The astonishing reason why women are excluded from making sushi, and how that's changing.
Did you hear the one about how women can't be sushi chefs because of their periods?
Yep, you heard me. There is a bizarre yet widespread belief that menstruation makes women inferior at detecting the tastes and smells of raw fish needed in a sushi chef — one that even the most famous chefs believe in.
When Jiro Ono, son of famed sushi chef Jiro (of the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi") was asked by the Wall Street Journal why there are no women featured in the documentary about his father, Ono said verbatim: "The reason is because women menstruate."
"To be a professional means to have a steady taste in your food, but because of the menstrual cycle, women have an imbalance in their taste, and that’s why women can’t be sushi chefs."
Other myths about women being bad sushi chefs persist, based on their supposed "higher core body temperature," and their cosmetics getting in the way of their sense of smell. Because every woman in the world wears makeup. Obviously.
As a result, it's rare to see a woman as a sushi chef.
This is according to the All Japan Sushi Association, an organization of 5,000 sushi restaurant owners in Japan.
The myth itself stems not only from misconceptions about menstruation and body temperature, but from centuries old tradition. The sushi craft borrows the virtues of "physical, mental, and spiritual precision and perfection" from samurai culture.
"Unfortunately, by-products of that preservation are some outdated beliefs about the ‘second sex.’" Oona Tempest, a female chef at New York's Tanoshi Sushi, told Zagat about how such cultural origins result in discrimination against potential female sushi chefs. "Master chefs willing to take on a female apprentice are just as, if not more so, scarce than females willing to learn.”
Nadeshiko Sushi in Japan is breaking down barriers as the country's only sushi restaurant run entirely by women.
In 2010, Nadeshiko Sushi opened in order to give women jobs during the recession. At first, though, men still did all the prep work in the kitchen, and the female chefs were indistinguishable from their male counterparts, down to the white jacket uniforms they wore.
"No one came to the restaurant when we wore simple white coats because we looked the same as everyone else," said Yuki Chizui, Nadeshiko's manager, to the Japan Times. "We needed to create a feminine restaurant in order to establish a new style.”
What's this new style? Whereas male sushi chefs traditionally serve their customers in silence, the chefs at Nadeshiko bond with their customers, with one chef telling a patron that they work too hard.
Judging by the pictures, the chefs can wear any color chef coat they want as well.
Most importantly, at Nadeshiko Sushi, women are now in charge of every step of the process.
Any woman who wants to learn can apprentice at the restaurant as well.
"Women traditionally have stayed in the home, but if they want to become sushi chefs here they have to come six times a week in order to learn on the job," Chizui told Broadly.
Nadeshiko Sushi is a restaurant that solves those twin problems that Oona Tempest talks about — that of women not being interested in sushi-making and that of them not having access to mentors.
Hopefully, other sushi restaurants will soon follow suit.