Every great discovery, or invention, always starts with a need. In the mid-80s, Norway needed to do something with its excess salmon so the government started considering its exporting options. As a fish-loving nation with a strong sushi tradition, Japan seemed like the perfect market – so a delegation was sent in 1985 including Thor Listau, Norwegian fisheries minister. Listau had previously visited Japan in the 1970s (when he was a member of the parliamentary shipping and fisheries committee) as part of an incentive to expand the relationship between the two countries, where the idea first occurred to him.
For his second visit, Listau brought with him a 20-strong seafood delegation, comprising exporters, ministers and various organizations, setting the basis for what he called, ‘Project Japan’; an initiative to make the Norwegian seafood industry big in Japan. Bjørn Eirik Olsen, responsible for the market research of Project Japan, remembers that Japan had stopped being self-sufficient when it came to seafood (due to overfishing but also because of environmental factors). So the goal was to double Norwegian fish exports and position Norwegian fish in the Japanese market. By 1991, Norwegian fish exports had indeed risen from NOK 500 million to NOK 1.8 billion. Good profits weren’t the only thing that came out of this arrangement: the way people ate sushi all around the world, also changed forever.
Back then, sushi was made mostly with tuna and sea bream; the Japanese did not have a tradition of eating raw salmon. Japanese salmon swum in the Pacific ocean and were exposed to parasites – locals said that the fish didn’t have the right flavor, color or smell to be eaten raw. But the market for ‘salmon for grilling’ wasn’t as profitable as the sushi market, so it became clear to the Norwegian delegation that they had to convince Japanese to trust that their salmon was different. Olsen had his work cut out for him.
“We had to really fight to introduce salmon into the market,” he said. Knowing that the problem wasn’t the quality of Norwegian salmon but the Japanese people’s perception of raw salmon in general, he changed the name from ‘sake’ to ‘sāmon’ to differentiate between Atlantic and Pacific salmon. Indeed, sāmon is the name that’s used in Japan today. But still, the change was slow and it wasn’t until a Japanese company, Nishi Rei, agreed to sell Norwegian salmon for sushi, that people started trusting it. By the mid-90s, Japanese cooking shows started endorsing Norwegian salmon on TV. A couple of years later, Olsen was walking around Tokyo when he noticed a plastic replica of salmon sushi in a restaurant window – and knew he had finally made it.
Project Japan really changed the way Japan ate sushi, but that was only the start. China soon caught up, as did Hong Kong and Singapore; soon, salmon sushi became popular everywhere and Norwegian salmon earned its reputation as the best out there. And because things usually come full circle, Norway is nowadays not without its share of great sushi restaurants, where salmon is of course, the star.