Japan Eats

Interview: Michael Booth, author of “Sushi and Beyond”

“Sushi and Beyond” follows an English family as they travel the length of Japan, exploring the nation’s cuisine. We speak to its author, Michael Booth

Japan is a country intensely proud of its cultural heritage, yet nervous about the future and its place in it. Long-time Japanese friends will bemoan the state of the economy or the nation’s ossified politics and talk nostalgically about ‘the good old days’ of the so-called bubble years. Such hand-wringing is only reinforced by television programs which try to talk up the state of the nation. Newly arrived visitors are door-stopped at the airport by waiting camera crews and asked “Why did you come to Japan?”. Meanwhile, Japanese companies which have made a successful transition overseas have spawned a whole genre of programs celebrating their achievements.

The Japanese edition of the book, entitled 英国一家、日本を食べる [単行本

The Japanese edition of the book (英国一家、日本を食べる [単行本)

It doesn’t come as a complete surprise, therefore, that the Japanese publication of a book describing an English family’s journey across Japan “investigating the state of Japanese food today” should shoot to the top of the bestsellers list. It’s not that readers are seeking to understand foreign cultures. Rather, they want to understand what’s happening to their own.

The book in question is “Sushi and Beyond”, a memoir of sorts, in which author Michael Booth attempts to “sample the indigenous ingredients, learn about the philosophy, the techniques and, of course, the health benefits of Japanese food.” Along the way, Booth and his family encounter Japanese cuisine in all it’s glory, from the sacred – kaiseki at Kyoto’s Kikunoi; a visit to members-only Mibu in Ginza – to the profane – yakitori and yakisoba on Shonben Yokocho. Then there are the Booths’ adventures in Hokkaido eating raw crab and dining on umi-budo, tofu, and braised pork belly in an Okinawan village.

Booth is no stranger to the genre. A food writer and journalist, he is presently a correspondent for Monocle magazine, and writes regularly for Condé Nast Traveller, The Sunday Times, and The Independent. His books include, “Sacré Cordon Bleu” – a memoir of his time training to be a chef in Paris and working in Michelin-starred restaurants there; and the recent “Eat, Pray, Eat”, a memoir of a middle-age crisis in India.

We spoke with Booth about his book, his thoughts on Japanese cuisine, and how the Japanese edition has been received.

1. You recently described Japan as your favorite country. What is it that first got you interested in coming here?

I first came here in about 1999 to interview some car designers, but in truth I only arranged that gig in order to get to see Japan! Somewhere deep in me is this fascination for advanced civilizations that are very different from my own. I like to travel places which are totally alien, yet still have really excellent plumbing and snacks.

2. Why did you decide to write “Sushi and Beyond”?

A Japanese-Korean friend of mine who I met at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris (which I wrote about in “Sacré Cordon Bleu), gave me a book about classical Japanese cooking which blew my mind. We were up to our elbows in butter, cream and foie gras at the time, and this amazingly simple yet intricate food was such a contrast. Also, I had put on, like, four kilos, and was ready for some raw fish.

3. Did you keep to your pledge of Chapter 3?

I don’t think I managed to keep a single one, much to my shame, but I still think it was a valid effort to try and avoid all those Gothic Lolita, robot waiter, Zen temple clichés concerning writing about Japan. I just invented a bunch of my own clichés.

4. You describe Tsukiji as “…the greatest man-made wonder of the world, the ultimate symbol of our courage, ingenuity and greed as a species, and there is surely no greater food lover’s sight on earth”. Can you elaborate?

The resourcefulness, technical skill and courage of the people who supply Tsukiji with that incredible array of seafood – not to mention their ability to ignore the environmental consequences of what they do – is astounding. And to do it several days a week, every month does represent some kind of peak of human achievement. AND the place doesn’t stink of fish, it smells of the ocean. It genuinely is my favorite place on earth. I’ll be heartbroken when it moves.

5. Japanese service is very different to that outside Japan. Can you describe what makes it so unique?

For me, Japanese service is all about anticipation and attention to detail. The best thing I can do is give one very small, recent example. My airline lost my luggage on my last trip to Tokyo, back in February, so I had to do a big shop at Muji. The bags were pretty laden and, without asking, the shop assistant taped some spongey bubble wrap-type stuff to the handles to stop them cutting through my hands.

6.You write about the crisis in the sake industry, and go on to describe your meeting with Philip Harper and visiting Tama no Hikari. Did you become a sake fan? If so, how easy is it to find in the UK?

Actually, the tasting with Philip in Hiroshima almost put me off because they deliberately taste the sakes there in the least flattering light – at room temperature. Plus, after you have tried your tenth or so, the only tasting notes are ‘petroleum’. But, I do adore sake. I recently interviewed Hidetoshi Nakata, the football star, who got me onto yoghurt sake – that stuff is deadly. Very, very easy to drink. In the UK it is getting easier to find, at least in London. And the British Sake Association  (with the wonderful Japanese food expert Shirley Booth – no relation – at its head) is doing great work to promote it. I actually live in Denmark, though, and Denmark is a sake desert.

Sushi and Beyond by Michael Booth

The English edition of Sushi and Beyond

7. The seasons play a key role in Japanese cuisine. To what extent do you think seasonal produce separates Japanese food from other places you’ve been?

Last week I was in Warsaw interviewing the first ever Michelin-starred Polish chef. He told me excitedly how he had devised a new system of dividing the year up seasonally – instead of four seasons, he had a template of 52 weeks. I nodded and smiled and congratulated him, all the time thinking, ‘Have you ever been to Japan?’  Of course, not all Japanese people are dedicated food lovers who follow the seasons, but a great many are, and they know – to the week – when stuff will be at its peak. That connection with natural cycles is very inspiring, I think. The world could learn a lot from them.

8. Your family play a key role in the narrative. What did they take away from the experience of traveling the country with you?

They adore Japan, and can’t wait to return. We talk about our experiences – lunch with sumos, noodles delivered on a stream, giant crabs in Hokkaido, Okinawan sweet potato ice cream, takoyaki in Osaka, and the wonderfully wacky Japanese childrens’ TV shows they watched, all the time.

9. Have you been back to Japan since the book was first published?

I try to get to Japan at least once a year, so, yes, several times.

10. How have Japanese audiences taken to the book so far?

It’s been astonishing, frankly. The book is into its fifth or sixth print run in as many weeks. The feedback on Amazon has been lovely (at least, that’s how it sounds via Google translate). My Japanese publisher sent me photos of it in local stores – one of which had it as that week’s best seller, ahead of the new Murakami, which bowled me over as Murakami is my God.

11. You travel widely. Do you feel Japanese food is becoming more popular outside Japan?

Not much beyond sushi, although in London and New York the whole ramen thing has now hit big time. Plus we have Koya udon in Soho. There is so very, very much more than could be exported, though. Starting with kushikatsu please!

12. Can you get us into Mibu?

Ah, Ischida-san. One of my very favorite people. A true gentleman, in every sense of the word. But there are so many truly great restaurants in Tokyo… That said, Mibu is probably not beyond the realms of possibility, if you speak Japanese or know someone who does.

英国一家、日本を食べる [単行本 (Sushi and Beyond)
Michael Booth
280 pages. Akishobo. ¥1995

Book Review: The Just Bento Cookbook

Marcus Lovitt reviews Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh

Through her sites Justhungry.com and Justbento.com, Makiko Itoh celebrates the many facets of Japanese cuisine, describing ingredients, detailing cooking techniques and offering recipes to an international audience. The first of these sites, Justhungry, has been up and running since 2003 and contains Itoh’s musings on the rudiments of Japanese cooking; how to make dashi, the way in which to prepare sushi rice, and so on. It is Justbento, however, for which Itoh is particularly well known. Here, she writes on the humble Japanese lunchbox, demonstrating both its versatile flavors as well as the health benefits associated with a balance of ingredients.

With her first book, The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go, Itoh brings her passion for the bento to an even wider audience. “A bento-box lunch is really just a packed lunch – but it’s a packed lunch prepared with a little extra care, for your family and loved ones, or just for yourself” notes Itoh in the introduction. “Bento-box meals are satisfying to the eye and the soul, as well as the body. They do not have to be overly cute or take hours to prepare. With minimal effort and a splash of creativity, they can be things of simple beauty that not only bring a smile to the recipient’s face but can be as pleasurable to make as they are to eat”.

Born in Tokyo, Itoh is particularly well suited to the role of bento evangelist – she has lived in several countries and is as much at home in English as she is in Japanese. Western readers will have little trouble grasping explanations of how to prepare tamagoyaki (“a rolled omelette that is savory yet slightly sweet”) or chicken kara-age (“deep-fried marinated chicken”). Not that more experienced cooks will find the book too prefatory – there’s plenty here to interest even those who already have a good knowledge of Japanese cooking basics.

Indeed, Itoh understands her audience. A frequent complaint of those living outside Japan is that it’s often difficult (if not impossible) to source Japanese ingredients when following Japanese recipes. Here, Itoh gets around this problem by offering two types of recipes: “Japanese style bentos” and “Not-so-Japanese Bentos”. The former includes such standards as ginger pork bento, soboro bento (“ground meat, fish, egg, or vegetables, seasoned and served mixed in with or sprinkled onto rice”) and soba noodle bento. Throughout the text, Itoh explains whether or not ingredients are commonly found outside Japan, and offers possible substitutes for items not available.

Itoh really mixes it up in the second part of the book dealing with bento inspired by other cultures. Recipes include “Everyone Loves A Pie Bento” (containing pies made from a yeasted dough of wheat flour and olive oil), “Spanish Omelette Bento” and a “Mediterranean Mezze-style Bento” (the use of edamame in place of chickpeas when preparing hummus is particularly clever). Prescriptivists will no doubt bristle at all this freewheeling creativity, but Itoh recognizes that not everyone is going to be satisfied with a noriben or the richness of unagi no kabayaki.

In addition to the recipes, the book carries helpful information on the various types of bento boxes and a glossary of Japanese ingredients. There’s a section on safety tips (“Cool down cooked food before packing into a bento box”, “Use an ice pack for certain foods, and in hot weather”) and another dealing with practical tips for speeding up the bento-making process. Throughout the text, Itoh also discusses the nutritional benefits of her recipes, choosing low-calorie accompaniments for rich meat dishes and offering vegan alternatives where possible (not something you’ll come across in similar Japanese cookbooks!)

The Just Bento Cookbook thus contains a wide variety of recipes and practical information – 150 ‘easy-to-prepare, original, bento-box-friendly’ recipes, according to the introduction. Curious then that the design of the book feels somewhat underdeveloped. Given the glut of cookbooks heavy on the food-porn photographs and light on actual recipes, it seems odd that Kodansha didn’t furnish Itoh with a larger budget for the images. It matters little, though. Itoh’s writing is enough to sell readers on what to expect from each recipe.

In sum, The Just Bento Cookbook is a well-written introduction for those new to preparing Japanese lunch-boxes, and a useful reference for anyone who already knows the classic Japanese recipes and is looking for fresh ideas. Best of all, Itoh is clearly unafraid of experimenting with surprising combinations of flavors and ingredients. What matters is not what’s authentic but what’s practical and tastes good. Her readers will no doubt appreciate Itoh’s efforts to render the bento a practical lunchtime alternative and follow her example.

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go
by Makiko Itoh
Kodansha International, 2,000 yen, 127 pages

Book Review: “Drinking Japan”

Garrett DeOrio reviews Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan

I tend to approach tomes of this genre with a fair dose of skepticism as they often fall into one of two categories, even when they’re not bad: a. strong on one drink or area, weak on the others, or b. written by authors who don’t know the turf and focus on spots tourists would find anyway.

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

Thankfully, my skepticism was dispelled within moments of cracking the cover on Chris Bunting’s attractive new release. He included a few places I know and love (which shows he has good taste!) and listed many more I either didn’t know or hadn’t tried. What better way to give a drink or travel book a fair shake than to road test it?

Bunting’s motivating premise, as he sets forth in his introduction is, simply, that “Japan. . . [is] the best place to drink alcohol in the world.”

He allows that the denizens and partisans of other capitals might be irritated by his proposition and grants them their due. He’s being too nice – those who put forth other locales, especially other cities against Tokyo (where the majority of the bars Bunting includes are located), simply don’t get it, which is why his book is so welcome.

Drinking Japan reads like a travel book – not a touring handbook, mind you, but a travel book, replete with anecdotes and impressions, which not only gives the reader a better idea of what they might be getting into, but also allows Bunting to establish a voice. And that voice is one that will make most readers feel like having a beer, or a whisky, or a glass of wine, or shochu, or awamori, or sake, or even makkori, with the man.

After a brief introduction to Japan’s drinking culture, complete with both a few warnings for the neophyte (or for those who just haven’t yet learned their lessons) and some history, Drinking Japan is divided up into chapters based on the sort of drink each of the 112 establishments he includes specializes in or is most-worth going for. These being: Sake, Shochu, Awamori, Beer, Whisky, Wine, and then others. Each of the seven drink-centered chapters is preceded by an introduction to the drink and its history and place in Japan’s tippling milieu.

The drink chapters are followed by a chapter on liquor stores and other retail establishments and a brief appendix on “Bar Japanese”.

Drinking Japan is focused on the good stuff and written for people who are interested in drinking, as opposed to people who just drink. While not every place he includes is pricey, this is far from a guide for the budget traveler. If you believe that you get what you pay for or don’t mind paying more for better drinks and good atmosphere, Bunting has something you’ll like, if not 112 things. On the other hand, if a cheap happoshu nomi-hodai is all you want out of your drinking life or don’t care how knowledgeable the bartender is or how friendly the clientele might be, you probably won’t get much from his work.

As with any effort of this breadth, Drinking Japan has a handful of minor shortcomings. First and foremost is geography: Of the 112 establishments included, 75 are in central Tokyo and a further nine are lumped together in “West Tokyo”. Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, rates only two entries – both beer bars. The entire Tohoku and Chubu regions merit just one each: Sendai’s Isshin and Takayama’s Pub Red Hill, which means Japan’s fourth-largest city, Nagoya, is overlooked entirely. Likewise, the entire island of Kyushu is represented only by two shochu bars in Kagoshima – nada for the Fukuoka metropolis – and lovely Shikoku is passed by.

Being centered on the drinks themselves, the book also omits a number of neighborhoods known for their charm more than their pure liquid gourmet appeal, although he does include the venerable Lion Ginza 7-chome (the old one) solely for its mosaic and its place in history. Similarly, the inclusion of the cheap izakaya Kaasan – a chain shop for the cheap gourmand and notable for its ability to host sizable parties seems odd. Nothing wrong with the place, and its branches tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer screaming kids than other chains, but it does raise a question: Why Kaasan and not any of the numerous more worthy entries of the same sort?

That said, I still eagerly took a number of Bunting’s recommendations and largely agreed with him. He doesn’t mind spending a bit at times, but he knows whereof he speaks, gets the details right, and won’t steer you wrong.

If you’re unfamiliar with Japan, especially Tokyo (and that seems to be the target audience), Drinking Japan is a great place to start. If you live here, you’ll still find some new gems.

If you pick it up and decide to try it out, let us know. If you have a beloved haunt Bunting missed, let us know about that, too. Heck, invite us to try it out with you sometime. (We bark a lot, but we rarely bite. Except for that one time, and Pellegrini is really sorry about that.)

Drinking Japan
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.

Book Review: Japanese Cocktails

Japanese Cocktails

Japanese Cocktails by Yuri Kato

Japanese cocktail recipes for beginners

Despite being home to some of the best bartenders in the world (by now many will have heard of Hidetsugu Ueno, bartender at the legendary Bar High Five or Kazuo Uyeda, purveyor of the ‘hard shake’) Japan is better known for its beer and its sake than for its cocktails. Even Japanese whisky enjoys a higher profile thanks to Bill Murray and a certain Suntory Limited.

Enter Yuki Kato. In her new book, Japanese Cocktails, Kato makes the case for Japan to be taken seriously as not only a cocktail loving culture, but also as a destination for those seeking to experience the unique flavor of ingredients like ume, yuzu and shiso.

The book is organized into four sections: sake cocktails, shochu cocktails, whisky cocktails, and cocktails made with other ingredients such as rum or vodka. Along the way, we encounter Japanese standards such as the Hinomaru (sake and umeboshi), the Oolong Hai (barley shochu with oolong tea) as well as curios like the Tokyo Dome (barley shochu, apple juice, lemon juice and ginger ale) and the Oyaji (whisky soda with the additions of a slice of orange and maraschino cherries).

From the outset, Kato demonstrates that she is able to discuss Japanese concepts of balance and seasonal produce in a way that is readily accessible. Although raised in Japan, she understands her audience may not be familiar with ingredients such as shichimi togarashi (a Japanese mixed spice) and writes for those with little or no knowledge of Japan or it’s drinking culture.

“Drinking,” she writes in her introduction, “is an intrinsic part of traditional Japanese family culture. Many homes include a well-stocked liquor cabinet with Japanese whisky, Scotch, bourbon, sake, and shochu. Sometimes you’ll find a case of domestic beer, but alcohol like wine or chu-hai, canned cocktails, are not typically kept on hand.”

Here, Kato also points out some of the essential differences between Japanese cocktails and their western equivalents. She notes that Japanese cocktails are, by and large, light on alcohol. She quite rightly observes that “It is not a Japanese custom to drink without eating, so there are not many bars that serve alcohol without food in Japan. Paring food and cocktails may be new in some countries, but not in Japan”. Readers may be forgiven, then, for wondering why Kato did not complete this thought by adding food pairings to her recipes.

The recipes themselves are, on the whole, mercifully straightforward. Those seeking a challenge, however, may want to look toward the Hotate-zake (“In a small saucepan over medium heat, add butter, scallop, and rosemary and heat for 1 to 2 minutes”) or the Bubble Shooter (remember to marinate those salmon eggs overnight!)

Alongside are brief snippets of cultural background, and while well chosen, there’s not a great deal of depth. There are passages on baseball in Japan, Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and cherry blossom season, but few of these go beyond the tourist brochures. Nevertheless, there are also some great little tidbits of information scattered throughout the book, such as the fact that the Kamiya Bar in Asakusa, Tokyo lays claim to being the oldest bar in Japan (1880).

The book’s structure make a good deal of sense – the four sections are easy to navigate and let’s face it, this is the kind of book you dip into rather than read from cover to cover. Still, international readers might question which cocktails are commonly found on Japanese menus, which are unique to particular Japanese bars, and those that are Kato’s own original recipes.

Japanese Cocktails’ credits afford copyright to Suntory International Corp. As a result, some parts of the book feel like an ad campaign. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly the case in the whisky section, where the history of Japanese whisky may as well be the history of the company.

Japanese Cocktails is a good English-language introduction to the world of Japanese drink culture. Those new to sake and shochu are going to want it on their coffee tables. Those with a serious interest in the history of Japanese cocktail culture, however, will be hoping Kato’s follow-up explores the subject in greater detail.

Japanese Cocktails
Mixed Drinks with Sake, Shochu, Whisky and More

by Yuri Kato
Illustrated, 96 pages
Chronicle Books, 1,384 yen