Jonathan Cape £12.99 (329p) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
Sushi and Beyond, By Michael Booth
How the shiitake struck the fan in Japan
Friday 26 June 2009
In his previous food memoir, Doing Without Delia, Michael Booth put himself through the rigours of a Cordon Bleu course in Paris for the self-flagellating reason that he was "a worthless fraud" in the culinary department. His decision to up sticks for Japan was prompted by an equally redemptive motive. "For every Michelin star I had sampled, it seemed that I had added one of the company's tyres to my waist." Japanese food squares the circle. It is satisfying and profoundly tasty without being fattening.
As in his Parisian memoir, Booth does not travel alone. His wife and two young children accompany him on the three-month Asian jaunt. Though Booth clearly adores his offspring, Asger and Emil are a distraction for writer and reader. When not making cute pronouncements ("Are sumos people?"), they are getting lost on Mount Fuji, causing chaos in Tsukiji, Tokyo's legendary fish market, or being pursued by wasps. The effect is as yawn-making as someone's holiday snaps.
An energetic fellow, Booth goes into every conceivable aspect of Japanese cuisine from the etiquette of sushi – it's acceptable to pick it up with your fingers but don't mix wasabi with soy sauce – to the marinating and massaging of living meat required for wagyu beef: "I took a mouthful of shochu [grain spirit]... puckered and pointed at the side of the cow, let rip with a messy, dribbling spurt, much of which ended up down my shirt front." Booth also informs us about foodstuffs that have not made their way around the globe. In a specialist restaurant, he explores a menu that serves the tongue, ovary, brain, skin, testicles and penis of the whale. There is even whale bacon and ice-cream, though the Japanese have lost their taste for whale excreta.
Away from food, Booth's grasp of fact weakens. Attending the recording of a TV food show, he notes that one of the stars has "touches of Buster Keaton about him, a great face-puller." Keaton's most significant characteristic was his lack of expression. Even when Booth is on his home turf, the reader may feel that material is under-digested. His description of the "triple whammy" of umami in miso broth is not rescued by slang: "When the glutamate of konbu [seaweed] meets the inosinic acid in katsuobushi [dried bonito] and the guanylate of shiitake, the umami profile... drives one's left lateral orbifrontal cortex quite doolally."
These and other oddities (though equipped with index and glossary, the book lacks a contents page) could have been avoided. Much of the book is interesting and well-written, but Booth should have had more faith in his subject matter. He should have resisted the temptation to include cultural bafflements familiar from Lost In Translation. This intrepid and assiduous writer has now produced two jokey books of food adventures. It's time for something more serious.
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