In 2008, British food writer Michael Booth embarked on a journey deep into the heart of Japanese food culture. The outcome of his three-month sojourn, a memoir titled “Sushi & Beyond,” follows Booth and his young family from Hokkaido to Kyushu as they seek out gastronomic experiences that range from the sublime (dinner at Mibu, the cultish supper club in Ginza frequented by top chefs from around the world) to the bizarre (a meal featuring whale penis, followed by whale ice cream).
Originally released in 2010, the book met with acclaim in the West, and now the Japanese translation (“Eikoku Ikka Nihon wo Taberu”), which was published in April, is proving to be a hit in Japan as well.
Previously indifferent to a national cuisine he’d dismissed as “dull” and “all about appearance,” Booth emerges from this encounter a complete convert. He describes the flavor of crabs from Hokkaido as “sensuous to the point of perversion” and when I ask about the Japanese foods he misses in Copenhagen, where he lives, he rattles off a list of favorite dishes: kushi-katsu (skewers of breaded, fried pork and other foods), yakitori and shiokara (fermented squid entrails). “I love it all, because the Japanese really know how to work their umami,” he says.
The scientific understanding of umami, and the way Japanese chefs have learned to maximize flavor without adding calorie-rich ingredients such as butter or cream, hold a particular fascination for Booth. He uses the word umami frequently and utters it enthusiastically, with the second syllable stressed, in a cadence that mirrors the pronunciation of “amazing.”
The purported health benefits of the Japanese diet, coupled with concerns about his physical condition, had prompted him to undertake the book project in the first place: Three years in Paris, where he’d studied at Le Cordon Bleu, had elevated his cholesterol levels and, he writes, “for every Michelin star I had sampled, it seemed that I had added one of the company’s tires to my waist.”
His trip through Japan has changed his eating habits. Since writing the book, he’s reduced his meat intake, started cooking more fish and vegetables and has even taken up gardening. “I’m also trying to eat more varieties of fish,” he says. “In the West, we usually only eat four or five kinds.” At the home of housewife Etsuko Shinobu, Booth was impressed to discover that “in traditional domestic cooking (in Japan), people try to eat around 30 different vegetables a day.”
Booth sums up the insights he gained into Japanese food culture in four points: hypersensitive awareness of the seasons; the persistence of local food traditions; the embrace of various textures in food — “from the crunchy to the mealy, spongy and chewy”; and the fact that fermentation plays a surprisingly large role in Japanese cuisine. While none of these observations will strike the typical Japanese reader as especially illuminating, Booth’s intrepid curiosity and the breadth of his experience appeal to audiences in Japan as well as abroad.
Few of us will ever dine at Mibu, and even fewer will have the opportunity to massage a cow on a wagyū farm, but we can all live — and eat — vicariously through “Sushi & Beyond.”