Michael Booth returns with ‘The Meaning of Rice’

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Michael Booth is back. And once again with his family in tow. The British food writer first came to Japan with his Danish wife and two sons in 2008 in a bid to learn more about Japan and its food culture in a trip that took them from Hokkaido to Okinawa in three months. Booth turned their foodie adventure into the best-selling book “Sushi and Beyond.” NHK subsequently turned the book into an animation that’s about as entertaining as watching rice ferment.

The Meaning of Rice and Other Tales from the Belly of Japan, by Michael Booth.
350 pages
JONATHAN CAPE, Nonfiction.

With “The Meaning of Rice” Booth sticks with his tried and tested format, an entertaining mix of travel writing, observations and interviews. In between there’s lots and lots of food — and drink — served up with dollops of humor.

This time out, the Booths start off in Okinawa and make their way up through Japan, finishing on a bit of a misadventure, a five-day road trip in a camper van in Hokkaido. Booth’s advice for those considering a camper van holiday up north: Don’t do it. Or at least, not in the camper van they hired.

Booth’s first book opened a lot of doors that allowed him in this book to pass through the noren curtain and into the lonely and ascetic world of shokunin — the drivers and the keepers of Japanese food culture. One of the catalysts for this book, besides distilling the meaning of rice, was a drive to learn more about why a soba or pastry chef or a rice farmer will commit their entire life to a narrow discipline.

Moreover, Booth wanted his sons to witness the five Ds: dedication, duty, diligence, discipline and determination. He knows well enough that a three-month whirlwind trip around Japan is hardly going to transform his offspring into shokunin, but he’d at least like them to witness what these men and women do, all day long and, for the most part, every day.

Many moons ago Booth trained as a chef in Paris, but he chose a route that took him out of the kitchen. He has, however, a considerable food vocabulary that is far from esoteric and highly readable.

In Uchiura Bay, Hokkaido, in the company of a 73-year-old fisherman, Booth compares two types of urchin: the bafun uni and the murasaki. “In all honestly, I wouldn’t say the bafun uni is better … but its darker orangey lobes have a subtly different flavour — sweeter, less iodine, a glorious taste, the kind of taste that forces you to close your eyes so you can enjoy it in blissful isolation.”

In Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, Booth goes to learn more about funa zushi (fermented sushi). First there is the “sciencey” bit: Booth outfitted in protective clothing is guided through the process of how the bloated carp are scaled and cleaned, their guts pulled through a tiny hole so as keep the pregnant fish intact, before being layered in salt and left to ferment — for years.

And then comes the tasting.

Booth is blown away by the sourness of the fish: “It is cheek puckeringly sour, sour to the power of ten lemons, and the sourness is swiftly followed by an unpleasant bitterness which I can feel is actually making my cheeks flush.”

From the title of the book you would expect rice to feature strongly. It does, but Booth covers everything from burgers and melons to whiskey and awamori. There is a particularly strong chapter on koji, a magical mold instrumental in making sake. Booth can’t resist a dad joke while describing the scientist who helps him understand how the mold works, “You could say he is a fungi to hang out with.”

As to what rice actually means? In a way the title is a bit of a misnomer, this isn’t really an investigation into the meaning of rice, rather a pragmatic explanation of how rice is at the essence of food and drink in Japan.

Two things the book could have really done with: First, a map of Japan, which seems like a bit of a no-brainer for what is essentially a travel book, but nevertheless a map didn’t make the cut.

Furthermore, I think author Rory MacClean’s criticism of Booth’s first book holds true for the second: The book could have done with more editing and some of the journalistic interviews could be omitted. Consider this description of tsukemen noodles: “Think of tsukemen (pronounced ‘sook-men’) as being ramen’s fatter, slightly retarded younger brother.”

Say, what?

Or his drawn-out, overly dramatic investigation into Japan’s love affair with curry rice, which he considers an abomination. Aghast, he informs readers that “millions of people ate this s—- every day.” This cuts closer to chauvinism than comedy.

Ultimately, “The Meaning of Rice” is a fan boy book, and it’s an entertaining read — for the most part.