Sushi-go-round: tradition served with technology
By Miwa Suzuki, AFPTOKYO -- With its masters required to hone their skills over decades, sushi in Japan is steeped in tradition. But it is also often a high-tech operation where robotic precision steals the limelight from the chef's knife.
August 13, 2013, 12:05 am TWN
The country is dotted with thousands of “kaiten” (revolving) sushi restaurants where raw fish slices atop rice balls travel on conveyer belts along counters waiting to be picked up by diners.
Behind the scenes, however, it is far from a simple merry-go-round, with robots in some locations rolling out perfectly sized rice balls onto plates embedded with microchips.
Measured dollops of spicy wasabi paste are squirted onto the rice assembly-line style before they're topped with raw fish.
And the most cutting-edge eateries are even connected to monitoring centers that can quickly tell whether the right balance of dishes is being produced — a far cry from traditional-style places where the sushi chef and his knife still reign supreme.
“Sushi isn't going round at random but rather it is coming out based on a number of calculations,” said Akihiro Tsuji, public relations manager at Kura Corp., a major operator in a market expected to hit US$5 billion in revenue this year, according to industry figures.
“Though traditional, sushi is stuffed with high technology. You can't operate low-price revolving sushi restaurants without databases and scientific management,” he told AFP at a Tokyo outlet.
Kura has invented a serving device called “sendo-kun,” which roughly translates as “Mr. Fresh,” a plate with a transparent dome that opens automatically when diners select the dish.
While the hood keeps the sushi moist and clean, it also contains a microchip telling managers what kind of fish are swinging around on the conveyer belts and how long they have been there.
Since their birth half a century ago, kaiten sushi restaurants have evolved from selling traditional sushi into miniature museums of the food that Japanese people eat today, including battered tempura, noodles, and even ice cream.
The dishes are cheap, usually starting at around 100 yen (around US$1) for two pieces of sushi.
Now, more and more outlets are equipped with dedicated “high-speed” lanes where customers can receive their order via a touch-screen menu.
Ryozo Aida, a 68-year-old university lecturer, said he visits the Kura outlet with his wife because of its “affordable prices.”
“It may sound strange in a sushi restaurant, but I like tempura,” he said as he jabbed his fingers at a touch-screen panel.
Inside the kitchen, screens show how many adults and children are dining and roughly how long they have been in the restaurant.
“Even if all the 199 seats here are occupied, how much sushi we need will differ depending on how long they have been at the table,” Tsuji said.