It’s probably good timing that I just went to a sushi party a week before I started reading Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice. Still, as I read this book, I had more than one urge to head down to my favorite sushi bar for a spicy tuna roll or some unagi maki.
Like other popular histories that have come out in recent years, Corson tries to put a human face on his book while also writing about the development of the cuisine. The book is patterned on a semester at the California Sushi Academy. Corson switches back and forth between the progress of Kate, one of the students, and the history of sushi, the food science involved, and the biology of the most popular species we eat in sushi. At first, I was a little unsure of the author’s choices. Because the biology and the food science, the book can bog down here and there if you’re not interested.
I was impressed by the bibliography at the end of the book and Corson has a way of simplifying the complex chemistry that happens with salt and vinegar marinate fish or how meat gets softened after the fish dies and why all tastes so damned good. Sushi goes back a long, long time, but it’s changed a lot since it was just fermented rice and fish. For one, the preparation has gotten faster and faster. The students at the Academy learn to make nigiri in about 10 seconds.
Corson spares time for the fishing habits that have depleted a lot of popular fish species, too. It makes me feel guilty for enjoying toro so much. I’m going to have to be careful about what I order from now on, knowing what I know now. When I read about overfishing, I always have to wonder why we can’t change our ways and try and find more sustainable ways of harvesting seafood. About the only species that doesn’t need careful monitoring is squid. (Which I don’t care for.)
All this information shares space with Kate’s story as she goes from a complete novice to working as a chef at a sushi bar in San Diego. Women face a lot of discrimination when it comes to learning about sushi or trying to work as a a chef. In Japan, being a sushi chef is considered a man’s job. On top of this, Kate has to deal with her fear of knives and reluctance to gut fish and the fact that her rolls just won’t stay together. After she starts ranking disgusting things, Kate finds that she can deal with tons of gross things like dismembering squid or making fake wasabi.
The book tends to be a little repetitive, especially when Corson talked about the chemicals and enzymes that give us that savory, umami flavor. But I got the impression that this is only because the author is fascinated by them and by food science in general and just can’t stop marveling that it’s all down to amino acids and the like.
This is a good book, if you’re at all interested in the development of sushi. Just be prepared to skim over the parts were Corson gushes about proteins or writes about the migratory habits of salmon and eels.