Eric C. Rath’s “Oishii: The History of Sushi” very much lives up to its title.
Rath teaches a “The History of Sushi” course at the University of Kansas, so reading this book is somewhat of a crash course in the topic — if only you got a university credit for reading it. In his comprehensive overview of one of Japan’s most iconic foods, the writer unravels the historical significance of the dish, plumbing the depths of sushi’s ancient origins, its medieval evolutions, how it defined high-end dining, its modern popularity and its ongoing reinvention by chefs today. He even offers “corrections where needed” to other English-language works on the topic. As chef Ken Hom endorses on its front cover, “Oishii” could well be “the most definitive book” on sushi in English.
Reflecting his background as a historian specializing in Japan’s traditional dietary cultures, the manner in which Rath goes about exploring the origins of sushi leans toward the academic. His deep dive into all aspects of the cuisine’s history — what ingredients were originally used, who popularized nigirizushi (hand-pressed sushi) in Tokyo, the etymology of words, who opened the first sushi restaurant in the United States — is exhaustive, but not exhausting.
Those hoping for an attractive tome to place on a coffee table, with neat snippets of text and gleaming images that seduce the eyes and make the mouth water, may be disappointed. While far from spartan academia — sporting woodblock prints and photos throughout — “Oishii” is encyclopedic, rife with dates, figures and citations.
If you’re ready to dig into the details of sushi, however, it is a fount of knowledge — and not only about sushi (or even food for that matter). Rath references ancient Chinese dictionaries, and cites 1985 coming-of-age movie “The Breakfast Club” and sushi-related entries from the Urban Dictionary website. Often, sushi is looked at the way food is best viewed: through the lens of culture. And — happily, for curious individuals — Rath’s is a prismatic, multifaceted lens.
Apart from the actual history, the book also examines various related issues: human trafficking involved in Thai fisheries; mercury poisoning; the general health concerns of eating raw fish; and overfishing.
One of the most interesting aspects of “Oishii” is Rath’s source materials. One moment you’re whisked through the pages of Seizaburo Koizumi’s “How to Make Sushi at Home” (1910), the next it’s “Taisho Handbook for Business,” released by textbook publisher Tokyo Shoseki in 1914. Not only do these fascinating references assert the writer’s scholarly credentials, but they may inspire readers to seek out the books and embark on tangential research of their own. “Oishii” is useful in the kitchen, too, thanks to its two-dozen practical, try-it-yourself recipes.
Occupying a modest middle ground between cookbook and essay collection, Rath’s writing is light, unhampered by the weight of academia. He interjects personal asides, recalling tastes and experiences that add sparkle to his chronology of sushi. Ultimately, however, it’s the lesser-known sushi knowledge that singles out “Oishii” as a must-own for hungry minds and sushi fanatics alike.
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