LAWRENCE – There are 34,000 species of fish. And they all have their own flavor.
“People like to discover the fact that it is not always necessary to bake or fry a fish. All types of fish have different tastes, and sushi lets you experience them, ”said Eric Rath, professor of history at the University of Kansas.
His new book, titled “Oishii: The History of Sushi” (Reaktion Books / University of Chicago Press), offers the first comprehensive sushi column written in English. It traces the development of sushi from the Far East to the rest of the world, and from modest street food to high-end cuisine.
“Even though this dish has been popular since the 1980s, no one has really looked at its history in depth,” he said.
“It also features all kinds of different types of sushi – some that people are familiar with but also those that are unfamiliar with centuries past. The most interesting of them are the fermented types of sushi. You can make fermented sushi with almost any type of fish, and there are also recipes that use vegetables.
Rath, who teaches a course on the history of sushi at KU, has written extensively on Japanese cuisine and culture, including the books “Cuisines of Japan: Food, Place and Identity,” “Food and Fantasy in Japan. of the beginning of the modern era ”and“ Japanese cuisine, Past and Present ”(with Stéphanie Assmann).
“In its most basic form, whether it’s a little sushi rice with a slice of fish on it, it’s one of the most minimalist dishes ever created. Of course, there’s a lot more to do – and it’s gotten quite complicated and diverse – but it’s still very light and geometric anyway, ”he said.
The experience of writing the book (which features cover illustrations by KU Professor Emeritus Roger Shimomura) led Rath to “rethink the history of Japanese cuisine,” in terms of uncovering the real story behind many dishes and techniques popularized in the industry.
“As a food historian, I always wonder what things were like in the past,” Rath said.
“When you are confronted with the history of sushi, people often say, ‘This is the oldest type of sushi that still exists. It was done 1,000 years ago. I am often very skeptical about such statements. And when you study them a bit, you realize that’s not the case – maybe it was something similar to what was done back then. Trying to historicize taste is a real challenge.
In the United States, sushi first appeared in the 1960s in cities with large Japanese populations like Los Angeles and New York. But as Japan’s economic strength grew, more and more Americans became interested in the country’s culture.
“You started noticing sushi all over the 1980s, which is also the height of Japanese economic power,” Rath said. “There was the TV series ‘Shogun’; John Belushi, who is a true sushi lover, as the samurai chef in a number of “Saturday Night Live” skits; a song from The Tubes called “Sushi Girl”; and this movie “Repo Man” with its famous phrase: “Let’s go get sushi and don’t pay”.
Rath’s own introduction to the dish was due to “The Breakfast Club”. This 1985 teenage comedy features a scene where Molly Ringwald’s BCBG character brings a bento box to her weekend detention.
He said, “I was in high school when this movie came out, and that iconic sushi scene stuck with me when one of the other characters said, ‘You won’t accept a guy’s language in your. mouth, and you gonna eat that? ‘ I remember thinking, ‘Oh, we have to try this!’ “
So he persuaded a friend to accompany him to a local sushi restaurant. Unfortunately, when the elegant plate of food arrived at their table, the couple had no idea how to eat it until a waiter politely explained the procedure.
Rath said what passes for sushi in the United States is often quite different from what is found internationally.
“In America, the most representative example of sushi is California roll. This concoction, where the rice is on the outside with imitation crab, avocado, and mayonnaise on the inside, is sort of the star kid and drug carrier of American sushi. People who taste this might say, “I want to try more authentic sushi,” he said.
“While in Japan, the most iconic food is fatty tuna – just a slice of fish on sushi rice.”
While “Oishii” (which translates to “delicious”) dives into the past, the book also keeps its eye on the future.
“One of the amazing things about sushi is that it is always undergoing change,” said Rath.
“You can’t point to a point in history when it was static and not undergoing some kind of evolution. This is what is fascinating. We now have sushi burritos, sushi donuts, sushi bagels, sushi pizza. There are all kinds of possibilities for sushi.
Top photo: A large roll of sushi called futomakizushi served in Katori town, Chiba, Japan. Photo of Eric Rath.