It’s well past midnight on a frigid winter’s evening and the back streets are emptying fast in Namba, Osaka’s effervescent, neon-lit entertainment district. But behind the unprepossessing door of Teppanyaro, the party is only just getting going.
Flagons of chilled lager are quaffed and replenished, while food is ferried straight from the plancha grill to the tables: doteyaki, beef tendon simmered down in white miso; plates of spicy mentaiko yakisoba (fried noodles with spicy cod roe); and the house special, tonpei-yaki, a beguiling roll of fatty pork cocooned inside a pancake-thin omelet crosshatched with Kewpie mayonnaise. This is Kansai fare at its no-frills finest and it’s going down a treat.
And there in the middle, waving his arms to a Japanese cover version of the well-worn disco tune “YMCA,” is American writer, publisher and inveterate Japanophile Matt Goulding, the man behind the essential food-and-travel book “Rice, Noodle, Fish.” Far more than just a guide book or foodie bible, his work is a brilliant love letter to the country’s food culture, both high and low, introducing it in a way that none have done before. It’s been a year since he was last in town and he’s making up for lost time.
There’s another reason why he’s here. A Japanese version of his book has finally, after various hiccups and contretemps, seen the light of day. It came out in December under the title “Kome, Men, Sakana no Kuni Kara” (“From the Land of Rice, Noodles, Fish”) and Goulding is doing a whistle-stop seven-day tour of destinations he introduced in the book.
“When the book first came out,” he explains, “the dream was always to have it translated into Japanese — if for no other reason than to give us an excuse to come back for more travel in Japan. But also so that the incredible individuals who invited us into their lives could have the chance to read ‘Kome, Men, Sakana’ for themselves.”
Goulding celebrates the food culture beyond the standard Tokyo-Kyoto axis. From those two culinary capitals, he explores Hokkaido’s seafood markets, the bubbling ramen cauldrons of Fukuoka, Osaka’s rough-hewn street foods and the okonomiyaki pancake stalls in Hiroshima, closing with a detour to the Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa Prefecture’s fermentation kingdom.
Unlike so many food writers, he doesn’t just focus on whatever is at the end of his chopsticks. Instead, he delves deeper, setting the scene, bringing us along with him and drawing us into the lives of the chefs and producers whose dedication to their work sets them apart as true shokunin (master craftsmen).
A day later we are in Kyoto. Goulding has completed his round of interviews and is now installed at the counter of a restaurant that is a vital fulcrum not only of the book but in his life: Tempura Matsu, a kaiseki (traditional multi-course) restaurant unlike any other in the ancient capital.
There are two things that set Matsu apart: the contemporary flair of the young head chef, Toshio Matsuno, who has now taken over fully from his late father; and the unbroken sense that this is very much a family operation, even without the elder Matsuno’s presence. Goulding takes up the story…
“In Kyoto, there are so many doors closed to you. You walk past and wonder what’s going on behind them, behind the noren curtains. Matsu is one of those doors that (were it not for a vital introduction) would otherwise have remained closed.”
“But now we come back and it’s hugs all around. I just get goose bumps thinking about it. This is why I travel: for those kinds of experiences that feel like there’s a deeper bond — that food is just the medium, the bridge.”
So how does it feel, now that his book is out in both languages — and, for that matter, in Korean and Mandarin as well?
The whole two-year process of researching and writing it feels a bit like a “fever dream,” Goulding says.
“Looking back, I’m like, what possessed me to think I could have the audacity? To write a book like that was so naive. There’s a quote I go back to all the time, something like this: ‘If you go to Japan for a week you want to write a book. Go for a month and you want to write an article. Stay for a year and you won’t want to write anything.’ The more you know the more you realize how little you know: I’m at that stage right now. I feel I know nothing whatsoever.”
“Rice, Noodle, Fish” is published by Roads & Kingdoms. For more details, visit roadsandkingdoms.com/store/rice-noodle-fish-book. “Kome Men Sakana no Kuni Kara” is published by Fusosha. For more details, visit www.fusosha.co.jp/books/detail/9784594076139.