TREVOR CORSON • THOUGHTS
Sushi, USA

Cool: the other day Anthony Bourdain retweeted some of my sushi etiquette tips. Inevitable: amidst many positive responses, I got some others suggesting that perhaps such attention to detail was a tad elitist. Irony: I totally sympathize.

Food snobbery is exactly what I was hoping to avoid when I decided to focus The Story of Sushi on a motley crew of American sushi apprentices in L.A., rather than penning a hagiography of, say, Masa. (Though in the book I do, of course, delve deeply into the Japanese sushi tradition.)

On the other hand, researching the book made it clear to me how much is wrong with our day-to-day sushi, especially in America. And when I say wrong, the first thing I’m worried about is our health. And then there’s the health of the ecosystems that provide our fish.

My sushi-eating tips, and the educational dinners I host, are partly intended to help people get a more delicious and authentic meal, yes. But they’re also intended to help us avoid crap sushi that could make us unhealthy—there’s a lot of crap sushi out there these days—as well as take more care in the consumption of the oceans’ fast-disappearing sea creatures. Most of us don’t realize, for example, that all that wasabi and soy sauce and all those spicy rolls are there for a specific purpose—to prevent us from tasting fish that’s subpar or past its prime. (Don’t take my word for it, check out this recent FDA recall of spicy-tuna filling—it was so bad that the Centers for Diseases Control sent out an email blast about it.)

Here I have to give a shout out to Lucky Peach, the new food magazine from David Chang and McSweeney’s. The current issue, titled “American Food,” contains a graphic spread by cartoonist Lauren Weinstein that features some of the juiciest scary facts I covered in The Story of Sushi  about the origins of your typical sushi fish and turns them into an info-graphic called “Sushi, USA” that is not to be missed.

Below is a snippet—look for the magazine at your newsstand or bookstore.

Would You Eat a Taco Off a Conveyor Belt? Why Would You Eat Sushi Off One?

It’s official, I spotted the future digs of New York City’s fast-approaching kaiten sushi joint in SoHo, on the corner of Grand & West Broadway, which according to a sign on the window of interrogation-room glass will be opening in February. As you probably know, kaiten sushi is the Japanese term for "conveyor-belt" sushi, and apparently sushi lovers in NYC are meant to be enthused by the news that it’s “already a massive hit in Mexico.”

I know I sound like the sushi snob that I am, but any traditional sushi chef worth his real wasabi will tell you that a piece of sushi quickly dries out and oxidizes immediately after it’s made, which is why good sushi is best eaten straight out of the chef’s hands.

Yeah, I know conveyor-belt sushi is popular in Japan. The Japanese people eating in those places are the same people who buy their grilled salmon from 7-Eleven.

Let me make a suggestion: I think an excellent type of restaurant for employing slow-moving conveyor belts to deliver food to diners would be restaurants that specialize in serving Triscuits and Cheez Whiz.

In the meantime, these folks should know better than to claim to be the first kaiten sushi restaurant in New York. There’s already one a few blocks away in the food court of a grocery store. Which tells you something.

If You Happen to Have Named Your Dog “Sushi”

Then I dare say here is the perfect doggie sweater.

The Future of Japanese Seafood

People have been asking me whether I think sushi is going to be safe to eat, with the threat of radiation from the stricken nuclear plant possibly affecting Japan’s food supply. While this might seem almost irrelevant considering the potential direct threat to the people of Japan at the moment, it’s a fair question. For starters, here are few thoughts I offered the New York Times in an article published today:

…Trevor Corson, a sushi expert and a former commercial fisherman who used to live in Japan, said seafood caught “in an ocean churning with movement and dispersal might turn out to be less of a concern than agricultural products that are exposed and stationary.”

But Mr. Corson also said the Japanese seafood industry could face a long and difficult struggle “to establish faith in the safety of their seafood—not unlike the challenges faced by gulf fishermen in the U.S. after the BP oil spill.”

The Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo, the world’s largest clearinghouse for just about anything that fishermen pull from the sea, was not physically damaged by the earthquake. Its cobblestone aisles and alleyways were as loud, profane and hurly-burly as ever on Saturday. But something in Tsukiji’s soul seems to have been lost, or at least badly bruised, in the tsunami.

Before the disaster, the market drew 10 percent of its daily inventory of 2,400 tons of seafood from the waters off Tohoku, the coastal epicenter of the earthquake. The fishery there is renowned for its scallops, seaweed, bonito and shark’s fin. Tohoku, as a place and a brand in Japan, was formidable. …

“I have started to hear people in the West worrying about radioactive sushi and so on, but perception and reality are quite different,” said Mr. Corson, the author of The Story of Sushi. “Much of the seafood typically used in sushi doesn’t originate in Japan and never passes through the country.”

Check out the entire article, which discusses other Japanese food products as well, such as Kobe beef. I’ll try to post more on this question soon.

Update: My more detailed post on this topic at The Atlantic.

Photo of destroyed Japanese fishing boats: Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press, via NYT.com

Ridiculously Fun

If you have never seen a gathering of Beltway insiders metamorphose into a room full of sushi chefs, it puts to shame the miraculous transformation of caterpillar to butterfly.

At this shindig I taught at CulinAerie in Washington D.C. for the alumni association of the Potomac School, I provided the merest of instruction and the team was knocking out restaurant-quality old-school maki in moments. More proof that D.C. foodies are on the rise. Check out the rest of the pics.

My theory for why these classes are so satisfying is that people assume basic sushi is difficult to make, when in fact, provided the proper tips on the fundamentals, old-school maki that look perfect aren’t that hard to produce. You just need to forget everything you’ve ever believed about rolls being rolled. Secret: they’re not!

Immediately after the class, the young lady in the middle of this photo posted on Facebook:

Well, guess I can cross “Have my sushi made fun of by Iron Chef judge” off my to-do list before I die. That was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

Lest I have worried that the fun I’d made, meant lovingly of course, might have been too Gordon Ramsay-esque, the next day she sent the following note:

Dear Sushi Concierge, thank you for an insightful, witty, and ridiculously fun night. I will surely think of this night the next 200 or so times I have sushi.

Honestly, I had a ridiculously fun time too. Although I’m also curious how long it’s going to take her to eat sushi 200 times. What’s your sushi-200-times timeline?

$400,000 for a Fish?

What’s with the $400,000 bluefin tuna that just sold at a new year’s auction in Tokyo? Nothing. This recurring headline of extravagantly priced tuna is one of those news items that leaves you with less knowledge than you had before you heard about it. That’s because the only reason any bidder at the Tokyo auction ever pays that much for a fish is to deliberately spend way more than any sane person should. Blowing that much on a tuna is either a celebration of recent profits, or a bid for publicity to boost a restaurant or distributor’s profile. In short, it’s money spent on advertising, not on fish. And clearly, while very expensive, it’s a technique that works.

Which is not to dismiss the larger, very real, and very sad trend of generally increasing prices for bluefin tuna due to their growing scarcity. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before the global sushi industry wipes these majestic fish off the face of the earth.

Which is doubly sad, because it’s completely unnecessary. As I’ve written in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, on Yahoo/CSM, and elsewhere, bluefin tuna aren’t even a traditional Japanese sushi fish.

Photo: Kyodo via AP Images

How Much Should Sushi Cost?

Most of us are probably overpaying for good sushi. Last night at my Sushi Concierge dinner lecture in New York, one guest declared our simple but elegant menu of traditional sushi better than meals he’d eaten at the much pricier sushi bars Masa and Yasuda. It’s all about knowledge. I’ll be sharing more insider tips at my next dinner lecture in New York on Tuesday, December 7. I’d love to see you there. Bring friends, you will all be surprised at what sushi experts you become.

Photo by Kirsten Luce for the New York Times.

Food for Thought

If there’s one thing I learned while researching and writing The Story of Sushi, it’s that the history of sushi has been one of surprisingly constant change and evolution, both in Japan and internationally. The book’s subtitle isn’t “An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice” for nothing.

The other day I had the honor of hosting a sold-out panel discussion at the Museum of the City of New York on the evolution of sushi with two talked-about young sushi chefs in the region: Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven (above right) and Hiroji Sawatari, an alumnus of the legendary New York sushi house Yasuda and future chef at the anticipated new SoHo eatery Niko, slated to open this fall (left). These two sushi chefs couldn’t have been more different.

Though relatively young, Hiroji is of the seriously old-school variety of sushi slinger. He began his apprenticeship in Japan at age 16 and brought his sushi-making skills to the U.S. at 21, where he spent four years at the highly-regarded Hatsuhana before returning to the very heart of the Japanese sushi world — the enormous Tsukiji Fish market in Tokyo — to hone his skills further for a year at Sushi-Iwa, a half-century-old shop located just steps away from the world’s clearinghouse for the freshest fish. Back in New York he worked his way up through chef positions at Sharaku and Megu in TriBeCa to a four-year stint at Sushi Yasuda. Last year he joined Food Network star Iron Chef Morimoto at his flagship Japanese eatery in Philadelphia.

Bun, meanwhile, is altogether different. The son of a Chinese father and Japanese mother, he lived in Japan as a boy, watching his Japanese grandmother pickle plums and cucumbers and prepare traditional Japanese fare including fresh fish. But the family moved to Connecticut, where Bun’s mother opened Miya’s in 1982, the first sushi bar in the area, and Bun grew up mostly Americanized. Bun’s mother still oversees the restaurant, but today Bun is the mastermind of its new incarnation, and his charismatic and unconventional approach to sushi, its ingredients, and its presentation has quickly transformed Miya’s into one of the most talked-about sushi restaurants around.

Bun conceives of his work at Miya’s as the logical progression of sushi as it inevitably evolves into food that is cross-cultural, and while his menu is unconventional, his lively interactions with customers also revive the traditional relationship between a sushi chef and his clientele. Bun considers himself both a social and environmental activist, and has transformed Miya’s into the first sushi restaurant on the East Coast to integrate sustainability criteria for the seafood it serves. (Bun is also the 2010 recipient of Key to the City of New Haven for his contributions to the community.)

A few days later I had the chance to visit Bun at Miya’s for dinner. Here we are, pictured above, as he studiously reads what he claims is one of his favorite books, The Secret Life of Lobsters — which was sitting on the sushi bar, with many other books, when I arrived. An example of Bun’s activist menu: we ate these tiny fried crabs, which he features because they are not just yummy, but a pesky invasive species. Now there’s a meal you can feel good about.

In a Surprise Move, Apple Computer Enters the Highly Competitive Sushi/Sashimi Serving Tray Market

In case you missed the Japanese gadget geek who decided his new iPad could serve as the perfect interchangeable serving platter for sushi and sashimi, here you go.

His iPhone makes a delightful appearance as well.

(This has been featured on a number of blogs already, but few of them highlighted the English translation provided on the original Japanese page I’ve linked to, which adds its own charm.)

Behind the Scenes

I recently spent a few hours behind the scenes with the sushi chefs at the Michelin-starred Jewel Bako restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, where I host my Sushi Concierge dinner lectures, watching them prepare during a busy morning and afternoon. Here, Chef Yuzo trims fillets of a variety of small, traditional sushi fish. If you’re curious what else goes on behind the scenes in a sushi restaurant, I’ve posted more photos.

One acquaintance of mine who is a sushi chef commented, after clicking through these photos, “How satisfying. I don’t smoke, but I could use a cigarette right about now.”

Miss Sushi

Have you ever struggled with something you’re not good at? Have you ever wrestled with a sense of inadequacy in the face of daunting challenges that seem easily mastered by others? Have you ever persevered only to encounter widespread prejudice against you?

Kate Murray, pictured above, had never cooked much more than scrambled eggs and had no background in Japanese culture—her family history is Irish-Italian—and she didn’t even know how to hold a kitchen knife properly. Throughout her teenage years and into adulthood she’d struggled with eating troubles and bouts of depression.

Nevertheless, she made a crazy decision—to become a sushi chef. My book The Story of Sushi is partly a chronicle of the rough road Kate traversed as she pursued that goal, apprenticing herself to samurai-like sushi masters and confronting fish guts, razor-sharp blades, and gender inequality, among other challenges.

It has been fascinating, and a bit surprising, to me as an author to watch the range of reactions among readers to Kate and her travails. I chose Kate partly because I wanted to approach the esoteric subject of Japanese cuisine through the tale of an everyday American. Many readers have told me they appreciated this approach, and found Kate to be an inspiring—and in the words of one reviewer, “root-for”—character who struggles but manages to persevere within her own limitations, and even overcome some of them.

Other readers have found Kate frustrating to read about, and some have even been vociferously dismissive of her for her shortcomings. Fair enough, I suppose—sometimes when we crack open a book, what we are looking for is a hero who has fewer failings than most of us do in real life. What I can say is that Kate’s story is true.

Some readers also seemed have to their sense of purity offended by the way I mashed up the story of a sophisticated Japanese tradition with the day-to-day fumbling of an American apprentice with little expertise. As someone who’s studied Japan for decades and lived there, I’m a bit skeptical when it comes to the purity of Japanese tradition, and The Story of Sushi was a deliberate attempt to shake things up.

One reader was particularly incensed that I seemed—apparently based on her interpretation of the book—to have developed a crush on Kate. I did feel a certain “root-for” affection for Kate while following her through her ordeals, but there were also times when I became very frustrated with her, too.

All of this makes me feel, in the end, that I must have done a decent job reporting the story, since these different responses seem an accurate reflection of the complexity of reality. It seems to me that Kate must be a sort of Rorschach test for all of us, depending on the expectations we bring to the book. If you get the chance, check out the book yourself—it’s a brisk read and you’ll emerge a sushi master—and let me know what you think.

Either way, I don’t set out to write a book that the people depicted in it will necessarily like, and sometimes they don’t like what I write. But I have to admit that my affection for Kate was renewed when I saw that she’d posted these photos of herself with the book on her Facebook page.

Today, Kate is still making sushi; after working a variety of restaurants, she now has a sushi catering business in San Diego called Miss Sushi.

Whale: To Eat or Not to Eat?

On Sunday, the documentary film The Cove, which exposes dolphin hunting in Japan, won an Oscar. On Tuesday, the film’s production team attracted front-page coverage in the New York Times with a cleverly timed sting that exposed whale sushi being served not in Japan, as you might expect, but in Santa Monica.

Almost two decades ago in Japan, I was once taken to dinner at a restaurant that specialized in whale meat by a charming pair of soft-spoken young sisters who had grown up in a Buddhist temple as the daughters of a priest. Continue reading this post on The Atlantic

Photo: moohaha/flickr

Q&A with the Haphazard Gourmet Girls

One of the great guilty pleasures of recent foodiedom was reading the legendary blog the Haphazard Gourmet Girls. High-placed L.A. illuminati took cues on matters gourmet from the “Hap Girls,” and to be featured on the blog, and subjected to the Girls’ searing intelligence and acerbic wit, was either an honor or a severe embarrassment, depending on whether or not they liked you.

Fortunately, they liked me. One of the great high points of my career to date has been the rollicking interview they posted with me about my books.

Sadly, Haphazard Gourmet Girls no longer exists—it’s since ceded ground to its reincarnation, the more focussed but masterful Obama Foodorama, where you’ll find the inside scoop on what’s happening in the White House in relation to all things edible, often before you’ll hear about it in the mainstream press.

But for posterity’s sake, I’ve reproduced the Hap Girls’ rather long interview with me in its entirety below.

[The dateline of my blog entry here is retroactively set to match the date of original publication.]


INTERVIEW WITH SUSHI SUPERMAN, TREVOR CORSON

Trevor Corson is a daring adventurer. He can discuss religion in three languages. He’s a sexpert who eats gonads for fun. He will make you question everything you’ve ever believed—at least about food.

Mr. Corson, who is possibly the world’s foremost expert on both lobsters and sushi, has a bio that reads like a document from another century: Boyhood summers on a small island, a first novel at age nine, educated at Princeton, a long stint in Asia living among Buddhist monks and searching for enlightenment (and getting plastered with said monks, and witnessing Tiananmen Square … ), then tossing it all to go to sea as a fisherman. And tossing it all yet again to become a writer. This was a terrific move, because Mr. Corson has written two of the best foodie books around, which have each won numerous awards: The Secret Life of Lobsters, and The Story of Sushi.

Both books are page-turners that skillfully meld Mr. Corson’s wild adventures and biting humor with an amazing understanding of science and the intricacies of foodie history. Mr. Corson reads like a hyper-contempo hipster hybrid of Emerson and Melville, with his seafaring tales and elegant musings on nature; throughout his work there’s a numinous insistence that our relationship to the creatures we hunt and eat informs our relationship to the wider world and to divinity.

In our Q&A, Mr. Corson chats about Why Sushi Is Like Dating, The Hurl Factor, Truth In Sushi, Toro As Garbagefish, Sustainability and Overfishing, Lobster Ethics, his own Secret Sushi Sauce, and whether or not looking at all those cold, wriggly little bits of fish for years now makes him prefer something big, flamin’ hot and hard…on his dinner plate.

Haphazard Gourmet Girls: Our blog is heavily into the whole idea of Slow Food, and “authentic” traditional cuisines, made “historically.” Sushi training in Japan is a years-long process. In the book, you don’t really editorialize on what you think of the rapid-fire training programs. Care to give an opinion? 

Trevor Corson: Before I wrote this book I was a sushi fascist. I’d eat sushi only in Japan. Not only that, I’d only visit high-end sushi bars, and I’d only go with a Japanese friend who knew the chef, and could vouch for the chef’s skill and training. Is that the best way to get the very best sushi? Yes! But the thing is, as I researched the history of sushi for the book, I realized that there’s nothing historical about that approach at all. In fact, if we’re going to talk authenticity and history, sushi was traditionally a low-brow fast food served on the street—it was essentially the McDonald’s drive-thru of old Tokyo. Dudes would wander around the city with boxes of seafood and rice slung over their backs, and drunk samurai on their way home from the bathhouses would stop for a quick—and rather messy—bite to eat. Today, the high-end style of sushi is “nigiri” sushi—those little packs of rice with a topping, which the chef squeezes together with his fingers. Well, that style originated only because those sushi dudes on the street got too lazy to make proper sushi before they headed off to work. I don’t know if they were hungover themselves or what, but they got into the bad habit of just squeezing the sushi together on the spot with their hands. They were supposed to be preparing it in big wooden presses beforehand, and slicing it into pieces like a cake, but people loved the new version. So what’s authentic? And originally, sushi didn’t even start out possessing the caché of an urban fast food. In a sense, yes, it was slow food—very slow. It was a sort of emergency ration that peasants on the verge of starvation would make themselves and bury in the ground up to a year in advance in case they ran out of fresh food—unpleasant to eat, but necessary. In the book I get the entire history of sushi down, and it’s just one surprising, unexpected turn after another.

Now, in regard to your question about authenticity as it relates to the training of a chef, I decided just to let the story of the chefs’ training in the book speak for itself, and let readers draw their own conclusions. Indeed, I’ve received the whole range of reactions. I have had purists attack me for disrespecting the sushi tradition by writing about young American kids in L.A. who, as you say, undergo a rapid-fire schooling that’s not the least bit traditional. I have had others tell me they were impressed with how grueling and intense the training was. But I will say this: I made a very deliberate decision not to focus the book on the sort of old-school Japanese chef who would ooze authenticity but who would, in my opinion, simply reinforce our silly stereotypes about Japan as a land full of Yoda-like Zen masters. Instead, the primary Japanese chef character in the book, Toshi, is a self-taught maverick who started out as a hippy artist selling bananas, but who became a stickler for Japanese sushi authenticity in his own way. He also happens to be one of the key historical characters who introduced sushi to Americans, which is why he made such a great story. At one point in the book, Toshi encourages one of his Japanese apprentices in L.A., who is nearly 40 years old, to start working behind the sushi bar after only a few months of training—back in Tokyo this would have been sacrilege. “If you were in Japan,” Toshi tells his apprentice, shaking his head, “your life would be over before you got the chance to stand behind the sushi bar.” 

Haphazard Gourmet Girls: You’ve eaten a ton of sushi. Tired of it? Worried that you have super powers from all the heavy metals? How about lobsters? Still eating them? Any opinions on the current FDA warning about tomalley?

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