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