A hasty but enthusiastic culinary journey through Japan
BOOK OF THE DAY: JOSEPH WOODSreviews Sushi and Beyond – What the Japanese Know About CookingBy Michael Booth Jonathan Cape, 329 pp, £12.99
JAPAN IS the pre-eminent food nation on earth and the Japanese are routinely obsessed with food, every region or district is proud of its speciality and every season delivers its particular delicacies; the seasonality of food and its enjoyment in season is an enshrined principle.
Armed with the classic Japanese Cooking, A Simple Artby Shizuo Tsuji, Michael Booth sets out on a culinary journey of Japan with his wife and “two fussy eaters under the age of six”.
What transpires is a journey from the northern island of Hokkaido through central Japan, the southern island of Kyushu and finally the most southerly outpost of Japan, the tropical islands of Okinawa where people live longer than anyone else on earth.
Booth is convinced at the onset that our notion in the West of Japanese food and cooking is confined to the “inevitable nigiri and maki with the same half dozen toppings, or perhaps inexpertly cooked tempura”.
He quickly establishes himself and his family in Tokyo and they begin to dine and sample their way through a staggering variety of meals and dishes and on occasion visit artisan factories where everything from sake to soya sauce is brewed or fermented.
Booth wants to sample the indigenous ingredients, learn about the philosophy, techniques and the health benefits of Japanese food; this involves meals in a monastery on the sacred mountain of Koya-san, where the shojin ryori or “pure food” cuisine of the monks forbids the use of garlic and onions as they stimulate sexual desire.
He gets close to tasting the liver of the notorious puffer- or blowfish; the effect is reputedly similar to taking cocaine.
A famous kabuki actor once died after feasting on it, the maddening effect driving him to feast more and more on the poisonous dish. Up to six or seven people a year still die as a result of wrongly prepared fugu.
There are tips too on what to say at a sushi restaurant. Just one word to the sushi chef: “Omakse”, which means “I’ll let you decide”.
And if you really want to annoy a sushi chef just keep ordering tuna, which many restaurants sell as a loss leader.
One chapter is an apologia for the food enhancer MSG. Booth visits the largest producer in the world – 1.9 million tonnes annually – to discover that MSG is no more processed than sugar or salt and comes from konbu or seaweed.
MSG enhances umami in food, the mysterious fifth taste that comes after salty, sweet, bitter and sour, a flavour which the Japanese have discovered.
Booth travels around Japan in haste, only allowing himself three months. He subscribes to the self-deprecating, wise-cracking style of the modern travel writer and the chummy inclusion of the antics of his two boys left this reader feeling like an unwilling babysitter at times.
However, he wins you over with his sheer enthusiasm, wide reading and research and he’s able to render difficult food processes into digestible bites.
In the end he reaches enlightenment or a satori of sorts; a sublime meal in an invitation- only restaurant in Tokyo that is bordering on the spiritual, and on the island of Okinawa, the discovery that longevity is not all about diet, it’s about the islander’s philosophy: “Eat until you are 80 per cent full.”
Joseph Woods is a poet and director of Poetry Ireland. Once a resident of Kyoto, he has co-edited Our Shared Japan, an anthology of Irish poetry about Japan, (Dedalus Press 2007)