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Raw deals

Inside the global business of selling, marketing, and making sushi, and the forces that threaten to change it

The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy
By Sasha Issenberg
Gotham, 323 pp., illustrated, $26

The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket
By Trevor Corson
HarperCollins, 372 pp., $24.95

Sushi's global dominance is indisputable. In Boston you can order spicy tuna tempura maki at Oishii or grab unidentifiable chopped-fish rolls from the refrigerator case at Trader Joe's. Farther afield, you can eat at Nobu in Tokyo, London, Milan, or Malibu, or choose one of Kansas City's 13 sushi bars. Sasha Issenberg thinks all this sushi is great; Trevor Corson isn't so sure.

What does it take to produce this international cornucopia of fish and rice? According to "The Sushi Economy," a worldwide network of fishermen, wholesalers, ranchers, and chefs, many of whom combine old-school relationships and recipes with the newest technologies and techniques. This combination, Issenberg argues, makes sushi a promising manifestation of the new economy, proof positive "that a virtuous global commerce and food culture can exist."

For much of "The Sushi Economy," this exuberance rings true. Issenberg tells the story of sushi past and present through a series of portraits of people and places. His cross-continental leaps back and forth among fishermen, fish markets, and fish restaurants can be choppy and confusing, but he tells a lot of good stories along the way.

Much of "The Sushi Economy" focuses on bluefin tuna . Japan Airlines employee Akira Okazaki invented the global tuna trade in the 1960s, when he realized that the tuna Canadian fishermen were throwing away could fill the freight decks of flights returning to Japan from dropping off electronic consumer goods in North America.

Today, when tuna wholesaler Haruo Matsui makes his daily rounds at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, he can choose wild Atlantic tuna from Gloucester dealers Mark Godfrie d and Bob Kliss, or tuna farmed in the Pacific by Australian multi millionaire ranchers Joe Puglisi and Tony Santic. Meanwhile, back in the Mediterranean, tuna-ranching consultant Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi keeps busy tracking tuna pirates who attempt to evade fishing quotas and restrictions by sneaking their catch in through such places as Libya and Gibraltar that are less attentive to the law.

Issenberg explains how sushi arrived in Los Angeles in the 1960s, becoming ubiquitous during the health- and status-conscious '80s. Nobu Matsuhisa arrived in Los Angeles via a Tokyo suburb, Peru, Buenos Aires, and Anchorage, where he mined local ingredients and cooking techniques. As he opened restaurants around the world, his company standardized its fusion sushi: at the 14th Nobu, in the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, the only local fish on the menu is conch.

By contrast, at Austin's five-star sushi restaurant Uchi, American chef Tyson Cole, heading up a kitchen of Vietnamese, Filipino-American, and Japanese cooks, combines Texas fruits and vegetables with fish flown in daily from around the world to make new combinations like tuna, yellow watermelon, and Vietnamese fish sauce.

While Issenberg roams the globe in search of tuna, Corson stays put at the California Sushi Academy, in Hermosa Beach. His saga of the class of 2005 unfolds like reality television, as former Japanese pop star Takumi, slacker high school student Marcos, and insecure Kate, one of only two women in the class, experience the highs and lows of learning to make sushi.

Is Yugoslav-Australian sushi instructor Zoran, a former champion bodybuilder, as mean as he seems? Can Takumi's Italian culinary skills translate to sushi? Will Marcos meet a girl across the sushi bar? Can Kate learn to sharpen her knives, gut fish, and make maki rolls that don't fall apart? Will Jennifer Garner order a tuna hand roll? Though "The Zen of Fish" is nonfiction, astute readers will have little difficulty guessing the answers to such questions.

But the high jinks at the California Sushi Academy have a higher purpose: They provide the occasion for a few dozen mini-lectures on all things sushi. Despite the limiting effect of its title, "The Zen of Fish" tells us everything we could possibly want to know about every aspect of sushi. Corson begins with miso, dashi, and bonito; moves on to rice and nori, maki and nigiri; and finally makes it to fish -- of all kinds. He describes the origins of sushi in preserved fish fermented with rice (Issenberg also tells this story), the nine-step process for squeezing a handful of rice into a perfect nigiri, the chemical makeup of wasabi, the evolution of piscine circulatory systems, and, in great detail, the parasites, worms, and excretions found in raw fish. There is definitely such a thing as too much sushi information.

"The Sushi Economy" is generally optimistic, but while Issenberg revels in his brave new sushi world, he can't help revealing some ominous signs. Worldwide tuna catches are declining, and large corporations -- like Nobu, at the top end, and Japanese chain Umai Sushikan, in the middle -- are standardizing menus and diluting the indigenous artistry of the sushi chef.

In "The Zen of Fish," the signs are not just ominous, but omnipresent. Factory-produced rice, nigiri-making robots, frozen eel, and carbon-infused tuna are now commonplace, and untrained sushi chefs are wreaking havoc on sanitation and tradition alike. Still, when Kate triumphs over the sexist sushi industry and is hired by Irish-Italian brothers from Boston who have come home, after decades in Japan, to open a traditional sushi restaurant in California, we catch a glimpse of Issenberg's global utopia.

So which book should inquiring readers take to the beach this summer? Each is entertaining and informative, and at a certain point it's a matter of taste. Do you like nigiri or maki? Fish-loving optimists will enjoy Issenberg's work. Cynical trivia-loving MTV fans might prefer Corson's. Either way, you'll probably end up eating sushi. But if you read "The Zen of Fish," you might want to order it cooked.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and consultant who lives in Arlington.