Saturday, December 11, 2010

Books I'm Reading: The Story of Sushi

I've just finished reading Trevor Corson's The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (Harper Perennial, 2008--originally published 2007 in hardcover as The Zen of Fish).

I was a bit disappointed when I first opened the book. It starts with details of the day of a student at an American sushi school. I had not been expecting a narrative about Americans learning to make sushi in the United States--but that turned out to be only a small part of the book, a core around which author Trevor Corson has wrapped a rich roll of facts about everything from the origins of sushi as a way of preserving fish that developed in parts of southern China, Laos, and Northern Thailand to the extravagances of inside-out sushi roll innovations that developed in Los Angeles. Along the way, there's a great deal about the biology of the fish we eat (and their parasites), about how we perceive flavors, about how this fermented fish dish turned into a cheap snack food in Edo (today Tokyo) in the 19th century, and how Japanese-style sushi was transformed into the trendy international food it is today, mostly by chefs in the US. The stories of students struggling (and ultimately triumphing) at the California Sushi Academy has its own interest. It's not only a vehicle for conveying the wealth of information about sushi this book contains. It helps to give us a look at the future of sushi, and it adds a poignant note. I was left wondering how these young chefs will fare in a world of rapidly growing demand for fresh fish from sources that are already alarmingly overfished in many cases.

Having lived in Japan for nearly 20 years, I know that my experience reading this book will have been somewhat unusual. I suspect people less familiar with Japan and sushi will struggle to fully grasp some of the ideas. How many will be able to immediately visualize a gunkan--the little seaweed-skirted "battleships" that are used to serve soft, loose toppings such as ikura (salmon roe), kaibashira (adductor muscles of various shellfish), and uni (sea urchin), or see in their mind's eye a sushi chef doing katsura-muki? To their credit, the author and publishers have included a useful glossary, a good index, and an impressive bibliography--not that the latter would be immediately helpful. Perhaps it doesn't matter, though: most people today will simply turn to the Internet if they want more on a gunkan (try a Google search on "sushi gunkan").

The author wants the reader to understand what a traditional sushi bar is like in Japan, and what the experience of eating sushi is like with a trusted chef. Much of what passes for sushi in America seems slapdash and overblown to a traditionalist. At the same time the author is not judgmental. He doesn't criticize what sushi has become in the United States. He merely reports on it, in one or two places letting his characters convey their sense of loss stemming from the way sushi has changed (but note that the "characters" are all real people with their real names given; this is not fiction. Their conversations were recorded on the spot or taken down in interviews, sources and dates meticulously noted). The author seems to accept that there is evolution in all things and that there will always be those that celebrate the new and those that treasure the traditional. He seems to say there is room enough for both approaches.

Having said that, Corson's longing to help non-Japanese understand the true ethos of the sushi bar is palpable. The author points out that there are three ways to order sushi in Japan--you can order a set course at a fixed price; you can order favorites by the piece (okonomi); or you can allow the chef to prepare a course of what he (and in Japan it's invariably a he) believes to be the day's best selections and in the order that shows them--and the chef's skills--off best (omakase). Corson suggests that it's only through this last approach that the most sublime of sushi experiences is possible. He is probably right, but there are caveats that I think need to be emphasized.

Because sushi bars in Japan generally don't have menus (beyond indications of daily specials on chalkboards or on handwritten pieces of paper tacked up on the wall), ordering okonomi or omakase is often a gamble--particularly when you're a first-time customer. Not knowing what your meal will cost ahead of time is not entirely unknown in the West (you've probably ordered a "special" before without asking your server its price), but it's a fundamentally alien concept, especially in the US. Trying a new sushi bar can be surprisingly expensive (emphasis on "surprise"). There are unscrupulous chefs that overcharge, charge according to their mood, or charge more or less because they like or dislike the customer. That's unfair and it feels like being taken for an unnecessarily long ride in a taxi in an unfamiliar city. In my view, Corson underplays the potential for abuse in the system, but he is right in saying that by establishing a relationship with an honest and talented sushi chef (becoming a regular customer and being open to new things), there can be a great deal more to the sushi experience than plates of excessively sauced-up rolls full of the fattiest fishes on top of piles of overdressed greens--which is what sushi in America often is. An excellent read. Highly recommended.

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