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About the Book

Everything you never knew about sushi—its surprising origins, the colorful lives of its chefs, the bizarre behavior of the creatures that compose it—is revealed in this entertaining documentary account by the author of the highly acclaimed The Secret Life of Lobsters.

When a twenty-year-old woman arrives at America’s first sushi-chef training academy in Los Angeles, she is unprepared for the challenges ahead: knives like swords, instructors like samurai, prejudice against female chefs, demanding Hollywood customers—and that’s just the first two weeks.

In this richly reported story, journalist Trevor Corson shadows several American sushi novices and a master Japanese chef, taking the reader behind the scenes as the students strive to master the elusive art of cooking without cooking. With the same eye for drama and humor that Corson brings to the exploits of the chefs, he delves into the biology and natural history of the creatures of the sea.
He illuminates sushi’s beginnings as an Indo-Chinese meal akin to cheese, describes its reinvention in bustling 19th-century Tokyo as a cheap fast food, and tells the story of the pioneers who brought it to America. He shows this unlikely meal now exploding into the American heartland just as the long-term future of sushi may be unraveling.

The Story of Sushi is a compelling tale of human determination as well as a delectable smorgasbord of surprising food science, intrepid reporting, and provocative cultural history.

The Story of Sushi is published by HarperCollins Publishers (previously titled The Zen of Fish).

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In The Story of Sushi Trevor Corson takes readers on a fascinating, all-inclusive tour inside the world of a culinary delight that many gleefully devour but few have given much consideration: sushi. Since its arrival in the United States via L.A.’s Little Tokyo in the 1960s, sushi has gone from being an exotic and adventurous novelty of foreign cuisine to being a ubiquitous offering in restaurants, supermarkets, and even sports arenas around the country. But what Americans know as sushi bears only a passing resemblance to its original Japanese incarnation. To tell the real story of sushi, Corson—who last conducted similar gastronomic fieldwork in his critically acclaimed The Secret Life of Lobsters
delves into both its humble beginnings in inland Southeast Asia and its present popularity around the world, with illuminating side trips into the cultivation, harvesting, and preparation of the some thirty plants and animals that go into its creation.

“The Japanese tradition of eating fresh raw fish has nothing to do with sushi,” Corson writes. “Sushi began as a way of preserving old fish, and street vendors turned it into a crude snack food.” The word itself simply refers to its essential ingredient—rice seasoned with vinegar. The modern version of the sushi bar did not evolve until after World War II, when health authorities of the American occupying forces made Tokyo street vendors move their operations indoors. Other surprises: soy sauce, a staple of any American sushi bar, is barely used in the true Japanese version, and what passes for wasabi in this country is really just a manufactured imitation of the real thing.
Many types of fish that are among the favorite ingredients of sushi in the U.S. were traditionally considered inferior, even inedible in Japan. Most sushi “rolls” derive from a homegrown California invention.

To frame this cultural history of sushi, Corson shadows a young woman sushi apprentice named Kate Murray and her classmates during the twelve weeks of training at the California Sushi Academy in suburban Los Angeles. Whereas traditionally sushi chefs have undergone an apprenticeship of many years under the knowing eye of a master, the CSA is the brainchild of Toshi Sugiura, a self-taught chef and restaurateur who acquired star status at two celebrity beach hangouts during the 80s and 90s. The classes, which are held during the daytime off-hours in Toshi’s restaurant, are taught by Zoran Lekic, an Australian-born former body builder of Yugoslav descent. One of the chefs is a former Danish actress who has given up a modeling career for sushi; another is a former Japanese pop idol still occasionally recognized from his days with a mega-selling boy band.

In this highly unlikely setting, Kate and the other students have three months to transform themselves into reputable sushi chefs. It proves a grueling process, involving the proper handling and preparation of an array of fish and other ingredients with speed and aesthetics.
A sushi chef, Kate learns, has to be an entertainer as well as a cook. And an artist, too—“In a sense, making sushi and sashimi has much in common with creating a Zen garden,” Corson observes. Kate also faces an additional obstacle, trying to succeed in a profession that has long been considered the exclusive domain of men.

Fluent in Japanese, Corson had unprecedented access for a Western journalist into the world of sushi in both Japan and the United States. As he chronicles Kate’s whirlwind apprenticeship, he takes readers behind the scenes of sushi—to a Japanese fish market the size of forty football fields, to California rice fields and Oregon wasabi farms, into the biology of the sea creatures whose final destiny is to be transformed into nigiri, or hand-squeezed pieces of sushi. As he did so effectively in The Secret Life of Lobsters, Corson combines detailed science and top-notch journalistic investigation with a compelling, character-driven narrative, making The Story of Sushi a singular and surprising look at the little-known culture of a much-loved Japanese—and now American—phenomenon.

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“Filled with cultural history, science, gastronomical observations, Bourdain-like cooking tales and food facts, The Story of Sushi is ridiculously entertaining and interesting.”

—Powells Books

The Story of Sushi  is a pleasure to read, entertaining and informative, with compelling characters and fascinating history, all told in an easy and natural voice. Excellent food journalism.”

—Michael Ruhlman

Author of The Soul of a Chef and co-author of The French Laundry Cookbook

A fascinating, often galloping read. ... Just like in a thriller, Trevor is telling a good story. ... But he also weaves together the history of sushi, rice, fish, nori and more, along with the story of people who popularized sushi in Japan and the U.S.”

—The SuperChef Blog

Bill Buford’s Heat is good, but not as good as this book. A tremendous read.”

—Keith Law, ESPN

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