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Book Review: ‘The Meaning of Rice: And Other Tales from the Belly of Japan’ by Michael Booth

Michael Booth and his family embark on an epic journey the length of Japan to explore its dazzling food culture.

meaning of riceIf this book were food it would have deep umami undertones. Michael Booth has written yet another intriguing account of food, cooking and Japanese cuisine in Japan as an accompaniment to his earlier and just as his readable companion piece ‘Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know about Cooking’; a main course to his earlier amuse-bouche.

We re-join him ten years after his first book on a return trip to Japan with his family to explore some of the elements of Japanese cuisine left unexplored a decade earlier. Though at first not as liberally sprinkled with the tongue in cheek humour as ‘Sushi and Beyond’ Booth warms to his subject and as his account progresses the saucy wit with which his first book was liberally peppered begins to emerge, at first tentatively but by the time he reaches Tōkyō is in full flow, seasoned with witty observations and occasional irascible wit as with his opening comments regarding ramen in that noodle’s chapter which goes on to reveal the story of a ramen chef who was dismembered as a consequence of his love, and preparation, of ramen.

The book gives further credence to the depth of feeling and the regard with which its cuisine is held by the Japanese and now abroad (in 2013 UNESCO added traditional Japanese cuisine, washoku, to its ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list). The book sticks to the main islands of Japan; Okinawa, Kyūshū, Shikoku, Honshū and Hokkaido with some specific excursions, to out of the way Hirado for instance where he visits a confectioner living in a house previously owned and lived in by Will Adams, or Miura Anjin (made famous by the novel and TV series ‘Shōgun’), Chūgoku, Chūbu and Tōhoku.

Though some might feel that the book and the amount of information it contains is a bit daunting and occasionally verging on being ‘hipsterish’ it’s a well-researched tome nonetheless. That being said it can occasionally go into so much detail as to leave the reader bewildered with the amount of information that relates to individual categories of Japanese cuisine – for instance though a seasoned visitor to Japan and avid consumer of its food this reviewer is still overwhelmed by the amount of information on offer on the various types of noodles, soup bases and sauces.

Some of the cuisine is not for the faint hearted, eating fish milt for instance (fish sperm), and drinking tea made from silkworm faeces. In some cases the costs of some of the meals isn’t for the faint hearted either. At one point Booth makes a valiant attempt to get to the bottom of ‘ichigen-san okotowari’ (no casual visitors without an introduction) but the explanation given by a Japanese contact of Booth’s seems a tad dumbed down for foreign consumption, termed in such a way so as not to offend. Quite frankly these excursions into the more ‘refined’ esoteric areas of Japanese cuisine give an insight into some of the snobbery that can be encountered in Japan around certain associations with the finer elements of its cuisine, especially for foreigners, and in particular foreigners who don’t speak Japanese. If you are considering attempting to visit any of these places be warned… …not all Japanese people are as welcoming as those generally involved in hospitality there, of course that is unless you are an international rock or pop star, senior politician or superstar chef or have extremely well connected insider contacts there.

A cookbook this is not, the account of an explorer it is. From wine to insects, from sweet potatoes to bears, from izakaya (casual drinking and eating places) to more formal and extremely pretentious ‘kaiseki’ ramen, Booth’s journey covers a lot of ground. Whilst this makes it extensive what might have been helpful would have been a glossary covering the basics similar to the one included in ‘Sushi and Beyond’. As it was having to reference back and forth whilst reading the book made for regular disruptions to concentration and assimilation of information. The book is quite obviously infused with Booth’s love of food and Japanese food in particular but it’s not really something that the reader could carry around in Japan as a guide. With this and his previous book Booth has, as Jodie Foster’s character in ‘Contact’ says, ‘found the primer’, the work upon which the reader can build their own culinary adventure with Japanese cuisine and how it is made and how it tastes, which is, to borrow another quote from the film… …’efficiency functioning on multiple levels and in multiple dimensions’… …’wanna take a ride?’…

Product Details:

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape; 01 edition (12 Oct. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1910702943
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910702949
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 2.7 x 23.4 cm

Available from Amazon.co.uk

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Related Posts:

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

Event: Hyper Japan 2015 In Pictures


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