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The Zen of Fish - Book Review

Out from behind the sushi bar I am an obsessive and avid reader. My dad will grudgingly, though with a hint of pride, tell you about moving my prized book collection (some eight or nine dozen titles) to and from Vancouver during my university years.

So, I thought it might be an appropriate addition to the blog if I share reviews of my favorite cuisine inclined books.

The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson is particularly precious, as it was given to me by the first person who ever hired me as a chef.

Corson weaves the story of a young woman named Kate, during her time at the California Sushi Academy with the often surprising history of sushi, it's customs and creatures. It is both a coming of age story, history and biology lesson, shining light on a cuisine that boomed in a way few others before it have.

I found a great comradery with Kate as I read, and some of our personal similarities are almost eerie. Kate was never an adventurous eater growing up, pursued visual design, and prided herself on athleticism - competing in soccer until a high school injury prevented her from continuing, leading to spiraling depression and ill-health. It was not until the last chapter of the book I found out we even share the same birthday, November 16.

The book is laid out week-by-week, as Kate progresses through her program at the California Sushi Academy. Interspersed between class descriptions of her first tentative interactions with sushi knives (the decedent of the samurai sword), breaking down blocks of tuna nearly her size, and fielding harsh though constructive criticism from her teachers, Corson reveals secrets of the "hidden art of cooking without cooking."

While the first Japanese restaurant opened in the United States in 1855, sushi did not catch on until the 1970s. The process leading up to it's present worldwide fame, Corson traces with easily absorbing fact and humor. From the importance of rice, creation of nori sheets, and biological detailing of the marine critters who end up between our chopsticks, this book will give any novice the confidence to sit down at a sushi bar and order omakase - chef's choice.

It may even provide those who consider themselves connoisseurs with a surprising tidbit or two.

Another important aspect of this book, and one I found quite empowering, was its focus on breaking down the traditional idea that women can't be sushi chefs. There are a myriad of excuses Japanese men use to justify this: our hands are too warm, our perfume will disrupt the taste, we don't have fast enough reflexes, and even that our menstruation affects our chemical balance and will ruin the fish.

The woman above is Fie Kruse, a real-world Danish born sushi chef mentioned in the book.

Of course all this is nonsense, but nonetheless still makes it hard for women to truly be respected in the sushi world. Women like my master, Peggi Ince-Whiting, who have been involved with sushi nearly since it's arrival in the US are far and few between. If you read my previous post Kyoto - Not the one in Japan, you will have an idea of how remarkable her story truly is. In time I hope to write a follow up post delving into the controversy and history of women in sushi, it's pioneers and future generations.

I digress.

Corson has written what I would consider an essential handbook for anyone who has any inkling of interest in sushi, whether eating or making. His characters are varied and intriguing, the science and history he presents pleasantly readable without overwhelming. While I was initially skeptical about a man writing a book about a woman's experience in a traditionally patriarchal world, he did so with respect and understanding.

I hope this book falls into the hands of many other young woman like myself, and inspires them to - if not step behind a sushi bar - grab the reigns in any profession that may be deemed "a man's world."