Super sushi ramen express One family's journey through the belly of Japan

Michael Booth

Book - 2016

"Japan is arguably the preeminent food nation on earth, a Mecca for the world's greatest chefs, with more Michelin stars than any other country. The Japanese go to extraordinary lengths and expense to eat food that is marked both by its exquisite preparation and exotic content. Their creativity, dedication, and courage in the face of dishes such as cod sperm and octopus ice cream is only now beginning to be fully appreciated in the sushi and ramen-saturated West, as are the remarkable health benefits of the traditional Japanese diet. Food and travel writer Michael Booth takes the culinary pulse of contemporary Japan, learning fascinating tips and recipes that few westerners have been privy to before. Accompanied by two fussy eater...s under the age of six, he and his wife travel the length of the country, from bear-infested, beer-loving Hokkaido to snake-infested, seaweed-loving Okinawa. Along the way, they dine with-and score a surprising victory over-sumo wrestlers; pamper the world's most expensive cows with massage and beer; share a seaside lunch with free-diving, female abalone hunters; and meet the greatest chefs working in Japan today. Less happily, they witness a mass fugu slaughter, are traumatized by an encounter with giant crabs, and attempt a calamitous cooking demonstration for the lunching ladies of Kyoto"--

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Travel writing
New York : Picador 2016.
Main Author
Michael Booth (author)
Physical Description
viii, 318 pages ; 22 cm
  • Toshi
  • Departure
  • No broccoli
  • Sumo-size me
  • World famous in Japan
  • Tempura master class
  • A tale of two cooking schools : part 1
  • The mother of all fishmongers
  • MSG : an apology
  • The busiest fish in the ocean
  • The campaign for real wasabi
  • Kitchen Street
  • Sushi for beginners
  • The "special stuff"
  • Crabs
  • Seaweed
  • Kyoto stories
  • The Kyoto Cooking Circle
  • The most beautiful meal in the world
  • First take your crystal-clear, free-flowing mountain stream--
  • The sake crisis
  • Beyond sushi
  • The fastest food in the world
  • Miraculous miso
  • The Forest of Lost Souls
  • The beef delusion
  • Ama divers
  • The greatest soy sauce in the world
  • A tale of two cooking schools : part 2
  • Fukuoka
  • Once upon a time in Shimonoseki
  • Okinawa
  • Who wants to live forever?
  • The oldest village in the world
  • Healthy salt
  • The restaurant at the end of my universe.
Review by New York Times Review

traveling can be complicated and nervous-making, yet for many of us the compulsion to be propelled across the map and renewed amid unfamiliar landscapes is irresistible. As Bill Bryson writes in his introduction to the BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING 2016 (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, paper, $14.95), which highlights two dozen locations across the globe, travel is "enriching, stimulating, seductive, pleasurable - but very often a touch compulsive, too." For an example of all these qualities, consult Gretel Ehrlich's ravishing, troubling essay about her perilous journeys by dog sled on the melting ice floes off Greenland's coast. ("When I asked if we were going to die, he smiled and said, 'Imaqa.' Maybe.") Yet some travelers do seem to have reined in their wanderlust, alert to geopolitical flux. Five years ago, I learned the prudence of such caution when friends emailed me in alarm from Damascus, where they had been lured by an article I'd written about the city's beguiling old-town souk - and had landed just as Syria's civil war began. My apologies! But not everyone is deterred by warfare or global warming. A batch of new books bridges the gap between the timid and the intrepid wanderer, showing that with planning, a little luck and a modicum of attention to headlines, the world's most arresting sights, tastes and wonders can still be yours - whether you conduct your journey in the 50 states, overseas, from the sanctuary of an armchair or from the bobbing back of a camel. Nicholas Jubber learned to harness and ride those cantankerous beasts in North Africa, training with a desert tribesman so he could join the annual azalai, or caravan, to Mali's Taoudenni salt mines. In the Timbuktu school FOR NOMADS (Nicholas Brealey, $25.95), his passionate paean to the Sahara ("a rumpled carpet of fire"), he describes his journey via "bus, boat and occasionally donkey cart" from Fez to the azalai's starting point at Timbuktu. But not far from the city, just a week before the caravan was to set off, an inspector stopped Jubber and one of his nomad companions. "You fool! " he snarled. "Do you not know the reality of Mali at the moment? Have you not watched the news?" That morning, terrorists had stormed a hotel in Timbuktu, seizing three tourists and shooting one. Stubbornly, Jubber persevered, thinking only, "What about the azalai?" Arriving in Timbuktu, he felt "like an outlaw spirited into a forbidden city - Luke Skywalker driving into Mos Eisley with Obi-Wan Kenobi." When, grudgingly, he accepted the fact that he'd have to postpone the expedition, his tribesman "guru" consoled him by promising to brand some camels with Jubber's personal mark. "They are waiting for you," he said, "and even if you do not come to collect them for a hundred years they will be there for you." If you open Lonely Planet's gorgeous A-to-Z guide, the TRAVEL BOOK: A Journey Through Every Country in the World (Lonely Planet, $50), you will pine for Mali as much as Jubber does. Lush photographs of cowrie-shell-masked dancers and soaring mud-brick dwellings pull you into the landscape, and the accompanying text tells you "when to go, what to see, how to eat it up and drink it in." Still, in the interest of safety, the Mali pages warn that "an armed rebellion by Tuareg nomads and subsequent Islamic militant incursions due to the collapse of Libya in 2011 have sadly made Mali off-limits to travelers." But hundreds of other tantalizing destinations come without a disclaimer: Kazakhstan, where golden eagles hover at the wrists of fur-hatted huntsmen; "lavish and decadent" Austria, whose snowcapped mountains, "jewel-box Hapsburg palaces" and Viennese coffeehouses beckon year-round; the former "pariah state" Myanmar, "slowly coming in from the cold," where "towering golden stupas dot the landscape like giant candlesticks." Lonely Planet's book is a consoling reminder that while dastardly regimes may come and go, the spirit of a place can still abide. The New York musician Franz Nicolay absorbed this geographical lesson during several concert tours of the Balkans, Russia and Ukraine from the spring of 2012 to the summer of 2014, lugging his banjo, guitar and accordion through trains, hippie squats and muddy Carpathian barnyards. In his wry and wide-ranging memoir, the HUMORLESS LADIES OF BORDER CONTROL: Touring the Punk Underground From Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar (New Press, $26.95), he notes that "stuff happens, but you can't let a big thing like history ruin your day." During a stay in St. Petersburg - that "stained, damp, overrun skeleton of Venice" - he and his wife, Maria, heard a concert by the Buranovskiye Babushki, grandmothers from the Urals who took second place in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 with their renditions of rock 'n' roll hits. Maria grew "teary," he writes, listening to the babushki's "high, creaky harmonies." "Think about what these women have been through in their lives: Lenin, World War II, Stalin, famine, the Cold War," she said. "And now, in their 80s, can you imagine - they get to be pop stars!" On their next journey, Nicolay and his wife took their toddler, Lesia, with them to rural Ukraine a few months after the Russian occupation of Crimea. In the village of Unizh, they stayed with a toothless grandmother whom their baby took to "like calf to cow," dropped by a music festival beneath the cliffs of the Dniester River, watched rural families ("including small children") haying in the fields and visited a master craftsman famed for his skill at making bagpipes out of whole goatskins. Just before Nicolay's gig at an Irish pub in a town called Kalush, he learned that Russian-backed rebels had shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet. A reporter at the pub interviewed him about the crisis, but the locals didn't care about his politics: They just wanted to hear the music of "bad boy" Johnny Cash. So he humored them, performing "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Cocaine Blues." "The war in the country's east had suddenly escalated," he writes, "but there was samohon to drink and rebel songs to cheer, and what had the east to do with them?" Traveling with children overseas, even to a peaceful land, requires a level of courage - or masochism - that invites awe. Nonetheless, when the English journalist (and Cordon Bleu alum) Michael Booth decided to spend three months exploring Japan's culinary mysteries and "slowly, methodically, greedily" working his way from Hokkaido south to Tokyo, "then on to Kyoto, Osaka, Fukuoka and the islands of Okinawa," he took along his wife, Lissen, and their two young sons, Asger, 6, and Emil, 4, because "I crumble if I don't see my family for more than a few days." Aww. SUPER SUSHI RAMEN EXPRESS: One Family's Journey Through the Belly of Japan (Picador, $26), his account of their "foodie family road trip," establishes Booth - already memorable for his teasing Rorschach of Scandinavia, "The Almost Nearly Perfect People" - as the next Bill Bryson. He grudgingly gives "pampered" Kobe beef cattle a rub with a distilled spirit called shochu and takes his kids to lunch at a sumo "stable," where they wonderingly watch the rikishi ("two mammoth mounds of diapered blubber") collide in a premeal bout before sitting down to a vegetable-rich chicken and soy sauce chanko nabe hotpot. "Are sumos people?" Emil whispers. Those who write about Japan sometimes seem unhinged in their adulation, but Booth begins with refreshing skepticism. Before setting out on his journey, he sparred with a friend who accused him of knowing nothing of Japanese cuisine. "I know enough about it to know how dull it is," Booth retorted. During the course of his trip, he goes through a complete conversion, ultimately succumbing to sensory surrender at the legendary Tokyo restaurant Mibu ("the place that made Joël Robuchon weep and humbled Ferran Adrià"). "Every hair on my body had stood on end. It was as if the chef had found a taste receptor I never knew I had." Booth also took his children to "the most unsettling place I have ever visited," a cemetery on temple-filled Mount Koya that reminded him of the woods at the foot of Mount Fuji "where a number of Japan's 34,000 annual suicides go to die." At the Aokigahara Forest, he writes, the very air "is said to be congested with the spirits of the tormented." If your curiosity is aroused by Booth's visions of Aokigahara, turn to the understatedly expressive atlas of IMPROBABLE PLACES: A Journey to the World's Most Unusual Corners (Aurum, $29.99), written by the cultural historian Travis Elborough and adorned with clean-lined, pastel-hued maps by the cartographer Alan Horsfield. The entries are divided into sections like "Dream Creations," "Deserted Destinations" and "Architectural Oddities." Among the pages labeled "Otherworldly Spaces," you'll confront a full-page photograph of an ominous allée of Aokigahara's "treacherous" trees that will make your hair stand on end more emphatically than Booth's at Mibu. Yet the book also alights on innocuous locales like "Wonderland," a failed amusement park near Beijing, on whose abandoned grounds farmers once sowed crops, and Portmeirion, a Welsh holiday resort, opened in 1926 and intended to resemble an Italian village, which became famous as the set of the 1960s TV series "The Prisoner." The town's creator, an Anglo-Welsh dabbler named Clough Williams-Ellis, devised this fantasy hodgepodge because he believed that "architecture's only virtue was in providing 'more fun for more people.'" The Romans who ruled Britain long before the arrival of toffs like Williams-Ellis didn't see it quite that way. In THE MARCHES: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27), the British author and politician Rory Stewart writes that Hadrian's Wall, whose remains lie a few hundred miles to the north of Portemeirion, was erected to protect the Roman Empire from marauders living in the rugged realm now known as Scotland. The wall belted the country, stretching "15 feet high, entire and intact, from coast to coast, running straight up hillsides, down gullies and over cold rivers," punctuated by watchtowers and forts. The centuries have scoured away its height and completeness, but in 2011 Stewart, then 38, resolved to walk the wall's remnants, accompanied by his 89-year-old father. It took him four days (his father, frail with age, joined him only for part of the way). He then set himself a bonus project, marching 400 miles from his home in Cumbria to his father's ancestral seat, Broich, in the Scottish Highlands, "tracing the territory of the vanished nations that had existed before the invention of England and Scotland." Why, you may ask, didn't Stewart just drive? Because his zest for foot travel is legendary. In 2002, he walked across snowbound, war-torn Afghanistan, a journey recorded in "The Places in Between." In 2012, stepping from England into Scotland at the border hamlet of Kershopefoot, marveling at the change in terrain, he was reminded of another of his rambles, between Pakistan and India: "I had hardly seen such a stark difference since I walked from Lahore to Amritsar in half a day, through land which had been a single province - Punjab - in a single country, but was now partitioned." "I believe," Stewart explains, that "walks are miracles - which can let me learn, like nothing else, about a nation, or myself." But the miracle of "The Marches" is not so much the treks Stewart describes, pulling in all possible relevant history, as the monument that emerges to his beloved father. Brian Stewart, who died last year, was a proud Scotsman, a wearer of the Black Watch tartan and champion of Scottish dance. He was also a loyal Briton in the heroic mold, a soldier who blew up panzers in World War II and served the Queen for half a century in Asia and at home as an intelligence officer (he commissioned spy gadgets for MI6, like Q in the James Bond films). Father and son first walked Hadrian's Wall in 1985, during one of the author's school breaks. By then, they had already visited China's Great Wall six times, and the younger Stewart was unimpressed with its Roman counterpart. Seeing a fort reduced to "onefoot-high walls, arranged in squares and rectangles," he thought of a "playing field for a game whose rules were forgotten." Thirty years on, he has resurrected the game, the rules and the man who taught him to see their timeless sport. At Scotland's northern tip, in the wind-blasted Shetland Islands, just beneath the Arctic Circle, another restless son was moved to travel by the memory of another cherished father. At 17, Malachy Tallack woke from fitful sleep at his home in Lerwick, Shetland's capital, and peered out at the harbor. Sick and shivering, he imagined that if he looked east, he could see all the places that girdled the planet at the same latitude as the Shetlands: Norway, Sweden and Finland; Russia and Alaska; Canada and Greenland. In SIXTY DEGREES NORTH: Around the World in Search of Home (Pegasus, $26.95), he explains that "if I could see far enough, my eyes would eventually bring me back, across the Atlantic Ocean." At the time, Tallack was unmoored by grief; his father had died in a car accident several months earlier, leaving the boy bereft and adrift. More than a decade later, he embarked on an odyssey to enact his fever dream, following the invisible parallel of land and water and ice that connected him to the planet and to himself, but heading west, not east. On the coast of Greenland he saw icebergs "like shadows made solid," rising "blue-white against the vitreous shiver of the water" and reminding him of cloud formations caught "between two worlds." In Canada he watched as a "boulder-sized shape" came to life, "a shape that lifted its head, unfurled itself and became a bear." Hiking toward a mountain portage, he admired the way "the river twisted in upon itself in eddies and whirlpools, piling up in unbreaking waves." All along his route, he lived among the locals, seeking "placefulness: an engagement with place that is united with and strengthened by our engagement with people." A handful of photographs provide a visual record of his journey, but the book's real power comes from Tallack's poet's eye. It was language that drew the New York journalist Zora O'Neill to spend months crisscrossing the Middle East, beginning in the fall of 2011, as she ignored the region's post-Arab Spring upheavals in her quest to learn colloquial Arabic. The difficulty, she writes in all STRANGERS ARE KIN: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), is that no single, official version of the spoken language exists; each country has its own dialects. The Khaleeji spoken in the gulf states has soft consonants ("galbi, instead of qalbi"), while Morocco's Darija can "squeak, like a bath toy," Egypt's Ammiya "honks like a goose," and Lebanese Arabic "sighs like a dove." As a college student, O'Neill had attempted to master Fusha (classical Arabic), attracted by its "beautiful efficiency," but when she arrived in Egypt after seven years of studying the written language, she discovered that nobody spoke that kind of Arabic. "I could parse a poem composed in the sixth century, but barely chitchat with my landlord in Cairo," she explains, because "spoken Fusha, with its archaic grammar and vocabulary, always sounds unnatural, like speaking in Shakespearean forsooths and whithers and thous." After acquiring a grounding in the Cairene dialect, she returned to America, eventually abandoning the study of Arabic to become a journalist. Her recent reimmersion hasn't brought her the proficiency she sought: "After all my country-hopping, my vocabulary was a jumble of dialects, and my precious Fusha grammar was close to broken." Yet in the end, she writes, her "Year of Speaking Arabic Badly" taught her an unexpected lesson. Observing and listening to the people she met served her better than speaking fluently: "A spark of connection had arced over the language barrier." In Morocco, for example, O'Neill "watched men wrestle skeins of brilliant indigo floss out of giant vats" in the dyers' quarter of the Fez medina while in the coppersmiths' square "the ping of small hammers rang out." She needed no translation to catch the meaning of such scenes. A Fez tannery appears among thousands of other beguiling and quirky wonders in the richly annotated atlas OBSCURA: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders (Workman, $35), a wanderlust-whetting cabinet of curiosities on paper devised by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton. A photograph provides a pigeon's eye view of the work floor of the Chouara Tannery, whose colorful soaking tubs resemble a Candy Crush grid. This 11thcentury facility "still operates," the authors write, "as it did a thousand years ago." But the "Atlas Obscura" also entices with modern enchantments: a Hobbit hole in New Zealand, a fortunetelling fox-woman in Pakistan, mermaids in Florida and an elf school in Iceland. You could enjoy the holiday of a lifetime simply by flipping through the pages of these peripatetic volumes. But if you, like Malachy Tallack, can't resist that "fizzing pressure within" that makes you "long for what is elsewhere, for what is far away" - welcome to your itinerary. ? LIESL SCHILLINGER is a regular contributor to the Book Review.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 11, 2016]
Review by Booklist Review

Spurred to the challenge by a friend who gifted him with a copy of a quintessential Japanese cookbook, travel writer and French-trained chef Booth (The Almost Nearly Perfect People, 2015) decided to eat his way around Japan, a place and a cuisine about which he admittedly knew very little. And so begins a months-long journey where Booth and his family find themselves frequently lost, occasionally in a typhoon, and, most often, full to the point of bursting. Booth samples tempura in Tokyo, the ceremonial meal of kaiseki in Kyoto, ramen in Yokohama, and possibly deadly blowfish in Shimonoseki, touring fish markets and miso and soy sauce factories along the way. There's some of both Bill Bryson and Anthony Bourdain in Booth's cheerful, game, often irreverent, and, perhaps most importantly, hungry approach to discovering a new place. Readers with no patience for lengthy, technical descriptions of food and its preparation might not linger here, but food is really only the foreground albeit a wildly eye-catching, engaging one of Booth's portrait of a place he so clearly finds splendid.--Bostrom, Annie Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this entertaining read, Booth, the Copenhagen correspondent for Monocle magazine, makes it delectably clear that Japanese food is a whole lot more than sushi. Informed by a Japanese colleague that he has never tasted real Japanese food, Booth sets forth with his family to eat his way through the Land of the Rising Sun. With only three months to digest an ancient tradition, Booth heroically chows down from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Crowning his pilgrimage is a final supper at an exclusive restaurant that embodies the subtle dining pleasures and philosophies of a cuisine shaped by scarcity, seasonal change, and the fruits of the sea. As a narrator, Booth is both genial and informed, deploying his two sons as comic foils while he performs his "innocent abroad" character with aplomb. There's more to Booth than meets the eye, and his access to Japanese celebrities makes him an unlikely everyman; at times, this persona comes across as a shtick. But Booth redeems even the most pro forma moments with smooth prose, assiduous research, and tireless fieldwork. A chapter on diet and aging seems misplaced. Otherwise, Booth's immersion in a remarkable cuisine is both engaging and convincing. Agent: George Lucas, InkWell. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Globe-trotting Brit Booth (Eating Dangerously) hits the road for Japan, planning to learn the secrets of one of the world's most highly regarded food meccas. To add to the fun, the author's patient wife, Lissen, and two young sons-who predictably most enjoyed the sumo wrestlers but less of the cuisine-joined him. With such compelling chapter titles such as "The Sake Crisis" and "Sumo-Size Me," the text is a treat for readers even if they never taste a single morsel. The author begins by having lunch in a dohyo, where sumo wrestlers eat. Much to everyone's "disappointment," these huge athletes don't bulk up on chocolate but on sweet corn and tofu. Booth's wit is apparent as he learns about tempura from a chef who assures him that "lumps are good." An interesting side note is that contemporary Japanese now prefer beer to sake. Production of sake has dropped from 449 million gallons in 1975 to 185 million gallons today. Despite Booth's quest to learn about Japan's finest foods, he reveals that the now deceased -Momofuku Ando, who invented ramen noodles, was a hero and multibillionaire with over 85 billion servings of ramen consumed in the world annually. VERDICT Mainly for foodies interested in Japanese cuisine.-Susan G. Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., IL © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.