The world of sushi-making has, for the most part, belonged to men for centuries. Only in the last decade or so did women, and very few may I add, start to infiltrate this sacred yet sexist world of raw seafood delicacies. More elusive than UFOs and Bigfoot combined, most of us, I would speculate, have never caught sight of a female sushi chef in Los Angeles, much less the rest of the world. Why such a palpable absence of females?
In order to understand why women are barred from sushi chefdom one must gain a rudimentary knowledge of the food’s history. According to the Sushi Chef Institute, a Sushi-making school in downtown Little Tokyo, the business of handling fish has always been operated by men. Even by today’s standards with all its technological advancements, commercial fishing is no small feat so one can only imagine the stamina and manpower required for massive fishing four to five hundred years ago in Japan. From the ocean to the table sushi undergoes a linear process of male management. “Sushi making is a man’s world,” as one of the employees at SCI so nonchalantly puts it. Gradually becoming a status food, professionals in high society of who primarily consisted of men started dining in sushi restaurants on a regular basis. Therefore, the position of the sushi chef has always been given to men for its status and secret techniques of which women in that society simply did not qualify.
Myths were formed to discriminate women from this profession: their cosmetics and perfume would contaminate the raw fish. The most famous myth claims that a woman’s hand is warmer than a man’s, thus inducing the growth of bacteria and ruining the quality of the fish. The first myth was utterly preposterous however, the second one needed aid from the scientific community in order to be busted. Dr. Ignacio Gonzalez, a pathologist at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, flatly stated, after much laughter upon hearing the hand myth, that it is a complete lie. “The metabolism rate is higher in men than women. This increases body temperature and that is why men sweat more than women,” he says. In addition, men have thicker skin than women so that allows them to retain heat more efficiently throughout the body. Skin on a woman’s hands is thinner than that of a man’s, the conclusion is clear. Perhaps the only sliver of truth this whole hand myth can cling to is the increase in women’s’ body temperature during ovulation which is discernible by one half to one degree Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, if given a blind test, could we really taste the difference between the works of a chef who is ovulating and one who is not? Or should a whole team of highly qualified scientists with nothing better to do run tests to find the differences between sushi that has been handled by men and sushi that has been prepared by women?
Although the gender make-up of sushi restaurant staff reflects that of Japanese culture, many sushi joints in Los Angeles are run by non-Japanese entrepreneurs. Still, in order to emulate traditional Japanese sushi the image of the restaurant must take into consideration all details from the food to the sex of the employees. Very few female sushi chefs have attained mainstream status. Nikki Gilbert, an American sushi chef and founder of Sushi Girl, a company that offers Westerners sushi-making classes, is the only one that comes to mind at the moment. Perhaps there should be an international showdown-a battle of the sexes between male and female sushi chefs to see who can create the most delectable and beautiful pieces of sushi and sashimi. Until then, the traditional sushi chefs who still harbor this no-women-allowed-because-of-their-warm-hands mentality should really check their own temperature by inserting the thermometer in the part of the body where they will obtain the most accurate results.
For more info on Nikki Gilbert: http://www.thesushigirl.com/