Salmon As Food
The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket
(Republished in paperback as The Story of Sushi; An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish to Rice)
Harper Collins, 2007
To most people, salmon are first and foremost a food. Just type “salmon” into any search engine on the net and what appears first are ways to prepare it. One very popular way in the United States is in sushi. The book The Zen of Fish provides a basic understanding of how salmon fit into this traditional Japanese way of serving fish.
For me sushi conjured up images of raw fish served with seaweed, rice and eye-watering horseradish paste in a simple, elegant presentation. The book made me realize how little I really knew about this culinary art form. Fish don’t even enter the narrative until chapter 16 (page 108). Salmon finally appear fourteen chapters later, on page 178 (of a 372 page book). One first learns about rice, miso, Japanese vinegar, sake, wasabi (horseradish), knives, cooking and numerous other things, all before the first fish is even mentioned.
That’s understandable. The word “sushi’ really means rice seasoned with vinegar, sugar and salt. Fish, including salmon as well as other ingredients are added as toppings, fills, sides or in myriad other ways. Raw fish, which I had thought of as “sushi” is actually called “sashimi”, served without rice. The rectangular hand squeezed servings of fish with rice are called “nigiri”. And, the roundish seaweed wraps with rice, shrimp and other fillings are called “maki”. These are just a few of the many Japanese terms and ways of combining the typical “sushi” ingredients described in The Zen of Fish. I was grateful for the three page glossary at the end which I referred to frequently (and I got a couple of easy sushi picture books from the library to help me visualize what the author was trying to describe in words).
Here are some highlights of the things I learned about salmon as it is used in sushi.
The narrative of the Zen of Fish loosely follows a few students during a six month training at the California Sushi Institute. Their lives and experiences add a human touch and provide structure to the book. However, they often get in the way. The Zen of Fish is at its best when it delves into the fascinating details about food, culture, tradition, preparation techniques and ingredients. The latter chapters, each dedicated to individual marine creatures are particularly interesting for fish enthusiasts; whole chapters focus on mackerel, sea bream (tai), yellowtail tuna, flatfish (halibut, flounder, sole, plaice, turbot), eel, octopus and squid, geoduck, bluefin tuna and salmon. One chapter is just about eggs (salmon, sturgeon, herring and sea urchins). Each is an entertaining and enlightening reminder of how fascinating and strange the world we live in can be and of the myriad ways we use its bounty. The author and his team of researchers certainly did their homework, this is a very good book.