I know very close to nothing about sushi. I used to go with some regularity to a sushi restaurant in town (“Jasmine”) and my grocery store also started selling it. I’m not sure which exposure came first. More recently, I’ve gone a few times to a very authentic Japanese restaurant in town (“Sakura”). The little sushi I’ve been brave enough to try, I’ve liked. But I’m still very wary. I need to go with someone who’s sophisticated about it and can give me advice.
So, you may wonder, why am I posting about a topic I admittedly know almost nothing about? Look again. The title of the post is not “Sushi”, it’s “Sushi Fish”.
I recently read a book entitled Eels. Subtitled: An exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the world’s most mysterious fish. You always wonder about an editor who lets an author get away with a subtitle that long. I followed that with Tuna. Subtitled: A Love Story. Tuna was written by Richard Ellis, who also wrote On Thin Ice, the book I read about polar bears.
Of the two, Eels is by far the better book. Tuna tends to be dry and repetitive. Plus it employs a technique I despise, that of putting footnotes at the bottom of the page. In a book, those should be in a section at the end for references. The best thing Tuna has going for it is its subtitle. It’s intentionally ironic. We are loving tuna to extinction, particularly the bluefin.
Nevertheless, both books are chock-full of facts about the creatures involved. I found eels more fascinating, maybe because I knew least about them to begin with–although before reading the book about tuna, I wouldn’t have been able to identify one in a police line-up.
Here’s the most fascinating fact about eels: they are catadromous, meaning they are spawned in the ocean and return to fresh water to live out their lives until they are ready to spawn themselves; then they make their way back to the ocean–assuming they can, assuming we haven’t built hydroelectric dams barring their path in the twenty or so years it took them to mature. Catadromous is opposed to anadromous, like salmon, who live their lives in the opposite direction.
North American and European eels are thought to spawn in the Sargasso Sea–but that has never been proven. Eels are thought to die after spawning, like salmon, but that has never been proved either. Ergo, they remain the world’s most mysterious fish–at least until 2010 when this book was published. Sometimes science moves very fast, and sometimes not so much. I venture to say there is more money worldwide going into finding the search for the spawning grounds of eels , and of trying to find ways to successfully farm both them and tuna, than there is in all of cancer research. Which makes a certain kind of sense.
Both books discuss, at length, the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, It’s the largest in the world. Eels are sold there mostly frozen, but eel is considered best when it’s freshest. There are videos you can find of how to clean fresh eels, but I’m sparing you a link. Essentially it’s done while the eel is still alive, with it’s head spiked to a table. The chefs are doing it with bare hands, which is kind of interesting, since I learned that eel blood contains a neurotoxin. I was somewhat comforted to learn that for that reason and others, all eel in sushi is cooked.
One of the interesting side effects of reading these two books, along with the last novel I read (Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice ), is that the more I learn about the Japanese, the less I like them. It seems wrong to judge an entire country based on WWII, and I’m not. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see that we misjudge them. We forget that their only reason for surrendering in WWII was being forced into abject submission. We did not change their world view, so to speak. They’ve merely taken it underground.
When it comes to fishing, for example, the Japanese have cheerfully agreed to any limits or quotas the various (toothless) regulatory agencies may set–because they have no intention of ever following any of them anyway. They have lied and stolen their way through it all. You have only to look at the whaling “ban” and Japan’s response to it. They’re permitted to take a certain number for “research”. And those “research” whales end up in Tsukiji. Because it’s all about what Japan wants or needs. It’s a mindset that has not changed by defeat in WWII.
Sushi is a Japanese phenomenon, and one, I was surprised to learn, of fairly recent origin. We can hope they tire of it before fishing some species to extinction, but I wouldn’t count on it.