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.


Jeane said...

Hm. I think my husband would really like this book (or rather, would like me to read it and then share all the best bits with him). He absolutely loves sushi.

bookworm (inês) said...

You'll need a notebook to write down all the factoids, Jeane!