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.
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Japanese island overrun with cats after population explodes
- 3 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 Average penis size revealed: Scientists attempt to find what is 'normal' to reassure concerned men
Kurt Cobain's life and death: Montage of Heck film uses unseen footage to tell Nirvana frontman's story
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Drugs Live: Twitter responds to Jon Snow and Jennie Bond smoking cannabis
Jimmy McGovern's new TV series 'Banished': Why Australia's past has such resonance today
The Walking Dead, Remember, review: The discovery of a new community leads Rick to a dark decision
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'