fullsizerender-1When author Michael Booth tells his wife that he is thinking of going to Japan for a food journalism project, he is surprised to see her  his excited and getting ready to take the whole family, including their two young boys, both very picky eaters. Thus starts a three-month journey of a family of four, into the unfamiliar country of Japan.

Booth is an award-winning, best-selling author of a few non-fiction books, including the acclaimed The Almost Nearly Perfect People. A journalist, broadcaster and speaker, his work has appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. His newest book, Super Sushi Ramen Express – One Family’s journey through the Belly of Japan, stems from his family’s trip to Japan, focused mainly on food.

His experiences with traditional food during his visit change the author’s attitude towards Japanese cooking and cuisine. While before the trip he taught of it as being “all about appearance, with no fat, no flavor”, he learns to appreciate the true art of it, based on “local, fresh, seasonal food: a diet featuring little meat and dairy, more vegetables and fruit, all prepared with minimum meddling from the chef and a deep respect for the ingredients.”

Bringing his family adds another dimension to his book, turning it from a simple travelogue/food commentary into an adventure book of sorts. In fact, the family’s adventures were adapted into an animated series by NHK World in 2015, titled Sushi and Beyond.

While traveling through all of Japan, from the Northernmost island of Hokkaido to the archipelago of Okinawa, the family not only eats some of the most exquisite and most interesting meals you can imagine, they have numerous adventures, meet celebrities, and most of all, learn to appreciate the culture of a foreign country and its food culture.

They spend time in the “infinite urban maze” of Tokyo, where they dine with sumo wrestlers, and meet TV celebrities, experience a typhoon and eat their way through quite a few of the city’s “estimated two hundred thousand or so restaurants”.  They also visit a parasite museum, and the “greatest fish market in the world”, the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market.

They momentarily lose one of their children in the “forest of lost souls”, visit a monastery, where they learn about the eating habits of the monks. Booth massages a cow and learns that happy cows make tasty beef, he endures multiple visits to a Bow Wow café for the sake of his children, where patrons pay to play with dogs.

They meet ama divers, and learn that they now dive for seaweed, shellfish and sea cucumbers, instead of pearls.

They eat Nagashi ramen in a restaurant they walk a long way to reach, where they pick out the ramen noodles from fast-flowing water. Though not as tasty as expected, it seemed to have been a fun experience, especially for the kids. His son also enjoyed holding a large king crab, almost as big as himself.

In Fukuoka they visit a ramen museum and meet the ramen champion of the world, who won the title through his knowledge of all the chefs, restaurants, techniques, varieties and every possible trivia about the dish.

The book is filled with descriptions of the most exquisite, beautiful, as well as healthy meals. We learn how the raw crab he eats in Sapporo has a taste and texture that stays with him for weeks to come. We are treated to a short history of sushi, we learn about true wasabi and where it comes from, about the “miraculous miso”, and we find out that the fastest food in the world is in Osaka, the home of the conveyor-belt restaurant.

He talks about the best seaweed, called konbu, “believed to be one of the most significant foodstuff in terms of Japanese famed good health and longevity.”

When he gives a demonstration of French cooking at the Kyoto Cooking Circle, he describes with humor his failed attempt and his realization that “everything I know is wrong. Everything I have been taught about food is overblown, overcomplicated, fussy and wasteful”.

Opposed to that, he later experiences “the most beautiful meal in the world”, kaiseki, which he calls “the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, an ultra refined, multi course piece of culinary performance art”.

A true Japanese culinary experience wouldn’t be complete without trying fugu, the world’s most poisonous blowfish. By chance, they visit the harbor town Shimonoseki, the “fugu capital of the world”, on the day of their annual fugu festival, making their stop more memorable.

Snake stew is another dish they try in Okinawa, where they also experience their first and only visit to a local hospital when one of their children has an allergic reaction to something (possibly the snake, but it might have been a simple bug bite, they never find out).

Trying to learn about the secret of “living a healthy, active life well into the three digits” from the Okinawans, Booth meets with one of the leading experts on Okinawan longevity, then he takes his family to the village of Ogimi, where they meet a centenarian.

During his travels through the “belly of Japan,” Booth learns about the benefits of salt as well as MSG, and finds out that there is such a thing as “healthy salt”, if processed correctly, and MSG is not as evil as we think it is.

He comes full circle at the end, when he gets to experience the best meal of his life, in a restaurant only known to a select few, invited in the beginning of the trip by Yukio Hattori, the head of the cooking school in Tokyo. The ten-course meal he experiences is exquisite, made with humility and proper respect for the seasonal ingredients.

Booth wouldn’t be a true journalist if he didn’t point out some of the flaws of the Japanese. He is appalled when he learns that they eat whale, for example, although as a true “foodie” he tried it himself as well. He points out  how Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu, are still “suffering from different degrees of persecution and prejudice in their own homeland”, and he warns against global warming when he talks about wild konbu that “barely exists any more as a result of climate change”. Maybe the Japanese will try to reduce their carbon footprint, he hopes.

Overall, the book is a tribute to Japanese food culture and cuisine, written in a thoroughly entertaining, fun style. We learn alongside that author and his family to appreciate this foreign land and its people, while picking up a few “tricks” of living healthier, no matter where we are, by eating less (Okinawans believe that you should eat “until you are eighty percent full”), as well as cooking simple meals using fresh, seasonal ingredients. Through his entertaining style, Booth makes his reader feel part of their group, part of their adventures in a foreign culture, in a different cuisine.

 

Super Sushi Ramen Express – One Family’s Journey through the Belly of Japan

Michael Booth
New York, Picador Publishing
Publication date: September 6th, 2016
318 pages