt all my life, never made me sick or anything. So, you know, whatever. Maybe I'll just throw one pork at the bottom in along with my strawberry banana in my shopping cart.

JIANG: Pretty soon, salmon sushi starts showing up everywhere in Japan, especially in those conveyer-belt sushi restaurants; those kind of mid-tier Applebee's of Japan.

GOLDSTEIN: Almost everybody is trying raw salmon.

Tadashi Ono is a sushi chef. He's 53 now. The first time he tasted salmon sushi, it was about 20 years ago. And it did not go well.

TADASHI ONO: I was scared. Yeah, so I couldn't really enjoy it. I wasn't really clear about how it tastes. I was more thinking about, oh, my God. Am I going to get sick or what? - you know, kind of stuff.

JIANG: He didn't get sick. And he wanted to understand why everybody was so into raw salmon, and so he kept trying it.

ONO: Yeah, first time I said, eh. But, you know, second time, maybe. Third time, OK, you know? (Laughter) So, you know, I started liking it. It's actually, you know, buttery. It's creamy, melt in your mouth.

GOLDSTEIN: It's creamy, and it melts in your mouth. Is that...

ONO: Yeah, it is, in a way. You know, it's very soft meat.

GOLDSTEIN: This really is a testament to how malleable our tastes are - our tastes in food, our tastes in fashion, whatever. Tadashi Ono - he told us there was a taboo against eating raw salmon.

JIANG: Even touching raw salmon.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, he said do not touch it. And then, like, a few tries later, he's in love with it. It's like, we imagine that we would never, ever eat something or wear something, and then we do.

ONO: I'm a very stubborn guy. So it's like, if my mind is set, it's hard to change.

GOLDSTEIN: But you changed your mind in this case.

ONO: I did.


ONO: Because the ingredients is good.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

JIANG: Tadashi says salmon sushi is his teenage daughter's favorite. And she had no idea that it used to be taboo.

GOLDSTEIN: Not long after the Nishi Rei deal, Bjorn moved back to Norway. A few years later, he was back in Tokyo, visiting on business. And that was when he knew salmon sushi had made it.

JIANG: One day, he was walking around, and he noticed these little plastic sushi replicas in the restaurant windows.

OLSON: And then suddenly I saw there was salmon now - plastic copies presented in the sushi shops. I could see it around in Tokyo. And then I thought, this is really a breakthrough.

GOLDSTEIN: In the years since then, sushi has spread around the world. And Bjorn says he thinks salmon was a big part of that spread. You know, it's easy to eat. It's mild. It's fatty. Kids like it. For sushi, salmon is like a gateway fish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And then cutting the salmon - just one piece is OK?

GOLDSTEIN: Sure, yeah.

JIANG: Yeah, sure.

GOLDSTEIN: Jess, I think you should hit that.

JIANG: I'll do it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: In just one bite.

JIANG: It's very soft.


JIANG: That was delicious. That was really, really good. And it is very simple.


JIANG: Tell us what you think of the show. Email planetmoney@npr.org or tweet at us @PlanetMoney

GOLDSTEIN: PLANET MONEY has an email newsletter. It's once a week. It's short. It's a smart essay about economic ideas. This week, we looked at arguments over the best way to pay teachers. You can subscribe at npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter. Again, npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter.

Special thanks today to Yuki Gomi, a Japanese food writer in London, and to Chef Ichimura.

JIANG: Today's show is produced by Frances Harlow.

GOLDSTEIN: The rerun was produced by Rachel Cohn and Darian Woods. If you want to support PLANET MONEY, please recommend the show to a friend.

This is NPR. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

JIANG: And I'm Jess Jiang. Thanks for listening.


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