Planet Money | Podcast Review | September 18, 2015 | By

Planet Money #651: “The Salmon Taboo”

What good is salmon sushi when what you really crave is pork bung?



A lot of you might not know this, but Audiologue isn’t my full-time job. I also make a podcast, with my good friend Will Warren, called Prove It! It is an excellent show, if I do say so myself, but it’s not out yet. Which brings me to the crux of my point in this introduction: there are a lot of things I have been worried about as we start up this new show, but pretty much the only thing I wasn’t worried about getting scooped on the topic of our first episode—getting strangers to eat salmon.

Oh, to be young and naïve. Planet Money scooped us, and scooped us hard. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the particulars are pretty different—Planet Money was about the Japanese and salmon sushi; our’s was… well, follow us here if you are interested in hearing it when it comes out.

It turns out getting the Japanese to eat salmon sushi was, at first, a lot like getting my friend Brian to eat any sushi. First, they complain about how it looks: “The color is wrong… should it be really so pink?” Then, they complain about the smell: “I just, I mean, it doesn’t smell like, regular—ya know?” And finally, they complain about mouth feel: “I don’t know, it’s just, like, weird having all this fleshy softness in my mouth.” But, like Brian, the Japanese eventually came around to sushi’s appeal.

This revolution (the salmon sushi revolution, not the Brian sushi revolution) came about because of the Norwegians. They had a lot of salmon they needed to export in order to buffer their fishing industry as government subsidies wound down, and so they were searching for willing buyers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they looked toward Japan. The Japanese eat, and import, a lot of fish. Plus, they were already eating salmon. Quickly, though, the Norwegians figured out an important distinction in the Japanese salmon market. Cooked salmon? Just fine. But raw salmon?  The Japanese wouldn’t touch it.

There was a perception problem to overcome; fear of parasites, of meat color, of head and gill shape. For a variety of reasons, raw salmon set off all sorts of alarm bells in the national zeitgeist. So the Norwegians doubled down: a cute Viking yuru-chara, commercials featuring bucolic shots of fjords, but Japan just wouldn’t bite. That is, until they did.

This is the part of the episode that I found underwhelming. It didn’t really bother to explain what changed, just that, eventually, the Norwegians got a contract with a major Japanese food company, and the conversion had begun. Now, thirty years on, salmon sushi is extremely popular in Japan, and the once pervasive taboo has all but subsided. One sushi chef, still a little bit unsure about the food, said salmon sushi is his teenage daughter’s favorite food.

I listened to the episode three times as I prepared to write my review, and through each listen the shadow of Pork Bung loomed large. As far as I am concerned, there is an incredibly high bar for food perception episodes of major public radio shows affiliated with Alex Blumberg. If not for the absolutely ineffable Pork Bung, I would have probably given “The Salmon Taboo” a four or five  rating.

If you don’t know what the hell I am talking about, there’s segment in the “Doppelgängers” episode of This American Life that features a conspiracy theory (which they are sure to test out on TAL producers) that pork bung—or, as you might know it, pig rectum—is being passed off as calamari by food distributors across the United States. Pork Bung is a story of pure possibility, of the underdog, of pig rectum. And it is, to be sure, glorious.

And this week’s Planet Money episode? It was fine. But what good is salmon sushi when what you really crave is pork bung?

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

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