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Book review: Exploring the story of sushi, past, present and future

Eric Rath's history of Japan's iconic cuisine tracks rise of rice in Japanese culture

"Oishii," Eric Rath's book on sushi, brims with fascinating and often amusing anecdotes told in a nonacademic, light writing style. (Nikkei montage/Source photos courtesy of Reaktion Books)

Kansas, a landlocked American state more than 1,700 km from the sea, is not the most obvious place to find a font of knowledge on sushi, Japan's most iconic food. But Eric Rath teaches Japanese cultural history at the University of Kansas and his new book "Oishii: The History of Sushi" (oishii is Japanese for "delicious") is an enticing title for one of the first substantial books written in English on the history of sushi.

Rath starts by asking "What is sushi?" It is a good question, as most of us have our own idea or images of sushi. But it turns out to be deceptively difficult to define, and the author doesn't answer directly. Instead, he looks at two Chinese characters for sushi found in ancient Chinese dictionaries. The first character, in a reference dating back to the third century BC, defines sushi as "fish preserved in salt" while the second says that sushi is a "pickled food fermented in salt and rice." In modern Japan both characters are used interchangeably.

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