Trevor Corson on the Myths of Sushi

How does our fish compare to what's served in Japan? Which health scares are worth paying attention to? Author Trevor Corson delves into the mysterious world of sushi.

Trevor Corson’s journey into the world of sushi, conveyed in his new book, began more than two decades ago at DC’s Sidwell Friends School. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

You could say that Trevor Corson’s book The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket began more than 20 years ago in the Asian-studies office at DC’s Sidwell Friends School. That’s when the 16-year-old Corson ate his first sushi. The Arlington native was scheduled to travel to Japan for a summer-study program, and his teacher “realized that once we got to Japan we would probably be served sushi and decided we’d better have tried it before we left to avoid any international incidents.” Corson found the raw fish “repulsive and fascinating.”

But his fascination grew. He went on to live in Japan for three years in his mid-twenties—for a time in Buddhist temples—and became fluent in the language.

The Zen of Fish conveys his fascination with Japanese culture—especially with the mysterious world of sushi. It’s a breezy but thoughtful read, full of insight and history.

Explode some of the myths about sushi.

The best sushi fish are not the freshest fish. Fish that are too fresh have little flavor. Fish flesh needs time to age as the muscle proteins break down into the components that produce tastiness. For most of sushi’s existence, in the age before refrigeration, the chef’s skill lay not in acquiring the freshest fish but in the techniques he used to preserve the fish long enough for flavor to develop without the fish going bad. This could involve parboiling the fish or, more often, pickling it lightly with salt and vinegar—early sushi shops were called “pickling places.”

Even with refrigeration, different types of fish require different treatment. Properly prepared mackerel can reach peak tastiness in about 24 hours, while big tuna can take four or five days. However, as flavor develops, texture degrades. As a result, it’s impossible to have perfect sushi. The sushi chefs are really practicing the art of compromise.

How close is sushi in America to sushi in Japan?

The typical sushi fish we know in America aren’t the traditional sushi fish. Tuna, yellowtail, salmon—these were never considered suitable for sushi in Japan. The fish most favored for sushi were smaller, leaner, lighter fish, like sea bream and flounder, which were prized for the subtlety of their flavors and the resilient, almost crunchy texture of their flesh.

The most ubiquitous traditional sushi fish was mackerel, prized for the salty intensity of its savory umami taste. Only after World War II, when the Western diet influenced Japanese eating habits, did darker, fattier fish become popular. Our modern-day love affair with cuts of fish that melt in the mouth, like toro and farmed yellowtail, would have been unrecognizable to sushi aficionados a century ago. A good sushi chef can help introduce you to a wider range of more traditional fish; you may be surprised at the pleasures you discover.

What about the health scares concerning tuna and other fishes?

Most raw fish do carry the risk of parasites, but the risk varies widely from fish to fish, and sushi chefs do their best to be vigilant. Salmon is still seldom eaten raw in Japan because it spends time in fresh water and is thus highly susceptible to worms. All the salmon in the United States has been frozen at temperatures sufficient to kill parasites.

Tuna carries a relatively low risk of parasites, mackerel a higher one—but sushi chefs still salt and vinegar all their mackerel for this reason, whereas they may be more cavalier with tuna. Believe it or not, an effective hedge against parasitic poisoning is simply to chew all your food very thoroughly.

This article appeared in the September 2007 issue of the magazine. 

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.