Sushi Robots!

Think your sushi is hand-made? You might be surprised.

illustration: jing jing tsong

Domo arigato, Mr. Sushi Roboto. I want to know your secret.

His secret? He’s everywhere: in almost every takeout sushi joint, sushi conveyor-belt restaurant and sushi buffet. Next time you’re at Kuru Kuru, look past the slowly marching sushi and you’ll see a machine that spits out nigiri rice, perfectly portioned and ready for its fishy crown. If you’re at Sushi 2 Go, order a roll and you’ll see a sushi printer: The counterperson inserts a nori sheet, the machine “prints” out an even layer of rice, a person centers the fillings in the middle, and then the machine rolls nori and all into a cylinder.   

photo: martha cheng

Elton Lee, owner of Chester Fried of Hawaii, distributes and services Suzumo sushi machines (considered the top chef of sushi robots) to Hawaii restaurants. But he doesn’t sell and tell his client list. “There’s a lot of art to sushi-making; in the old days it would take you years to learn. [A sushi chef] could make a nigiri sushi and tell you how many grains of rice would be in there,” Lee says. “With machines, it’s something anybody can do, it just needs a layman to assemble. You can run a whole sushi outlet with just two people doing everything.”

Suzumo machines run from $7,000 to $50,000, and some execute highly specific tasks: one $8,000 machine only cuts rolls, another cools and mixes rice with vinegar for sushi rice (a process that can take 40 minutes by hand, but takes a machine five minutes). Or there are some that do it all. Lee says Don Quijote used to have a “big sushi robot” that not only formed the nigiri rice, squirted a wasabi dot and put on the fish, but also individually wrapped each piece.

Still, there’s an art even to the machines, little adjustments that are sometimes needed on a daily basis. “Adjusting the pressure on how [the machine] compresses the rice makes a whole lot of difference,” Lee says. “If you don’t squeeze it enough, it won’t hold together. If you squeeze it too much, it’ll all mash together and become a starch block.”

Food automation already surrounds us (it’s what makes fast food fast); sushi isn’t exempt. So perhaps the stage is being set for an epic battle on par with ninjas versus pirates, cowboys versus aliens: sushi robots versus burger kings.