Review

The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket

by Trevor Corson

Subtitled "The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket,"
Trevor Corson's latest marine exploration (THE SECRET LIFE OF
LOBSTERS was the forerunner) is a heaping platter of fishy facts,
sometimes more than an ordinary human being can stand. Eels are
slimy because they secrete and live in their own mucous; salmon
turn red and green because they're slowly starving as they head
upstream for the once and final orgy that ends in death; squid will
enthusiastically eat other squid while all of them are being hacked
to pieces and devoured by sharks.

We learn all these compelling details as we follow Kate on her
quest for competence as a sushi chef. Kate --- too thin, addicted
to Red Bull, battling low self-esteem --- has signed up for a
12-week course overseen by Toshi Sugiura, CEO of the California
Sushi Academy. The class, surprisingly taught by an Australian
named Zoran, is open to anyone, even those who, like Kate, have no
background in the world of sushi. She will be one of only a few
women who succeed in becoming sushi chefs in a profession dominated
by men. In the beginning, she is nervous and easily
discouraged.

Zoran, a "sushi prodigy" handpicked by Toshi, gives out few kudos
and lots of tests. Like a Zen master he yells and sometimes
belittles, but he quickly gains and keeps the respect of all his
disciples. Kate is afraid of the samurai-sharp sushi knives and
daunted by the lightning-fast timing required to produce tiny
culinary masterpieces while making clever chit-chat with the
customers. She compiles her private list of the most disgusting
sushi ingredients, including octopus tentacles, fish eyeballs and
just about everything to do with squid.

As he reveals how Zoran teaches and what Kate learns, Corson whisks
us from ancient Japan, where sushi has its roots, to the trendy hot
spots of sushi adoration like Los Angeles, where Americans are
remaking the ancient culture of sushi to suit westernized
requirements. One of the more important things to remember about
sushi, according to Corson, is that originally it had nothing to do
with eating raw fish. In fact, its central purpose was to preserve
old fish with the application of salty pungent sauces.
Serendipitously, it became a fast food fave among the aristocratic
Japanese. Its popularity in Japan has never waned, even when
health-conscious American army personnel banned outdoor food stalls
after World War II, forcing sushi to go indoors and setting the
template for stateside sushi bars.

Corson leads us through sushi the way Zoran structures his classes,
fish by fish. By the time Kate graduates, we know as much as she
does but don't have to sharpen a knife or entertain a
customer.

An appendix lays out sushi bar protocol so you won't feel like an
idiot the first time you're confronted with the myriad of rolls
(ura-maki, kappa-maki, hoso-maki,
futo-maki), or try to tell the difference between
toro, chutoro and otoro (varying levels of
fatty tuna meat). The best strategy is to learn to pronounce the
essential phrase "omakase." It means, "Do it your way," inviting
the chef to entertain the customer with his --- or her ---
creations, which should include a marvelous mysterious blend of
flavor, color and texture. Don't let price stop you from saying
"omakase." Go for the magic. And note: "Customers who show off
their sushi knowledge at the sushi bar are tiresome. Chefs
appreciate customers who would rather eat sushi than talk about
it."

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 24, 2011

The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket
by Trevor Corson

  • Publication Date: May 29, 2007
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060883502
  • ISBN-13: 9780060883508