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Purists would be appalled, but it was a chicken sushi that helped convert New Zealanders to Japanese cuisine.

It was 1993, the early days of a unique partnership between the Tokyo Mutual Trading Co's Yoshiharu Takagi and New Zealander Nick Katsoulis. The idea: to introduce sushi to a mass market in New Zealand.

It marked the beginnings of the St Pierre's Sushi chains.

Today, 25 of these stores dot the main centres of New Zealand. Another one opens soon in Ponsonby.

But the initial growing pains were immense.

At the time, the thought of consuming raw fish was offensive for many. So the pair had to adapt the recipe to suit local tastes, giving rise to the teriyaki chicken roll.

"It was what made them try sushi. It wasn't raw fish any more," said Katsoulis.

Even today, the use of chicken in sushi remains a novelty in its homeland.

Takagi said it was about taking Japanese food culture, and combining it with local food tastes. The strategy had worked well in the Tokyo Mutual Trading Co's main market, the United States, where the company can trace its history there to 1926.

While the New Zealand venture makes up only a small component of Tokyo Mutual's foodstuff export business, it remains a special relationship.

When Katsoulis wanted to start up a sushi business in New Zealand, suppliers of Japanese products were a rarity, and product quality was inconsistent.

He decided instead to source products directly from the mother country. He flew to Japan to meet suppliers, but Takagi was the only one who showed up to the appointment.

But even then, it was an awkward meeting. Takagi's English was not particularly fluent, and they did not have a translator.

But they persevered, and the relationship has endured.

Tokyo-based Takagi returned last week after a four-year absence to survey New Zealand's sushi landscape.

He says the trend remains very much one of generic outlets serving sushi in all its various guises - unlike in Japan where specialisation reigns.

But he sees that changing soon, given sushi's increasing popularity.

Nigiri sushi - toppings such as raw fish laid on hand-formed rectangular clumps of rice - is Japan's most popular type, but in New Zealand it's norimaki, sushi rolled inside dried sheets of seaweed.

For Takagi, nothing tops a tuna nigiri in his native homeland, but when in New Zealand, it's fresh salmon with plenty of locally grown avocado.