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Interview: Michael Booth Author Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking

“I can’t walk down the streets of Japan without finding something unusual or peculiar. It’s just so stimulating.” – Michael Booth

Michael BoothAward winning food writer and traveller Michael Booth (author of the bestselling Sushi & Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking) attended the popular three-day J-Culture festival Hyper Japan 2015 (photo report here), which was held at London’s O2 on 10-12 June, to participate in his first talk show with Japanese celebrity chef Rika Yukimasa, co-host of Dining with the Chef. Diverse Japan was honoured to be asked to host a Q&A session with Mr Booth at the NHK WORLD area. The interview has been transcribed here for your pleasure. Enjoy!

Interviewer: Spencer Lloyd Peet

Photos: James Fielding Photography

Why did you decide to write Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking? Why Japan?

Well I’ve been training to be a chef in Paris and I put on a bit of weight. I spent a year eating things like butter and other dairy produce and cakes; I lived across the street from a wonderful cake shop. Then a Japanese friend introduced me to a book called The Art of Japanese Cuisine: A Simple Art, and it just looked so modern, fresh and healthy so I thought, I’ve got to go to Japan and loose some weight. I’d been there a few years before and I was desperate to find an excuse to go back. So I said to my publisher “how about we do a book about Japanese food while I travel around and through Japan with my family” and they went for it. I mean that was seven years ago, there was very little written about Japan at that time, it was quite an uncharted territory back then.

Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking

How did your family cope with the cultural differences, especially your children?

They’re pretty good at that sort of thing. We have a rule: Try anything once. They tried everything. We did at one point try fermented squid guts. I said, “Here, taste this. You’re really going to like this.” They didn’t like it, and so I lost quite a bit of trust with them. But they try everything. We ate everything from okonomiyaki to sushi, they love sushi. They’re crazy about sushi.

Your book was translated and published in Japan in 2013, three years after it was published in the UK.

Yes. I got an email from a very small publishing company in Japan saying, “Can we translate your book into Japanese?” And I was like, “Yeah, fine”. I didn’t write it for the Japanese people; I didn’t expect it to ever be translated into Japanese. However, they translated it and suddenly it became a best seller in Japan, much to my surprise and everyone’s surprise. Then last year I got this email from the animation department at NHK asking if they could turn it into a cartoon series. Before I knew it, NHK executives came to my home to meet with me and persuade me to say yes. It didn’t take much persuading. We laughed so much, I thought it was brilliant.

Sushi & Beyond

What was it about your book that interested the producers of the anime series?

Well, Japanese people love to hear what foreigners think about them. They were isolated, quite literally, three hundred years ago and they’re still a bit geographically isolated, so they’re fascinated by the outside world and its opinion of them. So that’s one reason why I think my book was popular. I also make fun and jokes at the expense of the Japanese and they quite like that because they have a fantastic sense of humour, and there’s things in the book that they just didn’t know, there’s research in there about their traditional cuisines. So that kind of surprised me because the Japanese are kind of losing touch with their traditional types of food. So I think all those things were what the TV people liked. Plus the book is about 30 or 40 chapters and each chapter is like a little story. They turned up the volume on the fantasy elements, but they could see there were at least 24 little stories there that explained a bit about Japanese food.

Sushi & Beyond NHK

Did you have any input into the development of the TV series?

Not really. We had to agree with how we [family] had to look, I approved the scripts and checked that there wasn’t anything weird or offensive. And because my kids were involved I had to be very careful about that. I’ve since been out there and met the guys making it. I met the genius cartoonist who’s working on it as well. Those personal relationships are really important in Japan.

So things like the green polo shirt we see you wearing in these series, is that your sort of fashion?

I don’t own a green polo top. I have a blue one [laughs]. And my son’s glasses are very different now, and my kids are much taller than that now. My youngest son, Emil, has become quite well-known on Japanese social media now. They think he’s kawaii [cute], so he’s become very popular.

Michael Booth

How have you children’s friends at school taken to the fact that you are like the Simpsons of Japan?

They’re pretty plisse about it really. One of my sons has it as a screensaver on his phone. But we don’t really make a big deal out of it. We live in Demark and the Dans are not overly impressed with that sort of thing.

Your children’s perception of Japanese food must have been changed quite a lot by the experience. Have they managed to change the perception of some of their friends at school about Japan and Japanese food?

Well, my kids are both evangelists of Japan. They love Japan. They tell everyone to go, they rave about it.

So what did your family think of the actual adventure they went on in Japan?

Oh, they thought it was amazing. It was a trip of a lifetime. We spent a hundred days travelling the length of the country from Hokkaido to Okinawa. We meet Sumo wrestlers…

How did you arrange to go to all these places? Were they prearranged before you left?

It was on the hoof, a lot of it. I had a very good translator and interpreter. I tried to plan as much as I could but you can’t plan everything.

What were some of the most surprising things you discovered in Japan?

I was most surprised, in terms of Japanese food by… well, I feel in love with ramen. We tried fugu, the famous poisonous fish which isn’t actually worth eating to be honest. After all the poisons have been removed it tastes of nothing. There was an interesting dish called nagashi where they send the noodles down a tube on river water and you pluck them out of the stream as it goes by. My dearest wish was to give a massage to a cow and give it beer. I was a bit nervous about going to the ranch because I thought they don’t want to do all the gimmicky stuff and I’m going to have to be careful to get my dreams come true here. They said, “Here’s the bottle, here’s the cow, get on with it”. I loved it. I found out that each cow’s nose is different. There’s a whole chapter about this in my book. We met Ama divers, the female divers who dive for shell fish. The instant ramen museum was fantastic. We had lots of amazing meals.

Michael Booth - Sushi & Beyond

Where did your love for Japan come from?

About 10 – 15 years ago I went to Japan to write about the Japanese car industry and just thought it was an incredible place. Because when you go to Japan, when you walk down the streets you’ll always find something interesting. I can’t walk down the streets of Japan without finding something unusual or peculiar. It’s just so stimulating. It’s a fascinating place. I was just so desperate to go back again. Now I go back two or three times a year and love it every time. I get excited every time I know I’m going back to Japan.

Do you plan on writing about Japan again in the near future, anything planned?

Oh yeah. We may do another food & travel book and another TV series. But that’s all I can say about that at the moment.

Do you think foreigners can teach a country about itself, in this case you as a British author writing about Japanese food?

Well it’s not the case of teaching. I wouldn’t be so assumptious as to try and teach the Japanese anything. But often with Japanese culture when foreigners come and show an interest the Japanese go, “Oh, maybe it’s of interest and value”. Things that they neglect and not think about, especially with traditional things. For example, a few years ago UNESCO named Japanese cuisine a world heritage, and that really regenerated an interested in traditional food in Japan. It’s the same with the tea ceremony or ceramics. When foreigners show an interest suddenly the Japanese begin to value the stuff they have.

What tips or advice would you give to someone who is new to Japanese cooking, is there something simpler than sushi for them to try at home?

Soba is really simple. It’s just noodles, buck wheat noodles, so they’re very healthy. You can eat them with a shredded bit of ginger, some spring onion, some ponzu or soy sauce and you’re away.

Thank you, Michael. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

Thank you.

Michael Booth

About Michael Booth:

Michael Booth is a journalist and food writer who contributes regularly to numerous British and foreign magazines, including Condé Nast Traveller and Monocle, and has written for all of the UK’s broadsheet newspapers. He is the author of four works of non-fiction, including Eat, Pray, Eat, Just as Well I’m Leaving, nominated for the Irish Times first writers award, Sacré Cordon Bleu, which was a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’, and Sushi and Beyond, which won the Guild of Food Writers Kate Whiteman Award for the best book on food and travel in 2010.

Michael Booth Website

Related Posts:

Event: Hyper Japan 2015 In Pictures

Film Review: Dead Sushi – A Film By Noboru Iguchi Starring Rina Takeda

Recipe: Kappamaki Sushi

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