In an age where the internet provides an abundance of information, to still be unaware of the varieties of Japanese cuisine could be seen as a form of self-exile from pleasure. While curating a list of the “best” nonfiction on the topic is certainly subjective, the following books, which offer immersive writing based on research and firsthand impressions and encounters, make for a nourishing reading experience.
“A Taste of Japan” by Donald Richie (1985)
Kodansha, 112 pages
For an elegantly composed introduction to Japanese cuisine, “A Taste of Japan” is hard to beat. Though not a food writer per se, Donald Richie, like the Japanese novelist and gourmet Junichiro Tanizaki, possessed a rare and subtle palate. Richie was the ultimate sampler; everything, even the most common dishes, had to be tried and tested.
In this beautifully illustrated book, the author examines the origins and derivatives of food, how it is consumed and its place and meaning in Japanese life. The writer stresses the shared primacy of the eye and tongue in Japanese cuisine, the “canon of presentation, a system of aesthetics” that must be satisfied.
“The Okinawa Program” by Bradley J. Willcox, D. Craig Willcox and Makoto Suzuki (2001)
Clarkson Potter, 496 pages
For “The Okinawa Program,” three certified doctors and nutritionists, Bradley J. Willcox, D. Craig Willcox and Makoto Suzuki, spent a total of 25 years of research on the groundbreaking bestseller that has changed the eating habits of countless readers. Devoid of a single image, the book might look like an academic treatise, but an engaging writing style, lively mix of dietary history, case studies, medical facts and a final section of recipes result in a highly readable book.
The guardians of the Okinawan model for wellbeing are the island’s elders, who continue to enjoy some of the longest and, more importantly, healthiest and fulfilling lives in the world. At almost 500 pages, “The Okinawa Program” is a long read, but if properly ingested, may add years to your life.
“Rice, Noodle, Fish” by Matt Goulding (2015)
Harper Wave/Anthony Bourdain, 352 pages
In “Rice, Noodle, Fish,” Matt Goulding illustrates Japan’s rare level of devotion to food, one that can turn the making of a rice ball or skewer of yakitori into an art form. Goulding enlivens his writing with a sprinkling of invectives of the four-letter variety, tossed into the text like chili powder into sizzling oil. It’s an unorthodox approach that shouldn’t blind the reader to the genuine refinement of the writing.
Generously illustrated, the writer takes readers on a culinary tour of Japan, from the capital’s finest sushi restaurants, to grilled offal in a smoky Osaka eatery. While in Hokkaido, he stumbles on a rural boulangerie, where the bread — loaves of dusted and malted rye and wheat — evokes the wood-fired ovens of France, and its dark, slightly sour crust suggests a beautiful pairing with a tankard of smoky ale or glass of Armagnac.
Noting the special quality of the air on the Noto Peninsula (“green as a high mountain, salty and sweet, with just a whisper of decay in the finish,” Goulding writes), he finds the ideal conditions for the region’s long history of fermented foods. In kaiseki multicourse restaurants in Kyoto, the writer samples baby firefly squid, refreshed with ginger juice, pufferfish sashimi, charcoal-grilled cod sperm, bite-sized medallions of wagyu beef and wedges of persimmon coated in ground sesame. At this heady elevation, intimate communication takes place between chef and ingredients.
“The vegetables tell me what to do,” says one kaiseki master, echoing a comment sometimes heard among landscape gardeners in Japan, who maintain that, in the preliminary design stages, they will wait for the rocks to instruct them on correct placement. Sampling such perfection certainly beats an egg and mayonnaise sandwich from 7-Eleven, but the discretely presented bill may bring tears to your eyes.
“The Meaning of Rice” by Michael Booth (2017)
Jonathan Cape, 368 pages
With “The Meaning of Rice,” Michael Booth blends, as he did with his 2008 title “Sushi and Beyond,” his culinary journey with extended travel, his wife and two children in tow. In this follow-up, Booth embarks on a road trip beginning in Okinawa and ending up in Hokkaido, where he concludes that, “the seafood gets better the further you get away from civilization.”
However, some of his culinary aversions recorded in the first book persist. In Kyushu, echoing the trademark offensive, but rather brilliant food reviews of critic A. A. Gill, Booth dismisses nattō as “snot-textured, fermented soybeans which smell like a tramp’s wet woolen socks.” Shiokara, typically a salty combination of sea cucumber, squid and crab innards, is experienced as a “slimy, putrid, fetid and gag-worthy substance” of such repellence, it is compared to Italian maggot cheese.
For the most part, however, Booth’s writing is adulatory, and the mix of travel and gustation is a wonderfully entertaining and informative romp through the country. He gives high praise to the clams of the Chugoku region and the savory takoyaki octopus balls of Osaka, while the backstreet soba joints of Tokyo are exalted to almost Michelin standards.
“Food Artisans of Japan: Recipes and Stories” by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (2019)
Hardie Grant, 288 pages
There are critics who sample food, and writers who live it. Nancy Singleton Hachisu is one of the latter. In Hachisu’s latest book, which documents her travels through the country in search of the culinary equivalent of craftspeople, we find an authentic voice of inquiry.
Hachisu begins with in-depth profiles of common ingredients like rice vinegar, miso, yuzu koshō and fish sauces, before commencing a food tour across Japan. Along the way, she forms enduring bonds with chefs and food producers of all ages and backgrounds. Readers craving the flavors and aromas of the book are provided with recipes for dishes such as udon noodle duck broth soup, silky simmered lotus balls and salt-grilled butterfish with smashed tofu.
Food writing like this is sure to leave readers with a satisfying aftertaste and a strong urge to verify, and it is a joy to read about authentic dishes created by men and women with an honest reverence and passion for their profession.
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