What we talk about when we talk about sushi: Cultural shorthand of iconic food

Last month, I took a short trip to the U.S. and went to a sushi restaurant with some family members. On the way there in the car, the subject of our favorite type of sushi came up. As I was trying to remember the English word for “kohada” (gizzard or mud shad — perhaps just as well my memory failed me), my sister-in-law, Emily, mentioned mango. Mango, or any fruit, would not be the first or even 10th thing to come to my mind when hearing “sushi,” although in recent years the Japan Agricultural News has reported on “kazari makizushi” (decorative sushi rolls) with strawberries, mandarin oranges and cherries, as well as “vegesushi” using pumpkin, zucchini, bell pepper and okra. They all sound great, but such innovations remain on the sushi periphery in Japan.

The differences between what occurred to Emily and myself did not surprise me, but it reminded me that, as with many other objects and artifacts originating in a specific culture, what we talk about when we talk about sushi can vary widely. And to observe sushi is to chase a moving target. Sushi keeps on transmogrifying, not just in terms of its ingredients and style of construction, but also in terms of its cultural functions. Linguist Kiyoko Toratani has made a fascinating study of how sushi is described, how it in turn is used to describe other types of food, and how it is used as cultural shorthand to evoke people and behaviors.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes a variety of ways in which “sushi” has appeared in English historically, often accompanied by paraphrases of it, including “sushi or rice sandwiches,” as Alice Mabel Bacon, an advisor to the Japanese government, put it in her book “A Japanese Interior” in 1893. In the same vein, in her 1968 book “The Japanese People,” the writer Pearl Buck explains sushi as “the equivalent of a sandwich, or fishy snack.” Neither of these explanations sound particularly mouthwatering, but they’re at least a bit more appetizing than the OED’s basic definition of sushi: “A Japanese dish consisting of small balls of cold boiled rice flavored with vinegar and commonly garnished with slices of fish or cooked egg.”

Toratani sets out to provide evidence that sushi is now firmly embedded in the English lexicon, ending its period of naturalization. In support of her assertion, she particularly focuses on sushi “snowclones” and internet memes, tracking the expansion and application of sushi in the American imagination, in ways that interestingly diverge from Japanese conceptions of the gastronomic delicacy.

Snowclone is a term coined in 2006 by Glen Whitman following a challenge by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum to name the journalistic phenomenon in which one thing is applied to another. An example Pullum provided was “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have M words for Y.” Pullum decries these kinds of formulaic expressions as a bit too pat, but nevertheless they reveal cultural associations and perceived equivalencies.

Sushi snowclones that Toratani found include “sushi is the Japanese tapas” and “sushi is the new pizza,” indicating sushi’s place as an ordinary food, partaken in social situations. And these sushi snowclones continue to accumulate: While researching sushi for this article, I stumbled across the title of a 2019 article by sociologist Jonas House in the academic journal Social and Cultural Geography that flips and negates the sushi snowclone: “Insects are not ‘the new sushi’: theories of practice and the acceptance of novel foods.” But 10 years from now, who can tell?

Toratani additionally underscores that sushi has truly permeated the English lexicon, roped into service to explicate other things, as in “sushi-ish” and “sushi-esque,” both used thousands of times on Pinterest. Beyond this, sushi has proliferated in internet memes, as in the popular “One does not simply…” meme featuring Sean Bean as Boromir, who in “The Lord of the Rings” states, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” In the Boromir sushi memes, we are now told, among other variations, that: “One does not simply… Say no to sushi / Only get one roll of sushi / ‘Walk home’ after all-you-can-eat sushi.” Positioned as such, sushi is an enticing meal, albeit one intended for devouring rather than partaking attentively, one nigiri at a time.

Among Toratani’s examples of sushi’s spread into the world of English, my favorite is the one she supplies for The Most Interesting Man in the World meme, which provides an altogether different cultural viewpoint. Based on the humorous ad series for Dos Equis beer featuring Jonathan Goldsmith that ran from 2006-2018, the memes have the framework “I don’t always… / But when I do, I…” While there are variations that correspond to the Boromir sushi memes, like “I don’t always eat sushi. / But when I do, I gorge myself at all-you-can-eat-sushi,” the one picked by Toratani reads, “I don’t always eat sushi. / But when I do, I post a picture of it on Instagram.” Along the same lines, a Willy Wonka sarcasm meme featuring Gene Wilder states, “Oh, you eat sushi?” at the top, followed by, “You must be so cultured.” In these, sushi appears as a purposefully elegant delectable, whose raison d’etre is to reflect well on the sushi chooser, once again distinct from the guileless delight of the typical Japanese eater.

As I was writing this, the refrain of the Chaka Khan song “I’m Every Woman” (also recorded by Whitney Houston) started running through my head, but with “sushi” inserted: “I’m every sushi, it’s all in me.” Sushi is a cultural shape-shifter, and that’s yet another part of its charm. Emily was right: The mango sushi was fantastic.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.