The seafood department

I’ve recently read two nice books about fish.

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

Let me tell you the history of sushi. We begin in feudal Japan, where…zzz…

Corson does not begin in feudal Japan. He begins in modern day LA, where Kate is beginning an intensive sushi class. It’s not going well. Her knives are dull. She has no skills. She thinks dead fish is kind of gross.

It’s obvious how this story is going to end, but the way Corson weaves in the history of sushi–including, yes, feudal Japan–is inspired. The fun facts pop up like nigiri pieces at an omakase session. Did you know that sushi rice is made with vinegar because the rice was originally fermented, and the vinegar emulates the fermented tang? I didn’t.

Corson and his characters are dismissive of American-style sushi: big chunks of fish, tightly packed rice, dipped rice-side down in a slurry of soy sauce and fake wasabi, plus big, creamy inside-out uramaki rolls so no one has to touch actual seafood. But by the end I found myself appreciating it as an art form in its own right, with its own forms and rituals.

“The Young Man and the Sea: Recipes and Crispy Fish Tales from Esca”, by David Pasternack and Ed Levine

Esca is Mario Batali and David Pasternack’s Italian seafood restaurant in New York. It’s most famous for crudo, basically Italian sashimi: a piece of raw fish with olive oil, maybe a squeeze of citrus, a bit of vegetable accompaniment.

I have no desire to cook from this book–there’s a lot of east coast fish that’s hard to get here, and they’re restaurant-style recipes, albeit simpler than, say, an Alfred Portale book. It does make me want to eat at Esca.

More to the point, though, I’d like to see chefs in other cities use this book as an instruction manual. Seattle and seafood are forever linked in the popular imagination, but we don’t have a seafood restaurant like this, one with an overriding philosophy and singleminded focus on fish. There’s the Oceanaire, which is part of a chain and does good basic stuff, and Flying Fish, which I like, but the menu is freewheeling in a way Esca’s isn’t, and it’s starting to feel a bit, well, 90s.

I don’t know if Seattle can support a place like Esca, but I’d like to see someone try.

4 thoughts on “The seafood department

  1. stacy

    hey, timing. I picked up Zen of Sushi at BookExpo and am in the middle of reading it this week. The narrative feels kind of forced, but I’m geeking out on the sushi info and liking it anyway.

    Last night was omakase at Mashiko. I am in my happy place.

  2. mamster Post author

    Stacy, that brings up something I don’t think he really explored in the book, and I don’t have any good theories about myself. Lots of foods have gone from unknown to popular, but I know so many people who didn’t grow up with sushi but for whom it’s now the ultimate in comfort food. I assume it has something to do with the ritual and with how easy it is to establish yourself as a regular at any particular sushi place.

    Also it’s tasty.

  3. Eric

    On the subject of sushi, you may be interested in reading another new book entitled, “The Sushi Economy” by Sasha Issenberg. It traces the rise in popularity of tuna, the economics of modern fishing, a fantastic description of Tsukiji, etc. I quite enjoyed it.

  4. mamster Post author

    Thanks, Eric. I actually put both books on hold at the same time and Corson’s book came in first. I’m looking forward to the other one, too.

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