Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The Story of Sushi" - Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice

Tell you what: I don’t know when I’ll be eating sushi again. No, I didn’t learn anything disgusting about it while reading Trevor Corson’s “The Story of Sushi” – except maybe the correct way to prepare an octopus, which seemed unnecessarily cruel. It’s more like I learned everything I wanted to know about sushi (and then some) and now feel no need for it. This book must be what they call “definitive” because I certainly have trouble imagining why I would read about sushi ever again. In a roundabout way, this is actually a compliment.

“The Story of Sushi” not only delves extensively on the historical birth and evolution of what we came to know as sushi, it also follows a sushi chef class in a Californian school/sushi bar. Additionally, it also tells the tale of how this Japanese dish conquered America and the rest of the Western World.

In the last five years sushi bars have made the step from ubiquitous to ridiculous – there is nary a place where sushi is unavailable and mind you I’m not in New York or anything and I’m in walking distance of at least four sushi restaurants. It is so readily available it is almost impossible to believe that not that many years ago it was kind of weird to eat raw fish.

By focusing on a young girl attending the sushi academy, Corson, cleverly chooses a character most of us can empathize with: someone with no ties to Asian culture, someone who didn't grow up in this tradition (or in any cooking tradition, for that matter), she could be any one of us, someone who likes sushi because it tastes fresh and clean yet feels exotic, but has no idea of the difficult preparation process of those cute nigiri or rolls. Alongside Kate we witness how frustrating it is to master so many techniques and information in so little time (traditional sushi apprenticeship went on for years, before students could do more than prepare the rice).

Because Corson is interested in marine biology, there is also a lot of information on the different fish that were traditionally used in sushi and how their popularity has changed over time. It will probably not be surprising to find out that fish (such as salmon) and rolls favored in America are not that popular in Japan.

More surprising to the reader will be the fact that sushi bar culture in Japan, has always been, and to some degree still is, a guy thing. Single women were not welcomed in these establishments and female sushi chefs unheard of. Men come in, sit at the bar, drink sake and eat some nigiri. How ironic is it that sushi bars are now one of the preferred spots for city girls to grab a bite?

If there is something about sushi that has your curiosity piqued then the answer will be here. Corson even provides the reader with a sushi etiquette-guide-to-not-looking-like-a-total-redneck-at-the-sushi-bar (my words, not the author’s). While it is very interesting I think sushi bars will definitely be different in America and Europe than what they are in Japan (for one, women are welcome) and that their continuing popularity will definitely be tied with how comfortable people feel there. While Japan is a nation where ritual plays an important part even in seemingly innocuous tasks, westerners privilege feeling at ease even while striving to be original.

It will be interesting to see what happens to sushi in the next twenty, thirty years. Already, most sushi chefs aren’t Japanese, and most restaurant owners know little about its history except that sushi is it, right now. Will it go the way of Chinese food or follow some original path (maybe everyone will start doing rolls at home)? In either case “The Story of Sushi” is the definitive book on this not-so-exotic-anymore treat for the foreseeable future.

"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" - Jennifer 8. Lee

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

For non-American readers the revelations in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” will probably come as less of a shock, since, for most Europeans (the uber-sophisticaded world travellers excluded) the first image of Chinese food (and more recently sushi) probably came from watching a random American TV show or movie.

As I followed Jennifer 8. Lee’s delicious chronicles I wasn’t particularly astounded to find out that, in China, fortune cookies (which by the way, are very uncommon in Europe) are not known, and that the most popular Chinese food dishes in America, such as General Tso’s Chicken, Beef and Broccoli and Chow Mein, were creations of Chinese chefs specifically engineered to suit the American palate, favorite ingredients and presentation.

I was surprised however, to find out that fried ice-cream – one of the most popular Chinese desserts in Portugal – was only found by the author in Italy. In fact, as Lee explains, traditional Chinese gastronomy is not known for its sweets. But the Chinese, brilliant at meeting the culinary expectations of different cultures, must have soon found out that, especially in southern Europe, dessert is almost mandatory!

Growing up, I always heard that food in China had almost no similarities with what I ate in Chinese restaurants (something I only started doing quite late, since my family wasn’t big on restaurants or ethnic food – unless you count my mom’s homemade lasagna or pizza), but it’s still fascinating to follow Lee’s explorations in search of the roots of the “Chinese” in Chinese-American food.

But “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” also offers interesting sociological stories courtesy of Chinese food, such as the age-old relationship between American Jews and Chinese restaurants, the emergence of the first home-delivery systems, and the sad plight of contemporary Chinese immigrants. Impossible not be shocked at the amount most Chinese pay (upwards 50.000 thousand dollars) in order to endure months, sometimes years, of grueling travel so they can be afforded the privilege of ringing our western doorbells and hand us our sweet-and-sour pork.

So, where did the fortune cookie originate? Well, you can find out that fun fact by popping over to Wikipedia right now. But Lee’s book gives the reader a lot more to ponder: even in small western capitals such as Lisbon, eating the ethnic food du jour (nowadays, mostly sushi, to the point that Chinese restaurants seem to have disappeared or recast as nippon counterparts) is the mark of a certain urbanite hipsterism - it signals sophistication and a sense of adventure. Like our cheap t-shirts, however, there is always a hidden cost, and finally what we end up eating is not as original as we might like to think – “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” will provide any reader with food for thought.