My most recent piece on ESPN.com went up yesterday – a preview of the major amateur free agents available in Latin America this summer.
I recommend a lot of books around here, but I’m not sure the last time I said that any you must read a particular book. If you like sushi, or just seafood in general, however, you need to get yourself a copy of Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (published in hardcover as The Zen of Fish), a tremendous read that blends the history of what we now refer to as sushi in the U.S. with a surprisingly interesting subplot around a class going through a sushi-chef academy near Los Angeles. Corson’s integration of the two threads is remarkable, but for me, the value was in hearing him subtly say to American diners: “SUSHI: UR DOIN IT WRONG.”
Corson boils sushi down to its core components – the rice, the vinegar in the rice, the seaweed – and even dabbles in some food chemistry by explaining why we particularly like those ingredients as well as raw fish, discussing umami and the chemicals that deliver it (glutamic acid and inosine monophosphate in particular) and why we like the flesh of sea creatures raw but generally don’t like uncooked meat from land creatures. He discusses why certain types of fish make better or worse sushi, and of course discusses wild fish versus farm-raised (wild is better, but farm-raised does have some advantages) as well as the dangers overfishing present to natural fish populations. There’s even a chapter on uni, a paste comprising the gonads of sea urchins, which I recently learned is also consumed raw in various Caribbean cuisines as well.
Those sections were interesting, but didn’t do too much to change the way I thought about sushi, since I already knew I liked the stuff. Corson also discusses the various traditions around sushi and the etiquette of eating it (use your fingers for nigiri; never rub your wooden chopsticks together; miso soup should be eaten after the meal), as well as the logic for eating certain pieces in certain ways. A good sushi chef will, if you allow him, consider the order in which you’re eating your fish, moving across a continuum from milder flavors to stronger ones, or from softer textures to firm ones. Stirring wasabi (which, you probably know, isn’t actually wasabi at most U.S. restaurants but American horseradish dyed green) into soy sauce reduces the flavor of the wasabi, because the heat is partly deactivated in liquid. The fish used in spicy tuna rolls – a thoroughly American creation – is generally refuse, scraped off the skin of the tuna after the best pieces have been removed and used for nigiri or other dishes that require better flavor and texture. In fact, most rolls are inauthentic and used to hide inferior-quality fish under ingredients that are strongly flavored, like chili oil, or that coat the tongue with fat, like mayonnaise or avocado.
I’ve never been a huge fan of complicated rolls, since they tend to layer lots of ingredients together and come with sticky-sweet sauces, and I’m not a fan of mayonnaise so I generally avoid spicy tuna anyway. Having a rich, fatty, sweet roll can burn your palate for the delicate flavors of the fish-and-rice nigiri. But Corson’s book, without ever explicitly saying, “don’t eat the fancy rolls,” presents three arguments – one based on authenticity, one on the quality of the ingredients, and the fact that sushi becomes rather unhealthy when you load it up with fats and sugars – for at least limiting your consumption of those rolls, if not eliminating them altogether. And the teachers and sushi chefs who appear in the book all share his disdain for the fancier rolls, even while they teach them at the academy because customers want them – and they’re very profitable. (Another good reason not to order them, actually – you usually get more bang for your buck with nigiri.)
A book that just discussed sushi’s history, traditions, and science would have been worth reading without an actual plot to carry it along, but Corson built his book around the story of a class at The California Sushi Academy, a school run by a longtime sushi chef named Toshi whose restaurant (adjacent to the school) is struggling and who is himself recovering from a fairly recent stroke that has sapped his energy. Corson focuses on a few specific students in the class, including Kate, the nominal star of the book, a young woman struggling to find a career while fighting depression who nearly quits the school a half-dozen times; Fie, the Danish model/actress who decided she’d rather be the bombshell behind the sushi bar; and Takumi Nishio, the former Japanese boy-band star who quit the music business to study first Italian cuisine and now authentic sushi; while also devoting some time to Zoran, the Yugoslavia-born/Australian-raised head instructor who is a True Believer in traditional sushi even as he teaches the students American-style rolls. Their stories are interesting, as are their struggles – except for Takumi, who, in the book at least, seems to be a complete natural at whatever cuisine he tries, so he’s fascinating but without much drama. Corson follows them on assignments outside the classroom, like feeding the cast and crew on a movie lot, or watches them work a shift in the back room of the restaurant, using each episode as a segue into some note on the history or components of sushi.
If you like sushi, The Story of Sushi is $10 well spent. You can simultaneously learn the history of the California roll – its inventor is actually known, and there’s a good reason why there’s an avocado in it – and why you shouldn’t really bother with it when you’re in a quality Japanese restaurant.
For more from Corson, check out his official site, which includes some notes on the people in The Story of Sushi and other links and articles about seafood.
Next review: Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child and Other Stories.