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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket

Forgive me if this “review” seems an agglomeration of tidbits, but I really enjoy little facts and pieces of information, and this book was riddled with them.

I don’t like fish and frankly the idea of eating it raw, no matter how trendy or gussied up it might be, roils my stomach. Be that as it may, this is a fascinating story, following the ascent (descent?) from a despised, lower class food to one prized by the elite. (Lobster made a similar journey: it was once banned as food for prisoners in jail because it was considered so unseemly and dirty.) The story follows Kate at the California Sushi Academy where, a total neophyte, she has decided to learn how to make Sushi from the masters. It has become less Japanese than international and some of the best chefs are from outside Japan. But, I mean how hard can it be to roll up some raw tuna around rice. Surprise, surprise.

Interestingly, mold is key to Sushi rice and the particular mold strains are guarded in bank vaults or secret caves. The mold is added to rice and eats it with such tremendous speed that if not properly controlled, the heat generated would overheat the incubator. The moldy rice is then mixed with soybeans along with yeast, bacteria and salt. The mush is shoveled into tubs where it sits for months where the digestive enzymes shorten time from 78 million years to seconds and generate amino acids. It’s the enzymes that we want to create glutamate important to human growth, brain development, etc. (Bear with me, I listened to this book on audio and am trying to recreate it from memory.) Anyway, to make a long, but interesting story short, the result is Miso (for more details see It’s very nutritious and as a paste is used in soups and other dishes including, guess what, sushi. The brown liquid at the edges of the Miso is soy sauce.

Msg, monosodium glutamate, is heralded as one of the miracles of this process and an important ingredient in flavoring. Usually associated with Japanese and Chinese food, it’s ubiquitous ands manufactured by the ton, added to meats, chips, fast food, soups , and many other things (it’s hidden under the name hydrolyzed vegetable protein.)

Western scientists had always assumed that the human tongue can taste only four flavors: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. Asian scientists insisted there was another they called “tastiness” triggered by amino acids and was represented by the amino acid glutamate (msg) . Recently scientists at UC San Diego have found specific receptors for this flavor.

Fresh water fish can be dangerous when used raw for sushi as it is more likely to contain parasites that cause tapeworm. Salmon and trout, in particular as notorious, and the only way to kill the parasites is by freezing at -31 F for 18 hours or for a week at 0 F. Farmed salmon is not as dangerous filled as it is with PCBs and antibiotics. (Farmed salmon has 5 times the levels of PCB as wild salmon. It takes 3 lbs of ground up fish meal to produce 1 lb of salmon. In the wild they eat krill which gives the flesh its pink color - much like flamingoes.) The more fatty farmed salmon has become much more popular with diners making chefs happy since it is much cheaper.

Tuna pose their own special problems, in particular the Bluefin, largest of all the tuna and unusual in that it is warm-blooded and therefore has to age longer, much like terrestrial animals before they are eaten. Another issue is mercury. Since underwater volcanoes and coal-fired energy plants emit mercury which accumulates in the top of the food chain (and Bluefin tuna which often reach 1,500 lbs. are a top predator) pregnant women are told not to eat Bluefin and everyone else is told no more than once-a-week for any kind of tuna. Some of the techniques to factory farm tuna are rather spectacular (I'll resist the temptation to reveal a spoiler but will only say they involve mackerel) and perhaps they might lessen the danger of eating mercury. Another reason to avoid fish.

The evolution of sushi is quite a story in itself, moving from rice being used to preserve fish (and smelling like the “vomit of a drunkard” and being thrown out, to a situation where the rice is more important than the fish. Sushi chefs apprentice themselves for years to learn the secrets of good sushi rice. (I have some Norwegian in my genes, but there is no way you will ever get lutefisk** - literally lye fish - past my nose.)

A major role of the sushi chef is to scope out the customers and adjust the servings and consistency and appearance to the particular customer's taste. I'll avoid a spoiler here and not reveal why it is that Americans will probably never get an authentic sushi; the kind they are served would be rejected as inedible by most Japanese.

I could go on and on. Fascinating book.

** Here’s what Garrison Keillor has to say about it:”Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.”
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