Dreaming Dreams of Sushi, Gyoza, and Ramen – A Review of Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding

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I had my first piece of sashimi between the ages of seven and nine. My father and paternal grandfather had taken my sister and myself out for dinner, and since my paternal grandfather was one of the co-owners of Saisaki, at the time one of the most popular Japanese restaurants in the Philippines, he and my father decided it was high time to introduce us to Japanese food. On that night, we had sashimi (but not sushi – my father isn’t a very big fan of it), shrimp tempura, and sukiyaki: not exactly a challenging set of dishes, to be sure, but good enough to get a pair of little girls out of their comfort zone so they can try something new.

Since I was just a child at the time, I don’t have enough memories to describe that meal in the way I could now. The strongest memory I carry from that time is the hard-earned lesson that one must not, under any circumstance, eat the entire lump of wasabi paste that comes with the sashimi. I still wince a little every time I remember the pain that came with that particular experience, to say nothing of how my sinuses seemed to drip nonstop for what felt like hours afterwards.

Despite painful recollections of eating nearly-pure wasabi, that initial introduction was successful, because I’ve enjoyed Japanese food ever since. From high-end delights to fast-food desperations (and occasionally regrets), I’ve tried to eat as much of Japanese cuisine as I possibly can – or at least, what’s available of it in the Philippines, which can be remarkably good, but isn’t quite the same as what can be had in its country of origin.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that when I saw a copy of Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding, my curiosity was immediately piqued. I enjoy reading about food, and travel, and since this book combined those two things in one volume while focusing on a country I’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t had the chance to, I thought it would be an enjoyable read.

Rice, Noodle, Fish is divided into seven chapters and a foreword, with each chapter titled after a particular area of Japan that Goulding visited over the course of writing the book, and over the course of his own, personal journeys through the country. Some of those areas might be familiar to the reader because of their popularity as tourist destinations (such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto), or because they weigh heavily in historical memory (such as Hiroshima). But Goulding tackles some unfamiliar places as well, places that might not ring any bells in the minds of some readers: Hokkaido, Fukuoka, Noto. Starting with the most popular destination (Tokyo) and working his way to the most obscure (Noto), Goulding eats his way across Japan, and through its food, and the people who make that food, tries to understand a culture that, in many ways, is still closed to outsiders.

The book opens with an exchange of letters between Goulding and Anthony Bourdain, in which the two of them discuss the feasibility of Roads & Kingdoms (a media outlet Goulding cofounded with Nathan Thornburgh) creating a book about food and travel in Japan. In those letters, both Goulding and Bourdain talk about the fascinating yet impenetrable nature of Japanese culture, attempting to answer the main question Goulding has about the whole endeavour: how does a gaijin, a foreigner, even begin to talk about a culture where he or she will forever be on the outside? Bourdain understands the challenge, but also the appeal, as shown in this quote from his response to one of Goulding’s letters:

In Japan you are confronted constantly, almost violently, with how much you don’t know. I liked that feeling. I liked that steep, virtually impossible learning curve. I liked, it turned out, that feeling of being a stranger in a strange yet wonderful land, not understanding the language, lost. Every little thing was a discovery.

In his response, Goulding acknowledges that he is entirely aware of his outsider status, and instead of attempting to rectify it, he will accept it wholeheartedly, and let the insiders do the talking:

There is no escaping my place as the most outside of outsiders here, so I might as well embrace it. There will be plenty of expertise proffered along the way, just not from me—from the chefs and artisans and families who have this cuisine in their DNA, and who have opened up many doors as I’ve begun to eat my way through this country.

Then Goulding asks what might probably be the second most important question of all: who is this book for? Bourdain’s response is straightforward:

And as I sit here and reflect on “who this book is for and what its appeal might be” I no longer care. The more layers you can peel back, the better. The deeper you dive into all those things that make Japan so fascinating and so pleasurable to us, the better for humanity.

In many ways, Bourdain’s response has shaped Goulding’s approach to the subject at hand: Rice, Noodle, Fish is a wonderful, delicious dive into Japanese food, certainly, but Goulding tries to go deeper than that. He uses food as a doorway to other aspects of Japanese culture, aspects that might be lost on tourists who are just passing through, or foodies who only care about ticking off items on a list of Things to Eat While in Japan. For example, in the chapter about Osaka, Goulding attempts to use the relationship of food and drink to the Japanese people as a key to understanding who they are – in this instance, the difference between the Japanese at work, and the Japanese after work:

It takes place every evening between approximately five and six in cities across Japan, as salarymen and women emerge from gleaming steel structures that hold them captive during daylight hours and beeline it to the closest izakaya to eat and drink away the sting of the workday. The same people who stood so quietly, so tensely in line behind you, soon grow animated. Ties are loosened, hair let down, and kanpais ring out in spirited choruses as rank and order dissolve with each passing sip. From soba to miso to raw-tuna red, the most aggressive transformers wear the stages of devolution on their faces. You want to be near this; this is the Japan that runs antithetical to the one you have constructed in your head. This is the beauty of Japan: it builds a set of beliefs and perceptions during the day, only to destroy them once the sun goes down. Rigid? Reserved? Formal? Find a table, fill it with food and beer and new friends, and watch as all those stiff postures slacken.

Goulding is not, however, just about wide-eyed wonder: he does have a few slightly-less positive observations to make about Japanese culture. For example, in this excerpt he addresses the way the Japanese treat immigrants:

The Japanese are heroically hospitable when it comes to foreign visitors, but for immigrants the welcome mat can be harder to find. Even if you do make it here, adapt to the culture, commit a thousand kanji characters to memory, denounce your birth country, and feel deep down in your soul that you are as Japanese as pickled fish and electronic toilets, you will always be an outsider.

He also points out the deep-seated misogyny in Japan, one so deeply embedded in tradition that it persists into the twenty-first century – this, despite the fact that the role of women in the preservation of Japanese traditions, especially food traditions, is vital to its coherency and continuity:

You won’t find many women in the professional kitchens of Japan. The traditional structure for a family-owned restaurant involves the father running the kitchen, the mother controlling service, and son and daughter—if involved—divided along the same lines. Deep-rooted domestic roles and the odd backward belief arguably make the gender division here worse than you’d find in other parts of the world… There are, of course, women working hard to dissolve these divisions in restaurant kitchens across the country, but it’s mostly men you find slicing fugu, boiling soba, battering vegetables, and working the grills, griddles, and stovetops of Japan.

But behind closed doors, women are the ones who feed this country. More than domestic cooks, they are the guardians of secrets, keepers of the culinary flame, the ones who work silently to safeguard Japan’s remarkable food culture. At the heart of this preservation is the mother-daughter relationship.

While these insights are interesting, and may perhaps provide readers with some new perspective into Japanese culture as a whole, this is still a book about food, and Goulding turns his ample writing talents towards describing the food he encounters in all its glorious, delicious detail, using language that is guaranteed to give the reader intense cravings for whatever it is he’s describing. Take, for example, this excerpt, describing the tempura course of a kaiseki meal he has in Kyoto:

A round of tempura comes next: a harvest moon of creamy pumpkin, a gold nugget of blowfish capped with a translucent daikon sauce, and finally a soft, custardy chunk of salmon liver, intensely fatty with a bitter edge, a flavor that I’ve never tasted before.

Those familiar with kaiseki cuisine – Japan’s version of French haute cuisine – might say that a kaiseki course warrants such language, but Goulding applies that kind of language even to something as prosaic as ramen:

[Akira Yoshino’s] is a Goldilocks bowl: medium body, golden in color, made from all parts of the pig cooked over twenty-four hours with nothing but water from the Chikobe River nearby. It asserts itself, coats your throat on the way down, but it doesn’t stick to your ribs the way the most intense bowls do.

While there are plenty such descriptions, Goulding does leave room for gentle irreverence, such as when he attempts to briefly describe, for those who have no patience for long-winded descriptions, what a shokunin is:

In the Western world, where miso-braised short ribs share menu space with white truffle pizza and sea bass ceviche, restaurants cast massive nets to try to catch as many fish as possible, but in Japan, the secret to success is choosing one thing and doing it really fucking well. Forever.

This touch of irreverent humour extends to other aspects of dining, besides the food:

A ramen shop in full feast mode sounds like a car vacuum suctioned against your front seat. It will take a few scaldings and a few stained shirts, but until you learn to properly slurp, expect to be lapped by grandpas whose bowls are dry before you’ve had the chance to slip the first noodles past your lips.

These are certainly not laugh-out-loud moments, but they are likely to elicit at least a chuckle, which is a lot more than some other food and travel writers can manage.

In addition to Goulding’s writing, there are plenty of lovely photographs – of the food, yes, of course, but also of the people who make the food. There are quite a few lovely portraits of the cooks and chefs whom Goulding speaks with throughout his journey. Some are clearly posed, but many of them are candid; I’m especially fond of a picture of Toyo-san, the one-man wizard behind a popular tachinomi eatery in Osaka. The photograph shows him grinning broadly, a cigarette dangling from one side of his mouth as he gives a thumbs-up to the camera, all while he sends an enormous jet of flame from a blowtorch onto some cubed meat resting on a grill in front of him. It is such a charismatic portrait that I’ve decided to look for this man and eat his food when I finally get the chance to go to Japan, if only because he seems like the kind of guy who makes the kind of food I like to eat.

It is this focus on the human aspect that I appreciate the most about this Rice, Noodle, Fish: the food is the way it is because of the people behind it, and the people behind the food are the way they are because of the culture that shaped them, and because of the way they view the future. From the father-and-son pair who are trying to move kaiseki cuisine forward into the twenty-first century, to the Guatemalan transplant making a name for himself as one of the best okonomiyaki chefs in the country, to the mother-and-daughter team working to keep alive age-old preservation techniques: Rice, Noodle, Fish reminds the reader that where there is good food there are, inevitably, good people who do the best they can, in the best way they know how.

Overall, Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japanese Food Culture is everything it promises on the cover: a journey through Japan’s psyche and history via its food and the people who dedicate themselves to making that food. Goulding’s writing is a delight to read: often funny, sometimes contemplative, but always entertaining. The pictures that accompany the writing serve to enhance the experience of the book, not only because it shows the reader the food Goulding describes, but also the people who make that food. This helps to keep the book true to Goulding and Bourdain’s idea of embracing the outsider status all foreigners bring with them when they come to Japan, and put the focus on the insiders – which is only as it should be. At the end of the book, it is almost guaranteed that the reader will dream of turning a corner in a sketchy part of Osaka or a country lane in Hokkaido, and finding, almost by serendipity, the delights that Goulding has described. I can think of no better encouragement to get onto the next flight to Japan than that.

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