OH, say can sushi, by the prawn’s oily light

Food & Drink - February 2nd, 2001
tokyoweekender_James Bailey

by James Bailey

In Japan, as cliché mongers constantly remind us, the old lives next door to the new, the ancient shares tatami-floored duplex with the modern. If you don’t believe us, take a look at how the preparation and retailing of that centuries-old culi­nary delight, sushi, has incorporated the latest ideas in technology.

The conveyor belt made it pos­sible for the Ford Motor Company to revolutionize the automobile industry with its assembly-line method of production. Not dissimi­larly, this mechanical device has rev­olutionized, no pun intended, the experience of dining out.

At conveyor-belt sushi bars, the first one of which opened in the Kansai region in 1958, customers seated around a counter select dishes that come trundling by under their very noses. Requiring fewer service personnel than regular restaurants, conveyor-belt eateries are cheaper to run: besides sushi establishments, restaurants serving yakimono (grilled dishes) and nabemono (dishes cooked in a pot of broth) have made the switchover, and knowledgeable observers pre­dict more to come.

And speaking of switchovers, in November of 1983, a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo made the tran­sition to (raw) fish and (micro) chips by becoming the capital city’s first computerized sushi bar. At Tori & Shari, customers indicated their preferences by touching a light pen to pictures appearing on a small screen in front of them; the orders were then transferred to another, larger screen located directly above the chef’s head.

The crowd-drawing novelty value aside, did this particular example of microcomputerization serve any useful purpose? According to the restau­rant’s proprietor, yes. The constantly fluctuating availability of certain kinds of fish produce constantly fluctuating prices, which previously meant regular rewriting or revising of menus. At Tori & Shari, however, any cost adjustments brought about by, say, small mackerel hauls were simply fed into the computer.

More important, customers were constantly informed by their solicitous, user-friendly machine how much their meal was going to cost. Any sushi aficionado knows how easy it is to treat this delicacy like popcorn, ordering one serving right after another, washing them down with one beer right after another, giving little thought to the eventual size of the bill. The com­puter’s brightly lit reminders served to keep budget-conscious diners from losing their appetites after an evening of satiating the same.

With Tori & Shari having made use of the computer screen, it was only a matter of time before some enterprising sole—er, soul—utilized the television screen. In 1986, film distributor Shochiku-Fuji began selling the for-export-only video, “The Making of Sushi,” which opened with a display of an American flag whose red and white stripes were strips of tuna and cut­tlefish, respectively, and whose stars were rice balls.

Following that stirring begin­ning, the instructional video told the story of an American couple’s suc­cessful search for a fish knife, paper fan, rice tub, rice cooker and bam­boo mat for rolling rice; their mas­tery of the proper technique for molding rice by hand; their use of such nontraditional ingredients as mayonnaise and avocados.

Perhaps the most nontradition­al ingredient in the sushi-making process was introduced at a food industry fair some three years ago— a sushi chef robot. Developed by Fuji Seiki, the robot made those bite-sized portions of rice upon which are placed the succulent slices of fish. We hasten to add that the placing of said succulent slices is still done by human, as opposed to mechanical, hands.

According to Fuji Seiki, it took 12 months of fine-tuning to insure that the robot chef didn’t pack the rice either too tightly or too loosely. And the robot was but one part of a larger system developed by this company. Directly in front of each customer at the counter of any eatery outfitted with Fuji Seiki’s lat­est development in fine dining are a panel of buttons, upon which appear the names of various types of seafood and their prices. Customer pushes, robot presses, human hands place succulent slices and an in itemized printout appears at the end of the meal.

Fuji Seiki maintains that auto­mated ordering is appreciated by milquetoast customers unable to make their wishes known above the cheerful din peculiar to sushi restau­rants. As for the robot, this techno­logical advance is supposedly necessary to counteract the disappearance of traditional culinary specialists, as well as the disinclination of sons of sushi restaurateurs to tread the same career paths as their fathers. After all, if you’d seen your profession invaded by conveyor belts, comput­ers and robots, you might be seeking a different line of work, too.