If you love eating sashimi, there’s only one place you’d go to: a Japanese restaurant. For as long as we can remember, the humble salmon sashimi has been a staple at sushi restaurants. In the annual kaiten-zushi (conveyor sushi) consumer survey salmon topped the list as the most favoured sushi topping for the past nine years, ahead of lean tuna in second place. You’d think that this is because Japan has a long tradition of serving salmon sashimi. However, this couldn’t be farther form the truth. About 6,000 miles away, in fact.
Turns out, this sashimi didn’t originate in Japan – they’re from Norway. Yep, you read that right. And it’s all about clever marketing… and lots of excess salmon.
Salmon’s bad rep and the Norwegian connection
Prior to the 1980s, salmon was more commonly enjoyed cooked, due to the fact that those caught in the local waters often contained parasites. This meant that eating raw salmon sushi and sashimi would send you to the hospital. To this day, older generations of Japanese would probably refuse to even try raw salmon.
Fish markets at the time wouldn’t even consider including salmon because it was perceived as low quality, especially when other fish – like sea urchin and tuna – fetched much higher prices. Besides, sushi and sashimi were associated with high-end dining, so salmon would only cheapen their image.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Norway, they had a peculiar issue. Norwegians were getting so good at farming salmon that they had way too much of it for local consumption, partly because less and less Norwegians were eating seafood. The issue became so substantial that they even resorted to freezing their stock!
So they figured that they would sell their surplus frozen fish to a nation that was famous for eating tons of the stuff (Japan accounts for one-tenth of the world’s fish consumption). Plus, the Japanese had overfished their waters, and Japanese fishermen were told to remain within their exclusive economic zones by the United Nations.
So in 1986, they launched Project Japan and put Bjorn Eirik Olsen in charge of selling Norwegian salmon to the Japanese market. This project forever changed Japanese perception of this humble fish, as well as consumer habits. But this didn’t happen overnight, due to the prejudice against the fish at the time.
It took them 10 years to enter the Japanese market.
Finding the right partner
When Bjorn visited Japan in 1986, he saw a market: raw salmon as sashimi, because they were priced 10 times higher than the cooked version. But upon meeting seafood industry representatives, he was told: “We don’t eat (raw) salmon in Japan.”
The representatives weren’t too keen on buying the farmed fish, even if they were fatty and parasite-free, because they couldn’t overcome the public perception. So Bjorn first tried to differentiate Norwegian Atlantic salmon from the Japanese Pacific species by renaming it to ‘sa-mon’ (an English word), instead of ‘sake’ (its traditional name in Japanese).
This is why to this day, you’ll see it on the menu as ‘salmon sashimi’ instead of ‘sake sashimi’.
But that wasn’t enough to sway the buyers, who complained about everything from the colour to the smell of the fish. By this time, the Norwegian fishing industry was on the brink of collapse, as they needed to offload their salmon fast. And Bjorn was pressured to sell their stock to the cheaper grill market, which had ready buyers.
Saved by Iron Chef Japan
Salmon didn’t enter the Japanese market until 1992. A company called Nichirei, famous for selling frozen foods, offered to buy 5,000 metric tons of the fish – for next to nothing. Bjorn’s only condition was that it could only be sold as sushi/sashimi.
The Japanese were first introduced to the fish on the popular cooking show “Iron Chef” where celebrity chefs began endorsing Norwegian salmon on national television. Viewers began to see the appeal of raw salmon, with its smooth texture and tasty fat.
By 1995, consumption of raw salmon began to catch on, and people started to demand for it at restaurants across the country. The demand was so extreme that the Norwegian industry had to play catch-up.
Because it was inexpensive, salmon sushi was predominantly offered at kaiten-zushi restaurants (conveyor belt sushi) in the early days.
The humble fish goes high class
A decade ago, salmon wouldn’t have even crossed the minds of market wholesalers as a contender for their top-tier fish selection, all due to the long-standing belief that imported and farmed fish wouldn’t find buyers at Tsukiji.
Then in 2007, Norway launched a product aimed specifically at Japanese consumers: Aurora Salmon. Sourced from north of the Arctic Circle, Aurora has extra high fat content, thanks to the clean, cold water and a stable temperature throughout the year.
These days, the lion’s share of fish wholesalers at Tokyo’s Toyosu market handle salmon. It’s also on the menu of top-grade sushi restaurants inside the Toyosu market. Nowadays, salmon sushi can be found all throughout Japan, from kaiten-sushi joints to exclusive sushi restaurants. As per a market expert, the transition can be attributed to a global decrease in tuna catches, coupled with advancements in aquaculture.
Although Chile and Canada contribute significantly to the farmed salmon consumed in Japan today, the most highly sought-after remains the Norwegian Atlantic species.
For the Norwegians, it would seem that Project Japan was an overwhelming success. Over the lifetime of their marketing campaign, they spent NOK30 million (USD3 million) and brought in NOK400 million to NOK1.8 billion (USD39 million to USD175 million) in the second half of the 80’s.
The pink fish goes global
The Japanese aren’t the only ones who’ve taken a shine to Norwegian salmon sashimi. Consumption has soared globally, from Europe to North America and of course, Asia where it’s a popular dish. A sushi restaurant in Taiwan even managed to persuade people to change their names to “salmon” to get free meals!
Did you know that most of the salmon sashimi we consume in Singapore come from Norway?
As a side note, did you know that farmed salmon aren’t naturally pink, but gray? Wild salmon are naturally pink due to their diet of astaxanthin found in krill and shrimp. Its farmed cousins are fed on kibble with added astaxanthin to give it a pink colour. Surprisingly, this pigment is the most expensive part of the farmed fish diet.
The next time you savour a piece of sashimi, have a moment to ponder about its origins.