Corson's fascinated with seafood, as his earlier book on lobsters demonstrates. Here, he casts his net through entirely new waters as he describes what sushi is, where it comes from and where it might be going. Spending three months as a "perpetual presence" in a California sushi school, he was able to establish close contact with staff and students. Supported by an avid research team, he's able to present nearly every facet of sushi from biology to service methods. Little is left unsaid in this book, but every bit is interesting and informative. Written in the best journalistic style you'll find this book worthwhile in many respects.
Among the first students Corson presents is Kate Murray, who lacks both cooking skills and confidence. She quickly learns that there are no short-cuts to sushi, even though the meal is composed of little but rice, mostly raw fish, some vegetables and simple sauces. Throughout the narrative, Kate seems to continually lag behind the other students, harassed by the impatient instructor - Toshi Sugiura. Sushi kitchen skills focus on knives, with each student possessing a kit of them. Sharpening is essential, as Kate learns the hard way. Her solution to her fear of knife sharpening is unique. She's also startled to learn that the image of sushi as "everything fresh" is false. Mold and infectious bacteria are essential to good sushi.
As the class struggles to keep up, Corson is able to introduce a wide range of supportive material relevant to what they learn. Sushi's history is complex and intricate, starting as quick meals from city street vendors. The move of Japan's capital from Kyoto to Edo [Tokyo], was but one of many divisions sushi would go through in Japan. There are also regional varieties, as well as those of customer class. Moving from street to restaurant also brought changes, not all of them universally welcomed. Even today, many women won't enter a sushi restaurant, partly because the staff and customers are male dominated. And often boisterous. Women chefs, such as Kate, and her classmate, Danish beauty Fie Kruse, are generally unwelcome. North American sushi restaurants are slowly modifying that traditional view.
Underlying the kitchen activities is the biology of what comprises the product. Corson provides information on rice's history, but his real flair is in describing the toppings placed on the rice. Shrimp, octopus and the multitude of available fish types both fresh and sea living each have their place and their handling in this book. There are no few surprises in store for the reader. What comprises the wasabi powder you can purchase in many North American shops? Are the salmon eggs crowning the rolls on your plate really from fish? Is tuna the true fundamental topping for sushi? These, and countless other questions, are raised and resolved. Except one - eels, a common sushi topping in Japan, but generally spurned in North America, have eluded domestication through "fish farming" practices. Nobody knows when, where or how they mate. Many other sea food mysteries, however, are undergoing examination and changes by suppliers, chefs and consumers. Pick up this book and be prepared for a challenge to your thinking and your taste buds. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
It is a very good idea: present thoroughly all the interesting bits of data and information on Sushi - history, how to do eat, how to eat it, how to behave in a Sushi bar and all that - and do that by wrapping it inside a little story, as for example an American girl's experiences with a several-month California training course for Sushi chefs. The information provided is very interesting and near-encyclopedic and the story is nicely written. And yet, somehow in the middle of the book I started to get a bit bored. Maybe my interest in all things Sushi just was not as deeply founded and far-reaching as both I and Mr. Corson had thought, maybe the book is lacking a bit of pep after all. Better be a Sushi aficionado - and a patient reader - before you read this - although you might not need the book then after all. I think it would not be unfair to compare The Zen of Fish with Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, would it? And in that comparison Zen suffers very, very badly. I wanted to start working at Microsoft right after reading Microserfs (although the author's intention was certainly not to recruit me), I might be going to a Sushi bar some time - and yet I might not.