Issue Date: November 2, 2009
Learning About Sushi
The beautiful simplicity of a sushi meal—at its essence merely fresh fish and rice accessorized by a circumspect amount of seaweed, sesame seeds, or vegetables—might tempt one to think that a book on the topic might not be particularly meaty or long. But Ole G. Mouritsen's 330-page tome, "Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body & the Soul," is anything but lightweight. The comprehensive book and accompanying website (http://sushibook.net) cover everything that could possibly relate to the science, culture, or culinary art of sushi, and go even a bit further.
To set the stage for the science of sushi—such as the molecules that make the nugget found between your chopsticks so decadent or healthy, as well as why some fish flesh is red and some white—Mouritsen introduces the reader to major Japanese cultural traditions and lifestyles. One learns about the raison d'Être of haiku poems, Japanese kitchen tools, and the "Japanese aesthetical approach to finding beauty and meaning in nature," which is called wabi-sabi. The book also takes on the history of sushi, which dates back to the 4th century; modern-day sushi bar etiquette and tradition; as well as plain and simple undergraduate biochemistry—what proteins, lipids, and amino acids are, and how they relate to sushi.
In fact, it is entirely impossible to categorize this all-encompassing book. One might be tempted to call it a sushi textbook, given its comprehensive and thorough descriptions of sushi and the cornucopia of remotely related topics. For example, Mouritsen goes as far as to explain Raku pottery, in which Japanese food can be served, and Ikebana flower arrangement, which inspires the placement of sushi pieces on a serving plate.
Sometimes it reads like a cookbook, when Mouritsen describes ways to prepare sushi rolls, pickled vegetables, and tea or to cook Japanese omelets and shiitake mushrooms. Sometimes the book reads like a travel blog, taking the reader along with Mouritsen on a crack-of-dawn trek to the fish market in Tokyo. The reader finds out that some 2,000 metric tons of marine products are sold at Tokyo's Tsukiji's market daily, at a value of some $20 million per day, with Mouritsen giving the reader a tangible feel for the frenetic atmosphere of the place. The book could also be cast as a culinary guide, given the comprehensive selection of pictures and descriptions of common and exotic sushi-related items found at Japanese restaurants. The reader is also guided in the do's and don'ts of chopstick manners: Remember, no spearing food with a chopstick nor sucking on them, no matter how tasty any residues may be!
The book is also a visual masterpiece. There are beautiful close-ups of artisanal sushi, and the marine animals they come from. Ancient Japanese silk paintings and block prints also grace the pages of this book, giving the substantive text some important breathing room.
But what about the science of sushi? Although the book doesn't read like most of Mouritsen's publications—he's a professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark, in Odense—there's enough science inside to sate many left-brained appetites.
For example, the reader finds out that much of a fish's flavor comes from its fatty tissues, which also provide healthy doses of omega-3 fatty acids. Many of the more pleasant flavors in fish come from amino acids such as glycine and glutamic acid, the latter of which is found in fish as monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Nasty old fish smell comes from trimethyl amine, made by microbes snacking on the fish, while the characteristic fresh, or so-called sea breeze, flavor of saltwater fish and seaweed comes from bromophenols. And any sweetness found in seaweed comes from mannitol, which is "named after its resemblance to the taste of the Biblical manna," Mouritsen explains.
Next to images of succulent pieces of sashimi—the pieces of raw fish eaten without any rice accoutrements—Mouritsen explains that many fish with a red color are tinted in this way because of their lifestyle. Red-fleshed fish such as tuna must swim continuously but they don't need to make any sudden movements. This means they can rely on using oxygen and glucose to make their muscles' energy. Myoglobin, which delivers oxygen to the muscles, also provides the red color by means of an iron atom that grips the oxygen.
On the other hand, white fish possess neither myoglobin nor its red tint. This is because white fish do not have time to rely on oxygen supplies (and consequently myoglobin). These fish must typically sprint from predators or engage in rapid and demanding movements such as slapping fins or tails. The faster energy supply used by white fish comes by means of glycogen instead of glucose. Salmon is an exception. It's an example of a fast fish, which ought to be white because it has no myoglobin, but is instead colored an orangey-red due to a pigment called astaxanthin, which it accumulates from the plankton it eats.
These are just morsels of the science the reader consumes in this digest. The book is clearly Mouritsen's labor of love—he's been working on it since 1996—in addition to being an excellent reference for anybody with the remotest inquiry about sushi or any related topics.
However, the book could have been better with a more diligent editor. The reader is reminded too many times of certain facts—such as that omega-3 fatty acids are important for health or that the white powder sometimes accumulating on nori, a seaweed used in sushi rolls, is just MSG, and should not be a matter of concern. These details are fascinating on the first or second mention but not subsequently.
In some parts of the book, the personal advice extends beyond the helpful to the gently self-indulgent. For example, it is helpful when Mouritsen provides tips for what to do if nori gets soggy. It is not helpful when the author mentions that rice prepared in the rice cooker he owns is just right for sushi making if one lets it stand on the "keep warm" setting for a few minutes. It's here that one begins to feel like such information would be better placed on a personal blog or Twitter feed.
As much as Mouritsen's comprehensive attitude to detailing anything remotely related to sushi makes the book a good reference, some sections really veer too much off the sushi path and should have been cut. For example, Mouritsen devotes a chapter to vindicating cholesterol, "a molecule with a bad reputation," he says. There is not much connection to sushi in this chapter, nor to Japanese culture; instead he describes the evolution of sterol molecules—fascinating to some but rather off-topic for this audience. The cholesterol tangent is close to the book's beginning, right after a heavy dose of essential biochemistry needed to follow the rest of the book. Readers traversing the book cover-to-cover may begin to wonder when, exactly, they get to sink their teeth into sushi.
This is a book that is optimally read as sushi is best consumed—in selectively chosen, bite-sized morsels. Most chapters are short and contain a complete story or message. One can go back for seconds by means of a respectable index, and a glossary of technical and Japanese terms at the end of the book acts as a good reference. Aside from the lovely visuals, the pages are graced with short anecdotes of a scientific, cultural, or mythological nature, which spice up the narrative.
In an epilogue, Mouritsen tells the reader that he "did not tell you everything" about sushi and that there is much more to explore—a comment that made me laugh out loud in delight and amusement, because after finishing the book, I really can't imagine what sushi stones Mouritsen could have left unturned. But if he does turn over a few more, I do look forward to reading his next volume.
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