Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Please Note: I received an ARC copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect the opinions in my review in any way.
Synopsis (From GoodReads):
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 eaters 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.
When I first saw the description of this book, I got really excited. I lived in Japan for over three years, and I was eager to read about how another foreigner found the food of Japan (which is about so much more than sushi). I also wanted to read about Michael Booth's experience traveling with kids, as we have taken our four kids to Japan a few years ago. Although I would say I am very well versed in my knowledge of Japanese cuisine, I learned even more from this book. I found this book to be delightful but perhaps it is for a niche market.
What I liked:
This book is written by a journalist and it shows in his attention to detail. Michael Booth had contacts with artisanal producers of saki, tofu, and soy sauce. He was able to sort out the history of each product, how each was made, and their futures (or possibly their demises). As a "foodie", I loved these details.
Much of the book ponders the question of whether or not authentic Japanese cuisine is vanishing. Booth talks with respected chefs, food critics, and Japanese gourmands. Most would say that they have seen a rapid decline in the quality of the fundamentals of Japanese cooking, particularly in how chefs make dashi. Dashi is the basis of much of Japanese food from miso soup onward.
The author also seemed very keen on finding out if the traditional Japanese diet contributed to the nation's high life expectancy. He does a great job of sorting out myths from facts.
What I didn't like:
As much as I am raving about the attention to detail that went into this book, I feel it is also the book's downfall. Unless you are like me (a person heavily invested in the topic already), I doubt that the average reader will be enthralled by chapter upon chapter describing the minutia of Japanese cuisine.
I was also expecting more about the misadventures of traveling with young children. There are a few anecdotes about his kids being picky eaters, but that's about it. I know from my own experiences, kids can add an original perspective to an already strange situation.
With most of the emphasis on Japanese high cuisine, I think what was missing was a view of how the average Japanese actually eats. For me, I was fascinated by how my Japanese friends approached meals. I made friends with several Japanese women over my stay in Japan. I would get cooking lessons from my new friends, learning how to make tonkatsu and my favorite food: okinomiyaki! Each region (and each home cook) has their unique way of making the dish. I loved learning about new ingredients, and techniques from my friends. We bonded over our shared love of cooking.
I think if the author had found a better way to connect with the average reader, this book would have a more universal appeal.
Release Date: September 6th, 2016
Format: Digital ARC
Recommendation: If you are curious about the food scene in Japan, or are already obsessed, I think you will love this book. Because I fall into both categories, I am giving this book my highest rating. As much as I loved it, if you aren't really into all things Japan, I think this book will bore you.