Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

December 27, 2007

"The Zen of Fish" by Trevor Corson (Best Non-Fiction)

This is an engaging book that reads like a page-turner, and on top of that it is also based also on solid research. Only the title The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket strikes the wrong note - it probably was tacked on by an editor who only knew two things about Japan, "Zen" and "Samurai" and who was too fond of alliteration. Zen cuisine is solely vegetarian, fish nor sushi have any place there (perhaps the title is meant to be read in the sense of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," but even then...). Neither have the Samurai anything to do with sushi, they played out their role long before sushi was invented in Edo as a quick snack for the urban masses.

The author, Trevor Corson, observes the students of a sushi chef training academy in a Japanese restaurant in California during their three month course. (For good measure: in Japan, a sushi chef or itamae trains five years by daily working in a sushi restaurant, where the first year he will be doing only menial tasks and certainly not be allowed to appear in front of guests at the sushi counter!). Condor reports how the students learn to use their sharp knives to filet various kinds of fish in sushi size bites, deftly squeeze the rice, make California Rolls, etc. The reporting focuses on Kate, a twenty year old woman who at first seems singularly unfit to be a sushi chef (she almost feels sick when she has to gut and clean her first fish), but who struggles on and finally succeeds. Together with other sushi novices she has to learn "cooking without cooking," juggling the razor-sharp knives, and coping with Zoran, their demanding teacher, not to speak of fighting the prejudice against female chefs.

Still, this narrative framework is not the best part of the book, as the story looses itself all too frequently in "human interest" which is mostly rather trivial. Corson could have cut away some flab here. I am sorry for the humans, but the real heroes of the book are the fish.

Indeed, it was the bizarre behavior of the creatures that come on top of sushi that kept me glued to these pages. Corson, who earlier wrote a book called The Secret Life of Lobsters, delves into the mysteries of tuna and yellowtail, the biology of eel and squid, the natural history of sea bream and salmon.

He looks at the origins of sushi (a way of preserving fish, the rice was originally thrown away) and provides valuable suggestions for the best way of eating the bite-sized delicacy (without chopsticks and without soaking it in soy sauce!). And did you know that sashimi refers to any kind of raw meat, not only fish? Or how rare (and expensive) real, freshly grated wasabi is and that you usually are served a cheap and indifferently tasting mustard paste instead?

In addition, we get an inside report an the Aspergillus Oryzae, the mold used in making miso paste, but also for brewing Sake, as well as a lesson how to perfectly cook the short grained rice for sushi. We learn about parasites in mackerel, the role of amino acids in Japans fifth taste, umami, the mysterious mating of eels and the important role an English woman played for Japan's nori (laver) industry.

The natural history, related in an entertaining, dramatic way, and the culinary insights are the real strenghts of this book. It helps you bluff your way to connoisseurship next time you visit a sushi restaurant: sit down at the counter and ask the chef for an omakase meal. You will be served the best and freshest ingredients the chef has been able to procure that day, but first check the contents of your wallet, as an "omakase" in one of the sushi shops covered in the Michelin Guide to Tokyo will set you back hundreds of dollars per person! (This humble writer prefers the financial safety of conveyor-belt sushi...).
Trevor Corson's website has a lot of interesting background information.

Best Non-Fiction


(Auto-) Biography

Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

December 21, 2007

Book Review: Michelin Guide Tokyo

The publishing of the first Michelin guide for Asia, dedicated to Tokyo restaurants, has set tongues wagging in Japan. The first printing sold out in no time, many of the establishments treated in the guide are fully booked until far into the new year. Michelin has awarded more stars to Tokyo than to any other city in the world (191 stars for 150 restaurants) and 60% of the restaurants included are Japanese cuisine. Eight restaurants received three stars, 25 two stars and the rest, 117 places, received one star - for the first time in history, Michelin has awarded stars to all restaurants that were included in the guide.

A big hurrah for Tokyo as the gourmet capital of the world! With his 82 years, sushi chef Ono Jiro became the oldest chef in the world to be awarded three stars. That was after his son had said publicly that he did not think Michelin could understand Japanese sushi culture, so this was a shrewd political move by the French.

And as usual the Japanese are caught between feelings of satisfaction that Michelin has awarded so many stars to Tokyo and the criticism that it is difficult for foreigners to understand Japanese food. There has been an outcry (in several cases justified) that certain famous chefs and restaurants were not included and as much surprise that others not on the monitor of Japanese food journalists received a prominent place in the guide (but isn't that the function of any good guide, to discover new places for us?).

Critical pundits claim that the inspectors looked too much with French eyes (although there were 3 French but also 2 Japanese inspectors) as places with a good (=French) wine list seem to have scored high... or in general with gaijin eyes as also kappo-restaurants with a wooden counter where you can see the chef at work did well. On the other hand, although Tokyo is first and for all a city with an international cuisine (the best Japanese food can be found in Kyoto!), only few Chinese, Italian, and other non-French/non-Japanese restaurants were included.

To these criticisms one could answer that Michelin has measured restaurants in central Tokyo along an international standard, and that in itself is a new and interesting endeavor. That the list of places Michelin admires is different from that in Japanese guides, is only refreshing and logical regarding the international standard used - although it is also logical that the Japanese are shocked that a guide with such a famous brandname refuses to recognize some of Tokyo's most famous branded chefs and restaurants.

But there is another question in my mind: who needs a guide like this? Who can burn 50,000 yen on a single, one-person sushi course? You have to an expat with a generous expense account, or a "parasite single" OL - although these ladies will of course opt for French food a la Joel Robuchon (with 6 new stars the great winner of Michelin). We ordinary mortals can only hope to visit these food temples on very special occasions, and even then... In that respect, a shortcoming of Michelin is that it only includes the creme de la creme, and not a broader selection, reason why the French themselves prefer the Gault Millau guide, which in addition has more detailed reviews.

A Japanese friend told me he did not need Michelin because as a gourmet he could rely on his own tongue to know which Japanese restaurants were good. I would like to put it in other words: what Michelin with its shower of stars has demonstrated is that the average level of restaurants in Japan is exceptionally high. It is difficult to go wrong in this country, and we can only be happy that for every restaurant selected by Michelin there are hundreds of others of more or less the same quality, which have not been hyped and where prices therefore are much lower. There is a whole food world out there to discover!