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June 26, 2009

Book Review: "Sushi and Beyond" by Micheal Booth

Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking by travel writer and journalist Michael Booth is a funny and easily digestible book. Booth's interest in Japanese food starts when a Japanese friend after an argument about the quality of Japanese cuisine, hands him the classic Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji. Booth becomes hooked on Japanese food and to take the culinary pulse of the island nation, decides to travel to Japan. Taking his wife and two young sons with him, for several months he eats his way through the length of the country, staying in Tokyo, Sapporo, Kyoto, Osaka, Fukuoka and Okinawa.

The resulting book is above all funny. Booth writes a racy and humorous style and I was reminded of Dave Barry Does Japan. This also has a negative side for it unfortunately means that the rather hackneyed "Westerner meets exotic Japan" newbie theme gets a lot of space. We have the obligatory sumo stable and chanko nabe, weird crawling things in Tsukiji market, a seafood lunch with female abalone hunters, drinking coffee in a dog cafe, feeding cows beer and of course viewing the giant tapeworm in the Meguro Parasitological Museum. And not only that, we also get treated to Japan as the height of freakishness: eating snake stew in Okinawa, enjoying cod sperm, whale ice cream and other unspeakable things the Japanese ingest almost daily (do they?).

But is it a good book about Japanese cuisine?

I am afraid not. Booth is new to Japan, so he remains stuck in the old exoticism rut. He has prepared himself admirably about Japanese food by reading the above mentioned book by Shizuo Tsuji and a couple of others, but he is no specialist in Japanese culture and makes some major errors there (for example what he says about Shinto). And above all, he does not speak or read Japanese so has to rely on the kindness of others or on the English abilities of his informants, which in this domestic sector are not large.

This shuts him effectively out - he is treated as an honored guest, and that is what he remains throughout the book, a visitor dipping into chanko-nabe and ramen, tako-yaki and yudofu, and enjoying the heights of kaiseki. There are visits too, to a kelp processing plant, a farm growing wasabi, a cattle farm, a miso factory. There are also a sort of interviews, with such food luminaries as Mr Hattori and Mr Tsuji, heads of the largest competing culinary academies, one in Tokyo, the other in Osaka. That these important persons go out of their way to entertain Booth shows he had some good introductions. He pays them back by writing episodes about them that read like PR brochures. Because he is not able to speak Japanese, he only gets standard answers and the standard polite treatment for foreigners.

I was hoping for some deeper insights into Japanese food, but there are no new ideas here, it is all superficial reportage, a series of humorous accounts of the different meals Booth enjoys.

That I still enjoyed this book has one reason: Booth writes very well and is funny and sympathetic. But don't expect anything new or insightful when you are past the newbie stage yourself. And for food, first read Shizuo Tsuji's Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art or that other good introduction, Lonely Planet World Food: Japan (Lonely Planet World Food Guides).