Jan 28

Book Review: The Zen of Fish

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

If I had to give a 6 word review for this, it would be “good with fish, bad with people.” This book talks about sushi, from its origins to how it’s evolved over time. If you’re a sushi aficionado, this is a great resource. It will help turn you into a mildly annoying sushi snob to a supremely annoying sushi know-it-all. You know, if that’s what you’re into. It will probably also make you a more savvy sushi-eater. You’ll learn which fish are better, and why, and how to get good service from traditional Japanese sushi chefs (hint: don’t be female, don’t be American.) I had no idea of the concept of omakase, and wished that there were something like a traditional Japanese sushi bar in America. (Except maybe not so sexist and with food I like better, like something Mediterranean.)

Let me start with what Corson does well. Corson does fish well. I loved, LOVED his sections that dealt with the history of how sushi was made. I loved learning about how fish breaks down, about the organic chemistry behind the flavor profiles of the different types of fish. I loved learning why the original sushi was buried in jars for a year, and why they stopped doing that. I found the sociocultural history of sushi equally interesting–why do we associate sushi with Japan and not Korea (its country of origin?) This book will tell you all kinds of great facts. If I cut and pasted this book so that it only included the sections about the fish itself, I would have given it four or five stars.

Corson, unfortunately, interspaced his sections on sushi with chapters following a group of students at a sushi school in Los Angeles. I say unfortunately, because these sections simply did not work for me. Every time I went from a section about the habits of tai, or the amino acid breakdown in mackerel, I loved this book. Every time he went back to talking about Toshi, Takumi, Zoran, Marcos and Kate, I wanted to stop reading. These were so badly written, I felt like I was reading dialog from something intended for not-particularly-discerning children.

My dislike of the human-centric sections bothered me, because I couldn’t put my finger on what Corson was doing wrong. I came up with a few things. First of all, he uses far too many exclamation points. It is certainly possible that this will not bother other readers, but when I read an exclamation point, I read that dialog as a shout. Too many, and it makes me feel that the characters are bad voice actors in a low-grade anime. I also felt that some of the descriptions of how to make sushi were muddy. I read the description of how to form rice into nigiri four or five times, and each time it was about as comprehensible as an audiobook on origami. If a reader can’t understand it, why include it at all? Either write it clearer, include diagrams, or if it can’t be described, omit it.

Secondly, the dialog felt stilted. Since the book has a dense and impressive bibliography, and since the fish-centric research was so spot-on, I will not accuse Corson of not exercising the same diligence when recounting dialog. These are, presumably, real people who really did say these things. Maybe it was too many words like “blurted”, “snapped”, “bellowed”, “laughed”, “replied”, answered, and “retorted” instead of “said.” I think, primarily, it was just a poor choice of which dialog to include in the book. The sections of dialog did very little in the way of exposition, character building, or mood setting.

Which brings me to the main problem with the human-centric sections: choice and treatment of characters. There are a lot of scenes and dialog with the instructors and the students, but they’re scattered, like the clippings left over from film footage after a few other producers have already taken the best bits. Corson frequently tells us Kate thought x. Or Zoron thought y, which just served to make the focus more scattered, and made me feel even less of a connection to each person. I didn’t get to know the people, and what I did get to know, I didn’t care for. The sushi school he wrote about had at least a dozen students, but Corson chose to focus on two and a half: Marcos, Kate, and Fie. Marcos is the teenage ‘bro’ who is described as the sort of boy who wears a baseball cap backwards well into his forties. Fie is the drop-dead gorgeous Danish actress and model, who serves as the half-character. The main character is Kate. Kate’s a 20-year-old California girl who decided to study sushi because it had helped her put weight back on after a period of illness, so she credits sushi with saving her life.

I don’t know anything about the real Kate. Maybe she’s a charming and complex woman with a keen intellect and deep work ethic. In this book, she came off as dumb and useless. Maybe Corson was going for the sports-movie story? You know, where the kid with asthma, the black guy, the Jew and all the other misfits somehow pull together and create a winning team by the end of the movie, through the coaching of the iconoclast genius? It didn’t work for me. Maybe I’ve watched too many Top Chef episodes, because my opinion is that cooking is for tough, hungry, driven young people who thrive under pressure. Kate can’t keep her knives from rusting, she can’t keep her uniform clean, and she freaks out when she’s asked to gut a fish. I understand the thrill of watching unlikely misfits pull together, but someone squeamish about touching a dead fish who has forked over $5 grand and ┬áSIGNED UP FOR SUSHI SCHOOL is completely unqualified and should quit and do something easier.

Why did Corson choose this person to focus on? Did it have something to do with her “pretty brown hair”, the way she wrote “love hearts” above her name, or the way her “pink thong showed above her jeans when she leaned over”? This book is about sushi, but it’s also the story of these sushi students. When Kate not only graduated, but went out in the world and found that most sushi chefs out there weren’t nearly her equal in terms of technique and cleanliness, it did nothing to instill in me a respect for the art of sushi making. That sushi chefs in Japan study for five years before being allowed to touch fish didn’t counterbalance this disdain, it just made me wonder if maybe Japanese sushi instructors are really incompetent teachers. You can learn to be a doctor in five years. Can it really take that long to learn to cut apart stuff that’s already dead?

I love science. I love biology, I love cooking, and I love Japan. ┬áThis is a great book for anyone who likes any of those things. Want to know about the life cycle of eels? Great book. Want to know why salmon is a bad choice for sashimi? Great book. Want to know why sushi is sweeter in Kyoto than Tokyo? Great book. For most people, I don’t even think the human-centric sections of this book will be enough to ruin it for you, because most people don’t obsess over good characters, prose, and dialog as I do. In fact, I liked this book enough that I think I’ll look for his other book about lobsters–just as long as there aren’t any people in it.

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