Interview with Michael Booth, Author of The Meaning of Rice
Michael Booth, author of Japanese bestseller sushi and Beyond is back with another tale of culinary adventure. In The Meaning of Rice And Other Tales From The Belly Of Japan Booth sets off with his family from Okinawa in the south taking in a glorious array of food based fun and culture all the way to Hokkaido in the north.
Foodies, fans of Japanese culture and anyone with a passion for travel tales will love the quirky characters and weird and wonderful cuisine that the Booth family encounter along the way. The Meaning of Rice was also shortlisted for The André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards 2017 - the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind.
So grab yourself a copy, make yourself a nice cup of Japanese tea and let Michael Booth transport you to the land of the rising sun for an hour or two.
What inspired you to return to Japan for another food related adventure and book?
It had been ten years since we visited Japan for Sushi and Beyond, and so much had happened both in its food scene and the country in general. Not least the terrible disaster of 2011, but also the record number of Michelin stars, the acclaim of global chefs, and the United Nations awarding Japanese cuisine Intangible Cultural Heritage status
How did you plan out the journey and places you wanted to visit? Your family accompanied you, did they have any input into the trip?
Last time, we traveled from Hokkaido to Okinawa, this time we took the radical step of travelling from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Just for a change. My family was just delighted to get a chance to return to Japan, they didn't care where they went. In terms of planning, I wanted to visit regions we hadn't visited previously, prime among them the island of Kyushu which, aside from having a spectacular volcano-strewn landscape, has an amazing food culture. Shikoku was another highlight. You really feel like you are discovering something new there. And, of course, working the rice paddies with my hero farmer, Furukawa-san was a real privilege .
Japanese food is so diverse, can you name a couple of things you’ve tried that you really love, and also really dislike?
There are quite a few ‘I can't believe this isn't better known' kind of foods, prime among them yuba, which is tofu skin. I also explored the world of Japanese tea in more depth, which was very rewarding, and got to the bottom of the Japanese (to me) inexplicable affection for their curry rice. An absolutely awful dish which is hugely popular in Japan. I’ve also managed to acquire a taste for fermented squid and/or sea cucumber guts, but a liking for natto still eludes me.
What were a few of your highlights from the trip?
Kumejima, an Okinawan island, was pretty close to paradise, and it’s home to one of the most extraordinary and delicious types of seaweed. Getting to try the finest nori seaweed in the world and then discovering it was probably extinct and my sample was one of the last. Visiting Hokkaido and seeing bears in the wild and gorging on the finest sea urchin I have ever tasted. Learning the mysteries of Koji fermentation. Being a judge in the World Sushi Championship. Being invited aboard a Japanese warship to learn the history of curry rice. Learning the mysteries of the yuzu tree, which yields my absolute favourite citrus fruit. Tasting funa sushi (carp which is left to ferment in rice for two or three years) and knowing I never needed to taste it again. Getting to man the grill of one of the best yakitori chefs in Japan. Dining at Sushi Jiro, the famous 3-star sushi counter in Tokyo, and being served by the 90-year Jiro himself.
Rice features in the book but your trip isn’t solely based around rice - what inspired the book title?
I was always ashamed and embarrassed that I didn't feature rice in the first book because it’s the foundation of Japanese cuisine and the Japanese have an almost spiritual attachment to rice. But I found it boring. For this book, I was determined to try to do rice justice as a subject of food writing, hence the chapter on the greatest rice farmer in the world, and hence the title.
Sushi and Beyond was made into an anime, are there any plans to do the same with The Meaning of Rice?
It's a possibility. I’m off to Japan shortly actually, to launch the Japanese translation, so who knows what might come of that. The anime was never remotely on my radar in the first place, so was really just a surreal bonus.
What other places or experiences would you like to try on your next trip over to Japan?
There are 47 prefectures in Japan, and I’ve maybe visited 30 or so, which leaves quite a few still to explore. I’m always keen to go to places I’ve never been because there’s always some or other special, local food product or dish to try with a fascinating socio-historic story to tell.