Call the Sushi Police

I’ve long given up expecting decent oriental food in the small town where I live, but sometimes even I get riled about the low expectations of the customers and the cooks. Exhibit A: the monstrous abomination that shuffled into view at the local sushi buffet, when the mainland Chinese who used to run it sold out to a bunch of Thais, and within days they were putting processed cheese on the maki rolls and leaving out platters of tuna sandwiches!

There are limits, and if there was such a thing as the Sushi Police, I would definitely have called them. In the anime series directed by Tatsushi Momen, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki are enforcers for the Japanese government, making sure that restaurants around the world are serving proper, traditional sushi, and none of these madcap overseas inventions. First screened in Japan in 2016, Sushi Police was commissioned amid a certain braggart mood in Japan that the Olympics were coming soon, and that the world was sure to become so obsessed with Japan that its far-flung corners would need an inspectorate to slap any slipping standards out of them.

One wonders, however, about where cultural policing disappears so far up itself that it becomes a cure that’s deadlier than the disease. Sushi started off as an utterly commonplace snack food in samurai-era Tokyo, slung together with fresh ingredients and a dash of sauce, no weirder than a hot dog… albeit usually not actually hot. And this wouldn’t be the first time that an “authentic” food had evolved abroad. As the name implies, one of my favourite varieties, the California Roll, has origins far away from bay-side Tokyo, and is all the better for it.

But in Japan there are super-high-end establishments for people much posher than you and me, which have a whole set of rules of their own. There are sushi bars that only run two sittings a night, where seats are booked months in advance, where you pay in advance and forfeit your money if you are five minutes late. There’s no reaching for the soy sauce here – the chef decides on the flavouring you need, not the flavouring you want. And in order to avoid offending the fine palates of your fellow diners, you are not allowed to wear any form of perfume.

Would the Sushi Police crack down on them, too, for being ridiculously snooty, or would they secretly approve of such white-collar crime?

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. This article first appeared in NEO #207, 2021.

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