The Japanese sushi industry is launching a global certification program later this month, a move aimed at educating foreign sushi chefs about proper preparation of raw fish as it grows in popularity abroad.
Industry group All-Japan Sushi Federation will host one-day seminars that teach everything from proper cutting techniques to hygiene.
The first course is scheduled in Singapore Jan. 26-27, and chefs that pass the written exam will be given a certificate appointing them as "sushi advisers." It costs roughly $420.
"Every country has different ingredients so we can't say what is good sushi for them or what isn't," said Masayoshi Kazato, a veteran chef who came up with the test. "We just want to make sure foreign chefs understand the basics of sushi making: how to cut, clean and prepare raw fish properly."
Ten sushi chefs will conduct the seminars.
In addition to Singapore, seminars have already been scheduled in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco this year.
Kazato, who owns a sushi restaurant in the Chiba Prefecture just outside Tokyo, says he got the idea for the certification program while examining sushi restaurants in other countries.
He says he was alarmed to see chefs preparing raw fish right next to the stove in some kitchens. In other countries, he says, he witnessed sushi restaurants handling fish filets without checking for bacteria prior to cutting.
He also noticed a difference in the knives being used to cut the fish, a concern because dull knives that don't cut smoothly expose the fish to more air, speeding up deterioration and increasing the likeliness of bacteria attaching to it.
Sushi chefs in Japan often spend years behind the scenes, honing their craft before they are allowed anywhere near the counter.
Aspiring chefs traditionally join restaurants as apprentices, washing dishes and mopping floors before they are given permission to touch rice and begin learning the sushi-making process.
Rice Makes the Sushi
Kazato says rice is key to any good sushi.
"Sixty percent of the flavor in sushi comes from the rice," he said. "You savor the taste of rice by eating good fish with it."
Certification program participants won't have years to master the craft, but Kazato details the intricacies of perfecting rice in a 77-page sushi skill and technique textbook he has put together for the seminar.
It also lays out how to prepare everything from sea bream to mackerel, the proper knives to use, how to preserve seafood and hygiene management, a particular concern in light of foodborne illness cases reported abroad.
Kazato's push to spread his knowledge of sushi comes at a time when traditional restaurants struggle to survive amid increasing competition from fast-food chains selling for cheaper prices, and a shrinking domestic market.
With the appetite for fish declining back home, many chefs see business opportunities abroad where sushi continues to grow in popularity.
Kazato says he isn't pushing the program to boost business back home. But customer Takako Ootsuka sees it as an opportunity to boost the image of Japan's food culture.
"Sushi rolls are good, but I want people to get a real taste of the sushi we get here," she said. "When there's fresh fish and you combine it with the perfect sushi rice, there's nothing better."