Magazine article The Spectator

'The Meaning of Rice, and Other Tales from the Belly of Japan', by Michael Booth - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Meaning of Rice, and Other Tales from the Belly of Japan', by Michael Booth - Review

Article excerpt

Driving across Japan's Shikuko island, the food and travel writer Michael Booth pulls into a filling station to find, alongside the fizzy drinks and chewing gum, 'vacuum-packed octopus beaks'. Who could resist? Not Booth. 'Very crunchy,' he reports. 'And not in a good way.'

Booth is drawn to the offbeat, and The Meaning of Rice gives us a banquet of the unfamiliar: seaweed caviar, live squid sashimi, sea-urchin tongues, snake soup, bonito guts, silkworm pupae, and more, with all their smells, flavours and textures. I recall my disconcerting first meal in a traditional ryokan: pink wafers of raw horsemeat, boiled firefly squid and dark, gleaming eel. It was delicious; Booth would have approved.

Ten years ago he took his wife and two toddler sons on a three-month Japanese trip, eating their way from the tip of Hokkaido to the toe of Okinawa. His book, Sushi and Beyond, became an international award-winning bestseller. In Japan, Sushi spawned a manga graphic book and a cartoon TV series starring the family; they had morphed into celebs -- The Simpsons with soy sauce! Animé superheroes!

On that first trip Booth travelled innocent and wide-eyed, taking in everything; a camera with its shutter open, registering new sights, new delights. Now the family is back for a second helping, but this is a very different odyssey. Booth is famous, an aficionado on a gourmet grand tour: top restaurants, knockout menus and star chefs. He treats us to 'the best meal in Japan', which basically means the best meal in the world in his view. Occasionally, disaster strikes:

The rice bran had turned the fugu milt from white to muddy brown. It looked like a flattened piece of clay, smelled like an abandoned caravan and had a texture like overcooked liver...

Fugu milt is the roe of the poisonous blowfish -- the author puts his life on the line in several culinary tightrope walks.

In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, the author lifted the lid on his Danish wife's homeland. Eat, Pray, Eat, saw the Booth quartet exploring Indian food. The family is part of his shtick. The sons are teenagers now, and perhaps it was to reward the boys that they take in so many theme parks. And rather too often, the reader finds the dead hand of the local tourist board piloting the itinerary: the corporate meet-and-greet by the suits, the guided tour round the factory, the headquarters, a distillery. A 'global challenge' to find the world's best sushi chef is actually a promotional exercise sponsored by the Norwegian Seafood Council. …

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