What comes to your mind when someone says sushi? Probably salmon sushi, right? Nowadays, salmon is the most ubiquitous kind of sushi and sashimi served worldwide. It’s the gateway sushi for those trying out raw fish for the first time. In 2017, salmon was ranked Japan’s favourite sushi topping for the sixth consecutive year in a survey conducted by Japanese seafood company Maruha Nichiro.
But only a couple of decades ago, salmon would never have been spotted inside Japanese sushi bars. They were not eaten raw in Japan and, even now, some traditional sushi bars in Japan still don’t serve salmon.
So how exactly did it come to be enjoyed raw both in Japan and all over the world?
As you might have guessed from the title (spoiler alert!): it was the Norwegians who convinced the Japanese to try out raw salmon.
But why? And how?
norway’s salmon problem
Commercial salmon farming is an incredible Norwegian success story, transforming salmon from a small, localised business into a global industry worth more than US$10 billion. But back in the 1980s, it was a great Norwegian problem.
Salmon production in Norway increased exponentially with the advent of salmon farming on a commercial scale in the 1970s. Coupled with decreasing demand for seafood in an already-small local market, by the late 1980s Norway was facing a glut of salmon that it was desperate to sell.
What they needed was a new fish-loving market, and that was where Japan came into the picture.
The timing was perfect. Japan’s seafood industry had previously been pretty much self-sufficient, but demand for fish was increasing to the point where fishermen were overfishing in local waters. Because of this, the government began looking overseas for suppliers to satisfy national fish consumption.
Another bonus for Norway: sushi-grade raw fish in Japan could be priced incredibly high – up to 10 times higher than fish meant to be eaten cooked.
Thus began the Norwegian government’s ten-year-long Project Japan (and yes, that was its actual name).
salmon in japanese cuisine
There was just one tiny problem with trying to sell sushi-grade salmon in Japan: Japanese people didn’t eat raw salmon.
It wasn’t that nobody had ever thought of it; rather, it was that most salmon caught in the Pacific contained parasites, and so needed to be cooked before being eaten.
This stigma against eating salmon raw was compounded by other common objections: it tasted bad, the meat wasn’t red enough, and it smelled bad. Instead, salmon was considered a cheap fish only suitable for the grilled fish market.
Norwegian salmon was caught in the Atlantic and therefore had no issues with parasites. But simply saying that wouldn’t wipe away these perceptions against raw salmon that had been ingrained into the national consciousness for centuries.
the birth of salmon sushi
The Norwegian government hired Bjorn Eirik Olsen to work on Project Japan, and he led the way with marketing campaigns aimed at overturning these deeply rooted views on raw salmon.
First he tried changing the Japanese name for salmon. That didn’t work. Then he ran ads portraying clear, pristine Norwegian waters. That didn’t work either.
In 1995, as a last resort, Olsen offered to sell 5000 tons of raw salmon very, very cheaply to Nichirei, a Japanese frozen food company that he had been negotiating with for years. The only catch for Nichirei was that they then had to sell this salmon as sushi. Nichirei agreed.
Did you hear that? That was the sound of salmon sushi being born.
This was the crack in the dam that Norway needed for salmon sushi to become mainstream. Once sushi restaurants started serving raw salmon, people started trying it. And once people started eating salmon sushi and sashimi, they realised that it was actually pretty nice. The texture was soft and smooth, the taste was mild and fatty. It began gaining popularity all over Japan, and now, a little over two decades later? Salmon sushi is a global phenomenon.
And we’re here to bring fresh salmon sushi right to your door over at foodora.