The Zen of Fish (Book Review)

It may come as a surprise to its legions of Western devotees, but the Japanese word sushi has something of an unsavoury history. According to Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish (HarperCollins), linguists' best guess is that the ancient Chinese called preserved fish something that sounded like chee.
It may come as a surprise to its legions of Western devotees, but the Japanese word sushi has something of an unsavoury history. According to Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish (HarperCollins), linguists' best guess is that the ancient Chinese called preserved fish something that sounded like chee.


The Zen of Fish (Book Review)

It may come as a surprise to its legions of Western devotees, but the Japanese word sushi has something of an unsavoury history. According to Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish (HarperCollins), linguists' best guess is that the ancient Chinese called preserved fish something that sounded like chee. When Chinese preservation techniques reached Japan millennia ago, chee would have come out more like shee, thereby supplying the second syllable of sushi; the first probably came from suppai, Japanese for "sour." Hence sushi, "sour preserved fish." Sour? Preserved? Isn't sushi all about fresh, sweet seafood? With his gentle hint that sushi, like sausage, might be best consumed without full knowledge of the details, Corson's remarkable take on sushi culture is off and running.

Throughout, the author weaves tales of North America's sushi pioneers, men like Noritoshi Kanai, who turned to seafood only after his first tries at tempting local palates - canned snake meat and chocolate-covered ants - failed abysmally, as well as lovingly detailed descriptions of the strange creatures eaten (sea urchin gonads, anyone?). But nothing in The Zen of Fish is as beguiling as Corson's portrait of sushi's roller-coaster history. Its roots stretch back to farmers living along the Mekong River 5,000 years ago. When the river flooded, freshwater fish swam into rice paddies, and farmers were soon harvesting them along with the crop. But what to do with the yearly oversupply when the rainy season ended, the paddies dried up and dying fish went to waste?

Salt-packing offered one way out, but the result - the forerunner of today's Asian fish paste - was a stinking slime. So the farmers came up with something new. They covered the gutted fish in cooked rice and sealed it in a jar. Inside the container, mould ate the carbohydrates in the rice, breaking it down to sugars; yeasts ate the sugars, creating alcohol; the alcohol protected the remaining sugar from the airborne bacteria in the jar. Then anaerobic bacteria of a benign, non-food-spoiling kind could eat the sugar in peace, while giving off lactic and acetic acids that preserved the fish. Perfect, at least in regards to the main meal: by that point the rice was a horror story, reminiscent, according to a 12th-century source, of "the vomit of a drunkard." When the farmers wanted a fish, which would stay edible and intact for a year, they cracked open a jar, tossed the revolting rice away, and had at it. The fish, according to Corson, who gives no indication of ever having tried it, "tasted pretty good - today it would strike us as a bit like a pungent aged cheese, with butter and vinegar overtones."

Maybe. In any event, the Japanese loved the stuff, calling it nare-zushi, "aged sushi." A government document dated to 718 states people could pay their taxes with it. In the centuries after, however, those who could afford extra jars started opening them early. Eaten within a month of packing, the rice was not only still edible, but deliciously tart and tasty. Then sake makers discovered, around 1600, how to make rice vinegar from the dregs of their product. A half century later the shogun's doctor tried splashing the vinegar on rice and found that it was no longer necessary to wait for that desired tart taste. Rice had now turned full circle, from throwaway packing material to a main component: haya-zushi, "quick sushi," was born.

When Tokyo banned hot noodle carts on city streets as a fire hazard in 1686, sushi carts, the McDonald's of the era, sprang up in their place. After the Second World War, U.S. occupation forces established standard food-rationing regulations that meant Tokyo-style sushi - tarter and more reliant on ocean fish - became dominant throughout Japan. By the 1960s, North America's new health consciousness and growing interest in foreign cuisine meant sushi's hour had come in this continent.

Sushi, Western-style, that is. They may like their rice tart in Tokyo, but here we eat it with three times their sugar level. We slather on spicy wasabi to the extent of making sushi's freshness fetish pointless, at least in terms of taste. For all that we find Japanese ingredients exotic, in North America the most popular form of a supposedly healthy alternative is sushi rolls, loaded with almost as much sugar, carbs, fat and sodium as any other fast food: a supermarket takeout tray of six is equivalent to two slices of pizza. All part of the ongoing evolution of one of the world's oldest and most malleable foods.

Maclean's July 2, 2007


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