The Sushi Concierge
Gourmet Intersections: Asian-Latino Food Crossings

By Trevor Corson

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If you’re in DC on July 24th, I’ll be speaking alongside White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, Pati Jinich of the TV show “Pati’s Mexican Table,” and food journalist and cookbook author Anupy Singla at a Smithsonian-sponsored panel discussion on the cross-cultural intersections of Asian and Latino foodways. Should be a fascinating and fun evening. More info.

How Tuna Should be Caught

By Trevor Corson

Below is a clip from a new documentary called Sushi: The Global Catch opening in New York City this weekend. Some of the most touching parts of the film for me were these scenes from a remote fishing village called Oma on the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island, where a white-haired curmudgeon named Hirofumi Hambata, chairman of the local fishermen’s co-op, states his profound concern about the global overfishing of bluefin tuna, and explains why Oma’s small-town bluefin are the most sought-after by sushi chefs. Having worked as a small-boat commercial fisherman in a remote village myself, I was heartened to hear one of Tokyo’s best chefs describe how Oma fishermen catch bluefin from a small boat with a single hook & line.

Not included in this clip, but in the film, is a moment when Hambata makes a point that particularly resonated with me, because it’s something I mention at every one of the historical sushi dinners I host: in sushi, there are so many other delicious fish to eat besides tuna that aren’t endangered. To hear a Japanese tuna fisherman who serves the highest end of the sushi market say this is profound.

The distributor of Sushi: The Global Catch has hired me to host a couple of post-screening Q&A sessions about what’s depicted in the film. More details here of when I’ll be on site, at Quad Cinema. Hope to see you there.

Sushi, USA

By Trevor Corson

Cool: the other day Anthony Bourdain retweeted some of my sushi etiquette tips. Inevitable: amidst many positive responses, I got some others suggesting that perhaps such attention to detail was a tad elitist. Irony: I totally sympathize.

Food snobbery is exactly what I was hoping to avoid when I decided to focus my book The Story of Sushi on a motley crew of American sushi apprentices in L.A., rather than penning a hagiography of, say, Masa. (Though in the book I do, of course, delve deeply into the Japanese sushi tradition.)

On the other hand, researching the book made it clear to me how much is wrong with our day-to-day sushi, especially in America. And when I say wrong, the first thing I’m worried about is our health. And then there’s the health of the ecosystems that provide our fish.

My sushi-eating tips, and the educational dinners I host, are partly intended to help people get a more delicious and authentic meal, yes. But they’re also intended to help us avoid crap sushi that could make us unhealthy—there’s a lot of crap sushi out there these days—as well as take more care in the consumption of the oceans’ fast-disappearing sea creatures. Most of us don’t realize, for example, that all that wasabi and soy sauce and all those spicy rolls are there for a specific purpose—to prevent us from tasting fish that’s subpar or past its prime.

Here I have to give a shout out to Lucky Peach, the new food magazine from David Chang and McSweeney’s. The current issue, titled “American Food,” contains a graphic spread by cartoonist Lauren Weinstein that features some of the juiciest scary facts I covered in The Story of Sushi  about the origins of your typical sushi fish and turns them into an info-graphic called “Sushi, USA” that is not to be missed. This is why I insist on working with a traditionally trained, old-school sushi chef who’s been at it for thirty years.

Below is a snippet of the cartoon spread—look for the magazine at your newsstand or bookstore.

Celebrating Authentic Asian Cuisine

By Trevor Corson

Jump to photo album.

We hosted a sold-out special edition historical sushi dinner this week as a sort of “amuse-bouche” to preview the 2012 LuckyRice Food Festival, featuring authentic culinary traditions from all over Asia.

At the dinner I gave a presentation on some of the most surprising twists and turns in sushi history—a few interesting pieces of trivia included the fire that destroyed Edo in the mid-1600s resulting in sushi suddenly becoming a popular street snack (can you guess why?), and the rounding up of prostitutes, pornographers, and sushi chefs by conservative politicians in the 1840s (bet you can’t guess why).

Meanwhile the Michelin-starred chefs at Jewel Bako crafted for our guests a gorgeous collection of old-style sushi that we’d designed to reflect traditional Japanese culinary values — values that are surprisingly different from what we assume is good and desirable in Japanese sushi today. I talked about that as well.

Also joining us to discuss pairing sushi with sake was Timothy Sullivan of UrbanSake, who led us through a tasting of three different varieties and showed us his amazingly cool pocket-pack of rices milled to different percentages for brewing different styles and qualities of sake.

Here are a few more snapshots from the evening, generously provided by Todd Leong of LuckyRice and Timothy Sullivan. 

Photo: Todd Leong of LuckyRice

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" Film Screening & Discussion with Eric Ripert and David Gelb

By Trevor Corson

Jump to photo album.

An amazing experience last night at the Japan Society, where Chef Eric Ripert and filmmaker David Gelb, director of the new documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” joined me for a screening and panel discussion, along with sushi chef Masato Shimizu of 15 East, who spoke on the panel and made sushi on the spot for the several hundred guests.

It was particularly apropos to eat Chef Shimizu’s sushi immediately after watching the film, because Shimizu studied in the same sushi-making lineage as the legendary Tokyo master Jiro Ono, subject of Gelb’s mouthwatering movie.

Here are some fun snapshots from the evening, courtesy of Japan Society photographer George Hirose.

Jiro Ono and his remarkable sushi-making techniques are also featured at a few points in my book The Story of Sushi.

What Is the Most Difficult Sushi to Eat?

By Trevor Corson

I was recently asked this question by a visitor to my site. Personally, I might have to go with the futomaki, which translates literally as “fat roll.”

Most of the oversized sushi rolls that we eat in America were invented right here in the States. Typically, traditional Japanese sushi is made small. But the futomaki is an exception. It’s usually overstuffed with a surprising variety of ingredients, including simmered vegetables and mushrooms, tamago (egg), and perhaps boiled shrimp. In Japan, futomaki don’t show up much at traditional sushi bars, but rather appear at more informal venues, such as picnics.

The problem is that when a futomaki is sliced into pieces, it becomes nearly impossible to eat, at least with any sense of decorum. The slices are usually too big to fit in your mouth all at once, but when you try to bite them in half, the fillings fall apart and tumble onto your plate, or worse, your lap.

It turns out that a better way to eat a futomaki is actually what you see here, demonstrated by this famished salaryman sneaking a quick lunch at the office. No slicing necessary.

Sushi Can Survive, and Thrive

By Trevor Corson

With the ongoing tragedy in Japan, people have been asking me if sushi is safe to eat, and indeed, whether the future of sushi as a cuisine might be in jeopardy. Let me first say that the situation in Japan is heartbreaking, and I have many close friends there who I’ve been in contact with and whose safety I’m concerned about. The question of sushi’s future seems peripheral to all this, and yet for those wondering from afar about risks to their own health, it’s a fair thing to ask.

While sushi began in Japan as a snack made of small seasonal fish and shellfish from local Japanese waters, now, for better or worse, it’s become a globalized, decentralized industry. Here in the United States that means a typical mid-range sushi restaurant is likely to be serving mass-produced ingredients sourced not necessarily from Japan at all, but from all over the planet.

For example, an average piece of tuna might have been deep-frozen on a factory ship on the high seas weeks or months ago and never come close to Japan on its journey to our plates. Salmon is purchased from aquaculture operators off Chile and Canada. The bulk of the freshwater eel referred to as unagi comes from industrial farms in China.

Much of the fish listed on sushi menus as hamachi—often called yellowtail in English but more accurately referred to as amberjack—originates from floating pens off southwestern Japan. Even these fish farms, however, are hundreds of miles away from the stricken nuclear reactors northeast of Tokyo.

Higher-end sushi bars are more likely to have incurred the expense of regularly sourcing seafood directly from local Japanese fisheries, and much of this seafood passes through the central Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. But should serious connoisseurs be worried?

A few days ago The New York Times interviewed Tsukiji’s general manager and reported that before the earthquake, only about a tenth of the seafood sold there came from the northeast. Now think of the scenes we’ve been seeing of boats and ships resting on the tops of buildings. The tsunami wiped out the entire region’s fishing and seafood distribution system. Fish from that part of Japan are no longer being caught, and won’t be anytime soon.

In the short term,  smart sushi chefs here will be ensuring that their seafood comes from other places, and will advertise the fact—indeed, they might not have much choice, as the FDA slows seafood shipments from Japan as a precaution. This might lead to some scarcity and perhaps slighly higher prices, but so far it doesn’t seem as if it will be terribly disruptive, even for higher-end establishments. Several chefs I know at top-quality sushi bars already prefer to serve a slice of fluke from, say, Long Island over similar fish from Japan anyway, because the fish is fresher.

Yet worries will linger, particularly if the nuclear crisis in Japan worsens. In the longer term, can sushi as a cuisine survive this?

Many of the artisanal skills associated with Japanese cuisine have already jumped the boundaries of Japan and taken root elsewhere. American farmers are growing high-quality sushi rice in California, and the exceptional wasabi served at many of my Sushi Concierge dinners comes from Oregon. A better alternative to Japanese farmed hamachi is being raised in Hawaii. And some of the finest Japanese miso in the world today is being produced not in Japan but in western Massachusetts.

The fact is, though, that sushi has already been facing an existential crisis for some time, well before the earthquake and its tragic aftermath. We’ve all been devouring so many of those industrially-harvested low-end fish—tuna, salmon, hamachi, and unagi—and high-end trophy fish—bluefin in particular—that sushi hasn’t been a sustainable cuisine.

And that’s not to mention the health risks inherent in all these types of seafood that we’ve already been living with. All of these fish accumulate various kinds of toxins which we then ingest, from methyl mercury to PCBs to old-fashioned chemical pollutants.

The irony is that none of these types of seafood is a traditional Japanese sushi fish. With or without Japan’s current disaster, if we want sushi to survive long-term we’ll need to return to a more traditional approach to eating it, which is what I’ve been advocating with my Sushi Concierge dinners all along. This means asking chefs to make us sushi concocted from a more healthful and wider variety of smaller, more seasonal, more naturally procured fish that are lower on the food chain, along with shellfish and vegetables that are more local in origin. These are more interesting to eat anyway.

Let’s hope for the radiation leaks in Japan to be contained as soon as possible. After that, a situation that forces both the makers and eaters of sushi to diversify and simplify might not be a bad thing, taking sushi back to its roots—perhaps not necessarily to the particular fish of affected waters off Japan but to the philosophy that inspired the cuisine in the first place.

A version of this post was first published on The Atlantic.

"One of the Great New York Nights"

By Trevor Corson

Just wrapped up an amazing guided dinner for six at the sushi bar, and the chef and I received a phenomenal compliment from a British gentleman who was part of the group. “In my 20-plus years here,” he said, “this has been one of the great New York nights.” 

Sushi Like Jazz

By Trevor Corson

Last night’s Sushi Concierge dinner in D.C. featured a cut-open nigiri of salt-cured king prawn, under which, between the prawn and the rice, the chef had tucked a dab of the prawn’s own tomalley, augmented with white miso. I love opening people’s eyes to the imagination and technique that a good sushi chef is capable of bringing to the cuisine—if we know how to ask for it. Sushi chefs are like jazz musicians, waiting to be heard.

(Photo courtesy of Gourmet Traveller.)

Skeptic’s Birthday

By Trevor Corson

When retired New York City businessman Jack Shaifer sat down at the sushi bar with me last night to celebrate his 70th birthday with his family, he was not impressed.

"I was skeptical," he later admitted. "What could this guy teach me about sushi that I didn’t already know?" Jack’s daughter-in-law, who’d arranged the dinner, was holding her breath.

Jack had been eating at fine sushi bars for decades, and he was already familiar with many of the etiquette tips that frequently come as news to sushi lovers. But I worked hard to win Jack over with my arsenal of insider sushi knowledge, and at the end of the meal he clapped me on the shoulder. “You passed the test!”

Phew. What Jack liked was that now he knew the whys behind his approach to eating sushi. And he discovered that with this additional knowledge, he’d now been able to appreciate higher levels of the chef’s skill and savor some of the best sushi he’d ever encountered.

This morning Jack’s daughter-in-law emailed me in thanks: “You were a true gem!” That certainly was a nice compliment to receive, but I couldn’t do my educational part of it without the exquisite culinary mastery of the chefs who collaborate so patiently with me and my clients.

One the treats Jack and his family enjoyed last night was the unusual delicacy of nigiri topped with a handful of tiny white shrimp from Japan’s Toyama Bay (pictured above; live shrimp at left). Just one of the many examples of real sushi that most chefs won’t prepare for you—partly because it’s painstaking work, and partly because it can take a degree of sophistication to appreciate, which for a chef can make it a risky item to serve. I consider it part of my job to help bridge that divide.

Help Save the Endangered Bluefin

By Trevor Corson

Discover the delights of an old-fashioned, traditional Japanese sushi menu that prizes the more authentic sushi fish—and skips the endangered tunas pushed by the globalized, industrial fishing and restaurant industries—by attending one of my Sushi Concierge dinners. Bluefin tuna and the risks faced by this majestic fish from overfishing were the subject of a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine.

The Times article quoted a co-owner of the global sushi chain Nobu named Ritchie Notar, who rationalized the chain’s ongoing exploitation of bluefin by saying, “We are dealing with thousands of years of cultural customs.” Actually, the Japanese along with the rest of us have only started going ga-ga for bluefin toro in the past few decades, and as the Times article points out, tuna sushi didn’t even exist until about 170 years ago. Moreover, as I discuss at my dinner lectures, even then tuna was a trash fish for the Japanese, considered unfit for high-class sushi until well into the twentieth century. (I’ve written more about this here.) Only recently has the globalization boom turned bluefin into a big moneymaker.

To provide some perspective on such claims by the Nobu chain, the author of the Times article, Paul Greenberg, next describes one of my Sushi Concierge dinners in New York:

Trevor Corson is an East Asia scholar turned popular nonfiction writer and author of the 2007 book The Story of Sushi, and for select groups he will act as a “sushi concierge,” hosting dinners often at the Jewel Bako Japanese restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, one of which I attended this past winter. A Corson-guided meal aims to reveal the historical truth of tuna and to represent the very different fish that were the staples of sushi in earlier times. Plate by plate I watched as Corson walked a group of Manhattan professionals through a traditional Edo-period meal of snappers, jacks and other white-fleshed, smaller fish that most definitely did not include “red” tuna.

I’ve taken the Nobu chain to task about this before; I feel sad that Nobu Matsuhisa, perhaps the most successful Japanese sushi chef in the world, seems to have forgotten some of his own traditions.

One sushi dinner at a time, I’m trying to help bring back the forgotten culinary values of this delightful cuisine, and in the process help provide some relief for the world’s most majestic fish. Do join me.

Photo by Kenji Aoki for the New York Times.

Behind the Scenes at Jewel Bako

By Trevor Corson

I recently spent a few hours behind the scenes with the sushi chefs at the Michelin-starred Jewel Bako restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, where I host my Sushi Concierge dinner lectures, watching them prepare during a busy morning and afternoon. Here, Chef Yuzo trims fillets of a variety of small, traditional sushi fish. If you’re curious what else goes on behind the scenes in a sushi restaurant, I’ve posted more photos.

One acquaintance of mine who is a sushi chef commented, after clicking through these photos, “How satisfying. I don’t smoke, but I could use a cigarette right about now.”

Last Supper

By Trevor Corson

Undergoing an organ transplant can change everything; for one young man I met last year, the consequences of his upcoming lung transplant would include a restriction against eating raw fish for the rest of his life. With that in mind, his friends organized a Sushi Concierge dinner for him last fall, and I had the singular honor of presiding over his “last supper” of sushi, forever.

I just learned that last week he underwent the surgery for his double lung replacement. A friend of his told me that a few days before the operation, they were reminiscing about that great final meal of sushi.

The operation looks to have been a success. What wonderful news, and a most welcome reminder that, as easy as it is to become obsessed with pleasures like sushi, there is so much more to life.

"Gastro Chic" Reviews New York Dinner Event

By Trevor Corson

The blogger Gastro Chic showed up to attend one of my recent "Sushi Concierge" dinner lectures and has just posted a lovely, detailed review of the evening. She writes:

Before you sharpen those chopsticks (a sushi bar no-no, by the way), settle down and have a sushi meal as it would have been eaten by a Japanese connoisseur 70 or 80 years ago. What’s not on the throwback menu may surprise you: no tuna, no hamachi, no yellowtail and no unagi. But what about toro, supposedly the king of the sushi bar? Nope. Corson explained that despite the hype, toro is actually a very recent addition to the sushi menu …

Read the whole review.

Photo by Gastro Chic.

Why I Love Being a Sushi Concierge

By Trevor Corson

Feeling happy this morning: Last night I hosted a private dinner at Jewel Bako for a gentleman named Eric and his wife Michelle, to celebrate her birthday. They were both pretty experienced sushi eaters, but Michelle in particular had been playing it safe over the years.

To Eric’s great delight, Michelle ended up trying things Eric had been encouraging her to try for a long time: her first raw shrimp, her first raw scallop, her first piece of raw octopus, and her first saltwater eel. And, for two people who didn’t like mackerel, they both ended up complimenting the chef on a special old-fashioned mackerel preparation.

At the end of the meal, Michelle said that with someone there to talk over the menu in Japanese with the chef, explain everything as it was served, and build her trust in the chef and the ingredients, she’d felt more confident getting out of her comfort zone. Success!

This is why I love being a Sushi Concierge, it’s gratifying. Even Eric, the more experienced one, commented that he was taking away a list of new things he’d learned about the cuisine and eating at the sushi bar.

The only trouble, as Eric complained to me at the end, was that “now it’s going to be awfully hard to go back to eating our regular sushi.”