Last week I reviewed Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese know about cooking, and I was lucky enough to speak to the author himself at HYPER JAPAN back in July. So, it’s a bit overdue but here’s my interview with Michael Booth!
First question – tell me a bit about yourself.
I’m a journalist and food writer – I write books and for magazines and newspapers.
How did you get into writing?
I worked in television for a while, then realised I hated it and ran away to live in Bangkok with a friend who was there. I found an English language magazine while I was out there and just rang them up one day and asked ‘can I work for you?’ I always thought if you wanted to be a journalist you’d have to write about overdue library books in local newspapers, but I realised you could do it this way instead! When I came back to England I did a postgraduate course in journalism, worked for Time Out in London, then moved on from there.
Where did the interest in Japan come from?
I went there about 15 years ago to write about the car industry for an independent newspaper. I’ve always loved travelling and I love Asia, and I’d always wanted to go to Japan, but it just surpassed all my expectations. It stuck with me for many years and, after I’d written two books, I was trying to decide what my next one would be about and decided I’d love to go back to Japan. That book became Sushi and Beyond.
So how did you come up with the idea for Sushi and Beyond?
The story is I was living in Paris with my family and training to be a chef at Le Cordon Bleu restaurant, which I’d written a book about. At the end of that I was a bit fat because I’d been eating a lot of French food – dairy, sugar, foie grois – and I was looking for something completely different. Then a Japanese friend introduced me to the bible of Japanese food, Japanese Cuisine: A Simple Art, and it was so totally different from classical French cooking and I thought that was something new and different to do. At that point, about seven or eight a years ago, Japanese food in the west was really still limited to sushi and ramen was just about to start taking off there. There seemed to be a lot of scope for the book.
Where did you go in Japan when you were writing the book?
I researched and planned the trip with a Japanese assistant I found. I went there with my wife and two children and we travelled the length of Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa in about 100 days. I’d say the best food city in Japan is Osaka. It’s pretty hard to beat because there’s nothing else to really do in Osaka other than eat and shop, so everything there really revolves around food.
So are you a takoyaki or okonomiyaki man?
Definitely okonomiyaki! The best is actually Hiroshima okonomiyaki because they have oysters on top.
What was the best thing you ate while you were in Japan?
I really can’t answer that because, everywhere we went, there was something else amazing to try.
What about the most unusual?
Well, I ate a lot of sperm… fish sperm. Fugu sperm was pretty good and also cod sperm. They simply extract it out of the fish but we actually used to eat it a lot in the UK, which is what ‘codswallop’ is. It used to be quite a common food for working class people. There was plenty of other weird stuff I ate – snake soup and all sorts of things from the sea. I also went to a wagyu beef farm, where I gave the cows some sake to drink and massaged them. We also had lunch with sumos to find out how they bulk up, just by eating quite healthy food but in huge quantities, including spam.
What on earth does fish sperm taste like?
Not much actually… it tastes of the ocean and has a lovely texture.
Was there any food you just absolutely hated?
Tofu-yo, which is fermented tofu from Okinawa. You get a small red cube of it and it smells like if you left roquefort in a car boot on a hot sunny day. It smells awful and tastes awful. There was also natto, fermented soy beans, and I just don’t like that kind of grainy, gooey texture which the Japanese people seem to love.
How did the locals react to you going to all these niche places?
Well, we were with my two blonde haired sons and some people really acted as if they were royalty. They felt like minor royals on a walkabout with people asking to take their photos. In Tokyo, no one really gives you a second glance but if you go to somewhere like Fukuoka, Okinawa or Sapporo you get quite a bit of attention.
How did your book get turned into a TV series on NHK World?
I got an email out of the blue from NHK’s animation department saying they’d like to turn my book into an anime. I was a bit ‘yeah, ok’ because when you’re a writer you often get TV people approaching you and pitching ideas but it usually never comes to anything. But then next thing I knew, they were actually coming to visit me in my home in Denmark and I took them seriously. I’m absolutely delighted with the show and we have approval over the episodes, but they’ve bigged up the fantasy elements and done a brilliant job. For example, in the book we ask a little old lady for directions but in the cartoon it’s an 80-foot lolita. We really have been turned into cartoon characters – but we don’t do the voices – and every time my family and I see it we laugh.
Is there any room for a sequel?
There’s 24 episodes at the moment and we might be doing a sequel…
Where can you watch the Sushi and Beyond cartoon?
It’s available to watch on NHK World in English and Japanese, and it’s actually the third most popular show on NHK’s catch-up service!
Have you met any Japanese celebrities through your writing?
Yes, loads! I was in Japan last month filming for a television programme and there were celebrities showing me around in Osaka and Kyoto – a bit Lost in Translation style. They were mega-famous but I unfortunately had no idea who they were, so we kept getting stopped when we were walking around.
Do you think the west has done quite well in adapting Japanese cuisine, or is there loads we’ve missed?
No, it’s hopeless, pathetic, and could be so much better! We could do so much more in terms of having different types of food coming from different parts of Japan but no one really knows about them. We’ve got ramen now and there are some good ramen restaurants in London. There’s also a few okonomiyaki restaurants but there should be one in every city. There’s also kushi katsu, which is the deep fried breaded skewers, udon, somen... I really think there should be a Japanese restaurant in every town – these are flavours everyone would like.
Do you like cooking as well as eating?
I do all the cooking at home because my wife’s a dreadful cook (she won’t mind me saying that)! But she’s a great baker, so we divide the work between us.
Do you think you’d like to stray into writing fiction?
No, I have no creativity or imagination whatsoever! I’d love to because then I wouldn’t have to travel the world and spend all that money researching stuff. If I could sit at home and have it all come to my mind, that would be great.
Is there any advice you have for would-be writers?
(after much thinking) Read a lot and write a lot. You also need to find your own voice because everyone can physically write, so you need to find a voice that connects with people.
Do you have any upcoming ideas for other books about Japan?
Yes, I might be going back to Japan for another book on food, so watch this space!
If you haven’t already, check out the NHK World website to find out when you can catch the Sushi and Beyond cartoon. You can also buy a copy from Waterstones or Amazon. Thanks very much to Michael for taking the time to chat to the blog!