This is a book, I think, for lovers of the American-style sushi joint. This is for people who judge a hot new sushi place on the different and exciting kinds of rolls they serve, and for people who think a “Volcano Roll” or a “Mango Chutney Roll with Spicy Curry Sauce” sounds like a delectable treat.
On the other hand, if the words “Edo mae,” “Otoro” or “Omakase” have any meaning to you, if the yellow insides of a sea urchin start your mouth drooling instead of gagging, you are probably best off staying away.
Trevor Corson’s “The Story of Sushi” is not a pure history book, but instead flip-flops between sushi history in Japan and its development in the US and between telling the story of a class of students enrolled at the California Sushi Academy. The California Sushi Academy offers a 12-week course that circumvents the traditional multi-year apprenticeship system of Japan and delivers sushi-bar ready sushi chefs who are able to meet the current high demand at US restaurants.
From amongst the students Corson chose to follow Kate as his main character. A young woman of around twenty, Kate lacks confidence, has an unspecified eating disorder, is shy and inward, is terrified of her own sushi knives, has no cooking skills and is disgusted at the idea of touching a raw fish, much less cutting one. Directionless and unsure of herself, Kate borrowed money from her parents to attend the sushi school on somewhat of a whim, hoping for a career where she could socialize with customers as her main concern.
Kate is where the book starts, with chapter one, page one, and Kate is where the book fell apart for me. Obviously, Corson saw in Kate someone he hoped his audience could identify with, someone for whom sushi was still slightly “yucky” and who would be grossed out by the concept of eating octopus and squid. I was personally just annoyed by her, and found myself hoping she would drop-out instead of persevere. Her constant whining and self-doubt got to be too much, and she is the kind of character you wish your could somehow reach into the book and give a good smack on the face too.
It’s too bad, because the other students who are relegated to the side-lines seemed so much more interesting than Kate. But we don’t get to here their stories; like Takumi, the hard-working Japanese student who is secretly a pop star in Japan but escaped to the US where his anonymity allowed him to study his true love, cooking. Or even the Japanese-American girl who dropped out halfway through the course. Why? We’ll never know.
As far as the parts of the book that actually focus on sushi history, they are interesting but nothing new. A bit of time browsing wikipedia would bring you the same information, such as the invention of the California Roll by Ichiro Mashita at the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in LA in the 1960s when he found himself out of fatty tuna and decided to slip in avocado as a quick substitute, or the ins and outs of the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo where the bounty of the seas is flash-frozen and auctioned to the highest bidder.
Perhaps the lack of any real new historical information or ground to cover is what gave Corson the idea of giving over half of the book to Kate and the California Sushi Academy. If you are a real sushi novice, then perhaps much of this will be new to you and the behind-the-scenes look at the sushi school will be valuable/entertaining. Personally I just didn’t find a lot here.
On one last note: When I bought this book, it was called “The Zen of Sushi” and I see that the name has since been changed to “The Story of Sushi” which makes me happy. For someone who has “resided in Buddhist temples in Tokyo” (as it says in his author’s bio) Corson should know better than to mis-use the term “Zen” in that way.