Book Review: Oishii: The History of Sushi

Oishii: The History of Sushi by Eric C. Rath is a surprisingly slim volume given the long history and global popularity of this dish. However, these pages are packed with information, photos, and recipes that leave even those with a passing interest (such as myself, I confess) informed and fascinated. A historian specializing in pre-modern Japan and traditional Japanese food culture, Rath offers a microhistory (think Salt: A World History or Rice: A Savor the South Cookbook) grounded in academia but conversational in tone. Readers will find themselves torn between attempting to try some of the 22 recipes included and continuing to read.

Rath begins with an explanation of sushi’s origins in China as a fermented food that took upwards of two to three years to make. It arrived in Japan along with Buddhism in the 8th century. In this early version, rice served as the medium in which fish or other animal proteins fermented. The focus for these early sushi chefs was on preserving the meat and all of its nutrients for the long and often famine-filled haul. The resulting food had a distinctly sour or ‘sui’ taste, which researchers theorize is part of the origin for the word ‘sushi’.

Sushi’s gradual evolution to a popular street food in Edo (Tokyo’s former name) and its changing recipe and shape are also linked to other forces at play at the time. For example, when fishing in Edo Bay was encouraged by the shogunate, seafood edged out the previously popular freshwater fish, such as carp, that had been the norm. The printing revolution that occurred in Japan in the 17th century fueled a rise in literacy rates and access to information. Cookbooks began including recipes for sushi and magazines offered articles about the best places to eat it. As big cities encountered the threat of bombing in World War II, sushi chefs headed to rural areas and took their Edo-style sushi with them, effectively spreading this single style around the country.

The final chapters bring readers up to our modern moment and beyond to see where sushi might go. Rath is frank about the pitfalls of pollution, overfishing, and human trafficking that are part and parcel of getting that thin slice of fish atop the rice on the plate. He also speculates on possible futures for sushi, including renewed interest in the fermented variety as an ingredient in modern dishes, and as a way to help eradicate invasive fish species such as bluegills in Japan and Asian carp in the US.

As Rath weaves together the elements of sushi’s history and possible future, he illustrates that the food we eat reflects more than just seasons or trends. From ancient to medieval to modern, the history of this deceptively simple dish illustrates the complex weave of politics, economics, environment, religion, and culture that surrounds food as it makes its way to plate, glass, or bowl.

Oishii: The History of Sushi

By Eric C. Rath

2021

Reaktion Books

223 pages

Review: Women of a Certain Age

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The essays collected in Women of a Certain Age (Fremantle Press, March, 2018) edited by Jodie Moffat, Marie Scoda and Susan Laura Sullivan, represent a welcome addition to the canon of work about this time in female life. The 15 essays, written by women of varying careers and backgrounds and all Australian, aim to shed light on the lives of women over forty and “the things they may or may not have done to arrest the assumptions and presumptions that age deposits on us, like so much dust.” The collection serves as a series of tiny windows into the lives of women ranging in age from their forties to their seventies. The views are unforgettable.

The collected essays shed light on work in all its forms, immigration to and within Australia as well as motherhood, art, and activism.  The most powerful and well-crafted, though, tell their tales from the vantage point of a particular experience or set of experiences that lead us not only through the writer’s life but the development of her outlook at this ‘certain age.’  In “A Case for Forgiveness,” Goldie Goldbloom begins with the pivotal moment she decided to call her estranged father. We follow the arc of her life and work as an Ivy League professor, a great-grandmother fluent in four languages, an acclaimed novelist, a gardener and keeper of chickens as we discover her father’s parallel story and its impact on the writer. The essay is riveting, touching, and painful all at once as Goldbloom revisits various moments from the past forty years since she last spoke with him and what it means to be in contact again.

Similarly, Jeanine Leane in “Black Boxes” tells a compelling and complicated tale of life as an indigenous woman. She beautifully illustrates the assumptions she encounters and the box she is meant to occupy as a result. Finishing her PhD at fifty, Leane did not meet the expectations people had about her history, her people, or even her self.  Her frustration is palpable, but so is her joy in her work and the understanding of her evolution as a scholar, teacher, and woman within and without that box.

Susan Laura Sullivan also finds that she does not fit the box she is meant to occupy. A single woman living and working predominantly outside Australia, Sullivan’s “Seeking Singular Single Older Women” offers parallel reflections on a life lived in cultures that emphasize traditional roles for women, but also on her own family’s and culture’s assumptions about women and meaningful life.

Women of a Certain Age is, like its writers, frank, refreshing and thought-provoking. Also, like its authors, it breaks new ground in its genre. While other books such as Leap! What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives? by Sarah Davidson, and more recently, A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon offer compelling interviews and biographies, Women of a Certain Age hands the microphone to the women themselves. By the end, their voices blow away all of that assumed and presumed dust, so we can more clearly see the people beneath.

Women of a Certain Age
Edited by Jodie Moffat, Maria Scoda, and Susan Laura Sullivan
March, 2018
Fremantle Press