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Americans’ yen for sushi soaring

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NEW YORK — Day after methodical day, a "sushi robot" in a factory here squirts spots of green horseradish on thousands of bite-sized rice cakes as they proceed along a conveyor belt.

Workers wearing hygienic gloves and smocks cover the concoctions with slices of tuna from the Philippines, salmon from Chile and shrimp from Indonesia — all flash-frozen and shipped thousands of miles to New York.

Never mind nostalgic visions of traditional Japanese cuisine.

The same technique that made McDonald's popular in Japan — mass marketing — will help "spread Japanese food throughout America," said Takehisa Takayama, proud owner of the factory that produces 7,000 box lunches daily for 16 Daikichi Sushi fast-food outlets around the city.

Courting an American yen for exotic tastes, a growing class of entrepreneurs like Takayama apply assembly line efficiencies, disciplined marketing and go great distances — literally — to adapt Japan's uncooked fish dish to the peculiarities of the U.S. market.

They're tantalizing the U.S. palate with innovations like raw yellowtail with jalapeos, fake seaweed made of flour. They're considering rice balls with ketchup. Far-flung supply lines are feeding an unprecedented U.S. boom in sushi consumption well into the heartland — thousands of miles from any ocean.

The number of traditional sushi bars across the United States has quintupled to an estimated 5,000 these past 10 years. Sushi is readily available at supermarkets, hotel receptions and even professional sports stadiums.

"We're dealing with Americans, so we have to adapt," said Seicho Fujikawa, vice president of Mutual Trading Co., a Los Angeles-based distributor of "rainbow seaweed." The paper-thin, flour-based wrap is an alternative to dried seaweed, which some Americans sniff at. It comes in yellow, pink, green, white and orange.

In some ways, sushi is a natural for the U.S. market. Low in fat, calories and cholesterol, it fits with health-conscious diets. It's exotic and easy to eat, making it popular with lunchtime crowds in bustling cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

But fickle habits demand astute marketing.

Exploiting demand for ready-made food, Advanced Fresh Concepts Corp. runs 900 sushi counters in supermarkets in the United States and Canada and posts more than $100 million in annual sales. Chefs, each trained for a month, prepare sushi for customers on the spot. Boxes go for as low as $5.

The fast-growing Rancho Dominguez, Calif. company also sells a "sushi kit" that rides on the do-it-at-home movement — equipped with rice vinegar, dried seaweed, bamboo rolling mat and other basic needs. Only the raw food is left out.

Sushi's invasion began in California in the 1960s, spawning a unique U.S. sushi adaptation — the California roll, which contains avocado, cucumber and imitation crab, but no raw fish. Yet the nation's melting pot of cultures is fertile ground for more exotic variations.

Nobu Matsuhisa, a top sushi chef, does a booming business by adding a Latin American twist. After living several years in Peru and Argentina, Matsuhisa uses flavorings like garlic, cilantro, tomatoes and olive oil to concoct seafood dishes. His menu includes fresh yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno and raw oysters with salsa.

While purists may object, his restaurants — seven in the United States and one each in London and Tokyo — are wildly popular, generally requiring bookings at least a month in advance.

"I don't want to have a traditional Japanese style restaurant," Matsuhisa said. "I need more energy."

Despite such successes, sushi makers face daunting challenges in the United States. Working with raw fish is tricky, and it must often be transported great distances to the vast U.S. interior.

Traditional sushi bars earn their reputation on the freshness of their catch. Many have fresh fish flown in special delivery from around the world.

But mass producers like Daikichi and Advanced Fresh Concepts must rely on freezing to keep fish from spoiling. For them it's the only safe and economical option, even though thawing can make fish limp and lose flavor.

Hauled in from the ocean, the seafood is flash-frozen at sea or when it reaches port. It then goes through a complicated network of wholesalers, trading companies and preparers before ending up in a Daikichi or AFC lunch box.

Osamu Corp., a Los Angeles-based trading company that contracts with Daikichi, cuts up imported fish, still frozen, into small, rectangular slices. Sealed in plastic, the fish is then shipped rock hard to Daikichi's factory in the Queens section of New York.

With many competitors jumping in, however, concerns are growing that fish handlers aren't getting proper training — which could increase health risks. In most areas, no special certification is required to prepare sushi, other than a regular restaurant license.

The Food and Drug Administration gives guidelines on handling raw fish, but local authorities must draw up and enforce regulations. So codes vary from region to region. A key guideline — which both Daikichi and AFC follow — is chilling fish on display to 41 degrees or less.

Sushi-linked outbreaks in the United States are rare, said Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of the food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "I doubt there have been more than five in the last 10 years," he said.

Sushi entrepreneurs show few signs of slowing down.

Takayama, for his part, wants to use sushi's popularity to introduce a variety of easy-to-eat Japanese foods. Next on his list is frozen onigiri, or rice balls, that can be warmed up in the microwave. Traditionally, these are made with dried plum or fish flakes in the center, but Takamaya is already thinking of ways to adapt to American taste.

"Plain white rice may be hard for Americans to eat," he said. "I'm thinking of mixing in salmon, corn — or even ketchup."

On the Net:

Sushi restaurants outside Japan: www.sushi.infogate.de/

Advanced Fresh Concepts Corp.: www.afcsushi.com