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

December 27, 2007

Book Review: "The Zen of Fish" by Trevor Corson

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.