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Sustainable Sushi in Seattle

by Ronald Holden

You can eat a sizzling Delmonico steak, a steaming bowl of spaghetti carbonara, or even a hamburger for that matter, pretty much anywhere; fresh seafood not so much. Seattle's lucky; plenty of oysters, salmon, Dungeness crab. So it's such a pleasure, from time to time, to sit down at a Seattle sushi bar and eat my fill of raw fish.

Now, we're spoiled in Seattle. We are global omnivores, are we not? Eating our way indiscriminately around an international buffet of cuisines, pizza one night, tacos the next, our noses twitching at fancified French, then embracing Japan’s briny simplicity. Sushi, in fact, has become as American as apple pie; with beginners nibbling on inglorious California rolls while passionate partisans seek out the bliss of bluefin tuna.

Our sushi comes in many forms, from dubious gas-station and mini-mart clamshells, to sad grocery store pre-packs, to sushi counters staffed by sullen, white-coated workers at upscale supermarkets. Then there are the full-service sushi parlors in every neighborhood, at least 100 across Seattle, and, if you're skittish about Japanese fare, some two dozen kaiten (conveyor-belt) restaurants where you can wait until the contents of a passing saucer strikes your fancy.

But then, this is Seattle, where we obsess about the merely healthy and the on-steroids healthy. Garden-variety vegetarian and morally superior vegan. Single-origin coffees from Starbucks or single-origin Stumptown. Juice bars. Organic superfoods. Websites that specialize in purebred beef, untainted chickens. So it's no surprise that a midwestern journalist named Casson Trenor over a decade ago found fertile ground here in Seattle for his sea-changing premise: that we are eating too much raw fish. Or, more specifically, eating the wrong kinds of raw fish.

At the heart of the international sushi experience, supposedly, swims maguro, the foie gras goose of sushi, the giant bluefin tuna with a fatty belly. But it was not always so; the ancient samurai considered bluefin unclean. And bluefin today is overfished, endangered, the subject of vitriolic debate. For all that, the Japanese taste for soft, buttery bluefin tuna is relatively recent (post-World War II), when Japanese fishing vessels could venture farther afield and finally track down the elusive bluefin, which sells for astronomical prices at the fish market in Tokyo. Pre-war, Japanese palates had been satisfied with smaller, more affordable fish from local waters. But now, the United Nations warns that three quarters of the world's seafood catch is in danger of being over-fished.

No one questions the fact that o-toro is delicious, but, “We are loving it to death,” Trenor wrote in his 2008 book, Sustainable Sushi. “The bottom line is that bluefin is more than a delicacy, it is an essential but extremely vulnerable part of our ocean ecosystem. It should be venerated and protected, not wiped from the face of the deep in a relentless crusade of greed and gluttony.” The oracle of the ocean (a Mukilteo native who now lives in Port Townsend), Trenor found an eager disciple in Hajime Sato, a lad from the Tokyo suburbs who opened his own place in West Seattle over 25 years ago and who followed Trenor’s suggestion to transform Mashiko from one of 100 sushi parlors in this town to one of only three “sustainable sushi” restaurants in the entire country. Sato's message took hold, and today there are at least three “sustainable sushi” restaurants in Seattle alone.

After a quarter century at the helm, Hajime Sato turned Mashiko (named for a small town famous for its ceramics) over to three long-term employees, including Mariah Kmitta, who may have been the first female sushi chef in Seattle when she arrived behind the counter two decades ago.

Mariah Kmitta at Mashiko

Kmitta has a dozen fish in her cooler, from a dozen sources, all sustainable. The happy hour sushi roll was Pacific-caught white albacore with avocado and burdock root. The oysters, poached in sake, came from Hood Canal. And the beer had the shortest travel of all: it was a refreshingly herbal wheat beer brewed with the distinctive shiso leaf by Elliott Bay Brewing Co., just across the street.

Atop Queen Anne, Ray Maranon set up shop a decade ago with the same commitment to sustainable sourcing of their raw materials. Maranon, a veteran of Uwajimaya and Chinoise, is seconded behind the counter at Sushi Samurai by his brother Ben and his longtime mentor, Taka. “Sushi is eaten globally, and we have to take care of the fish population,” he says.

Salmon collar at Sushi Samurai

On a recent visit, one of the happy hour options was grilled salmon collar, a dish that often baffles seafood novices but rewards every bit of effort required to extract the sweet, sweet flesh hidden in the collar's bony structure.

The new Godzilla in town is Bamboo Sushi, the first local outpost of a Portland chain, which landed in University Village late last year. Big, airy space, so you know there has to be a nod or two to the pescaphobic. And indeed, there's a burger (gasp!). But the happy hour nigiri set included four remarkably tasty bites of salmon and tuna complemented by an array of salads (spinach, cucumber, tofu).

One of the house rolls at Bamboo Sushi

It's up to the customer to seek out the sustainable fish, but how can you know? Look for coho salmon and salmon roe (ikura) from Alaska; pot-caught shrimp from the icy waters off Vancouver Island; albacore tuna caught on longline dayboats off the Oregon coast and bigeye tuna from Hawaii; geoduck from Puget Sound; diver-harvested uni from sea urchins off the coast of Santa Barbara. The octopus would come from the waters of Western Australia, the eel would be pole-caught in the waters off the Korean peninsula. Scallops from Nova Scotia, mackerel from Scandinavia.

One final suggestion if you're upping your sustainable sushi game. Those ubiquitous chopsticks, supposedly disposable balsa or poplar implements, may be recyclable but don't really help keep your sushi feast sustainable. (Worldwide, some 80 billion pairs of sticks get tossed every year.) Ideally, the restaurant will supply a non-disposable set, but you can always bring your own. Hey, you tote your personal bags to Trader Joe's, you can take your own chopsticks to dinner, though it would be uncouth to whip them out if the sushi bar does indeed provide you with a “permanent” set, as all three of these sushi bars did.

March 2020


Ronald Holden's latest book, Forking Seattle, is in its second edition. It tells the stories behind local food and drink.


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