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Roll 'em: Two tales chart the raw-fish craze

The Zen of Fish The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket Trevor Corson HarperCollins: 372 pp., $24.95 | The Sushi Economy Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy Sasha Issenberg Gotham Books: 352 pp., $26

May 28, 2007|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

IN the United States, sushi seems quintessentially foreign -- and utterly familiar. But few Japanese would recognize the enormous rolls stuffed with mayonnaise, cream cheese, chili peppers and cilantro that Americans eat as sushi.

In Japan, sushi means raw fish served in individual portions with vinegared rice and, sometimes, dried seaweed. By Japanese standards, many Americans also eat it incorrectly: Sushi should be picked up with the fingers (not chopsticks) and eaten in one bite. The fish should touch the tongue before the rice does and shouldn't be slathered with soy sauce and wasabi.

Authentic or not, sushi has become phenomenally popular in the U.S. The craze has spread throughout the country. An estimated 9,000 restaurants in America serve sushi, and an additional 3,000 retail stores offer takeout. This orgy of consumption has spawned an international network of suppliers who catch, raise, sell, buy, serve -- and sometimes smuggle -- fish.

Trevor Corson's lively "The Zen of Fish" follows a group of students through a course at the California Sushi Academy when it was located in Hermosa Beach. Corson uses each lesson as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the history of Japanese cooking, the techniques involved in preparing specific types of sushi and the natural history of the ingredients.

He explains that sushi as the embodiment of freshness is a relatively recent development. Sushi began as a way of storing the fish brought by the monsoons along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.

Freshwater fish were packed in cooked rice, then sealed into jars. Yeast and mold produced alcohol, acetic acid and lactic acid, which acted as preservatives. After a few months, the jars were opened, the fermented rice discarded and the pungent fish eaten. The dish spread north through China, reaching Japan by the early 8th century.

Nine hundred years later, a doctor at the shogun's court tried adding rice vinegar, a relatively recent creation, to trays of cooked rice and slabs of raw fish. The result was "quick sushi," as it was aged for only a few days before it was eaten.

Made-to-order fresh sushi was invented in the early 19th century and quickly became a popular fast food in Edo, as Tokyo was then called. The sushi bar assumed its familiar form after World War II, when the U.S. occupational forces banned outdoor food stalls as unhygienic.

The American craze for sushi began in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo in 1966, when what is believed to be the first sushi bar in the U.S. opened. Visiting Japanese executives introduced their American colleagues to the food, and eating sushi soon became a badge of daring and hipness.

The California roll, which won Americans to sushi, was created in Little Tokyo in the late '60s. Corson writes that when chef Ichiro Mashita couldn't get toro (fatty tuna belly) for his Japanese customers, he combined avocado and crab meat to re-create its appealing oiliness. Alternatively, according to Sasha Issenberg's "The Sushi Economy," it was invented by sushi chefs Minoru Yokoshima and Kodaka Daikichiro as a way of making sushi "for the Caucasians." Either way, the California roll sparked a dining revolution.

Increasingly, the most sought-after sushi ingredient is tuna, particularly the fatty belly meat of the bluefin tuna. A single bluefin may fetch several million yen (tens of thousands of dollars) in the daily auctions at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, the center of a multibillion-dollar international seafood trade.

Issenberg argues that "in few places are the complex dynamics of globalization revealed as visibly as in the tuna's journey from the sea to the sushi bar." He traces not only the journey of individual tuna from fisheries in the North Atlantic and farms in Australia, but also how the bluefin went from a trash fish to a prized delicacy in a few decades starting in the late 1960s.

Thirty-five years ago, American sport fishermen would pay to have the bluefin they landed hauled to the local dump. Japanese chefs used only the red muscle; its voluminous amount of fatty belly meat was cat food.

But new shipping and processing technologies, combined with a growing taste for fattier, more Western-style dishes in Japan, made tuna belly desirable.

Bluefin stocks have been seriously overfished, despite the growth of commercial farming. The growing popularity of sushi in China, which Isenberg estimates as a potential market of 50 million people, doesn't bode well for the species.

At times, Issenberg becomes a little too enchanted with the economics of the tuna trade: "More than any other food, possibly more than any other commodity, to eat sushi is to display an access to advanced trade networks, of full engagement in world commerce." Do most diners at sushi bars really think about economics -- beyond wondering, "Is my date going to order another round of unagi?"

Inevitably, there's a certain overlap between "The Sushi Economy" and "The Zen of Fish." Both books would benefit from illustrations: It's easier to follow the dissection of a tuna or the motions to mold the rice with images than with written descriptions.

But readers who enjoy sushi will enjoy Corson's vivid mixture of history, science and personal anecdotes more than Issenberg's well-researched but drier examination of economics and technology.


Charles Solomon is the author of many books, including "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation."

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