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Sushi in the USA

By Pat Pape

Americans just don’t get sushi. That’s the opinion of Mat­thew de Bord, owner of Ori­gami Foods of Stockton, California.

"Ask Americans if they eat sushi, and 75 percent of them will say 'Oh, I don’t like raw fish’," said de Bord. "Actually, the word 'sushi’ means seasoned rice. The ï¬?sh is added later. That’s sushi in the Japanese format. What we are try­ing to do is make sushi more appealing to the American palate."

After living in Japan for four years, de Bord acquired a love for the country’s cui­sine. Upon returning home, he realized that sushi, a fa­vorite Japanese conve­nience food, was not an overwhelming hit in the United States. The reason, he believes, is that most Americans are adverse to both raw ï¬?sh and seaweed.

But these days, a num­ber of American restau­rants are seeking ways to make sushi more appetiz­ing. "Some sushi produc­ers create reverse rolls where the seaweed is on the inside and rice is on the outside, which is basically a way of hiding the sea­weed," de Bord said. "If you can replace the ï¬?sh and seaweed components, you can make something Americans will like."

Pizza Sushi?
Just over a year ago, de Bord launched Origami Foods, which has developed several proprietary products, including special wraps that replace the seaweed in sushi rolls. The wraps come in a vari­ety of colors and flavors, such as tomato with Italian seasoning. "It tastes like pizza sauce," he said. "We also make a barbecue wrap. You can put steak in the middle [of the sushi roll] and have bar­becue steak sushi."

Other wrap flavor variations in­clude mango-strawberry and apple-cinnamon, as well as a corn wrap that goes well with chicken curry and a carrot-ginger wrap that complements pork tenderloin. One innovative chef whipped up a sample of peanut butter and jelly sushi using a grain mix, plus the mango-strawberry wrap rolled in crushed peanuts. "There are a lot of different op­tions," said de Bord.

Each wrap is created from a fresh puree made of natural ingredients, which gives it a high con­centration of the fruit or vegetable ingredient. Cur­rently, Origami Foods markets the wraps to res­taurants and caterers, as well as manufacturers that produce pre-packaged su­shi for retail outlets, such as Trader Joe’s.

The Sushi Robot
Another effort to help grow America’s sushi ac­ceptance is, believe it or not, the sushi "robot." Simply add rice and sea­weed and the sushi robot — using either a conveyor belt or roller system — delivers fresh, firm and iden­tical sushi rolls. The sushi can then be enhanced individually with pieces of fish, chicken, beef or any other garnish.

The robot is "very fast. It can do five people’s jobs," said Taka Tanaka, sales manager for Autec, a Japanese robot company with an office in Torrance, California. "A sushi robot can make 350 California rolls per hour. The fast­est sushi chef with 20 years of experi­ence can make 60 rolls an hour."

Autec started as a Japanese audio technology manufacturer, but in 1980, the company produced a toy that al­lowed kids to make sushi at home. "It actually worked, and it was on televi­sion," said Tanaka. "People loved it."

Today’s professional sushi robots can cost between $10,000 and $20,000 each, with the faster robots command­ing higher prices. But Tanaka believes they are a bargain compared to hiring a sushi chef, who can cost on average about $40,000 a year. In fact, some res­taurants with a sushi chef on the pay­roll secretly use a robot during busy periods because it is less costly than employing a second chef.

Already the robots are helping many restaurants and retailers sell large quantities of sushi. 7-Eleven Japan’s pre-made bento boxes, the island na­tion’s version of a boxed lunch, feature attractively displayed combinations of rice, pickles and other Japanese lunch options, as well as sushi made by a ro­bot, Tanaka said.

"The sushi robot is for operations that make more than 200 rolls a day," Tanaka explained. "You don’t need spe­cial skills. Anyone can do it."

Although you probably won’t see hot dog sushi at the ballpark or popcorn su­shi at the movie theater any time soon, both de Bord and Tanaka are optimistic that their products will help move the needle on U.S. sushi consumption, by making the product less expensive and more appealing to the average consumer.

"It’s a difficult challenge, but we need to get the word out," de Bord said. "We need to re-educate the American population about sushi." 

Pat Pape worked in the convenience industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer.

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